Why Do We Swear?
We’re not sure under what context it occurred, but you’ve probably cursed at some point in your life. If you grew up in a particularly strict household, maybe you were made to eat soap. Or maybe you’ve sworn in public and someone gave you a weird look. Hey, if you were from one of those particularly strict homes, you might have been the one giving the look. But when we really sit and think about it, why exactly do we swear?
What Makes a Word Bad?
When told to watch their language, it’s pretty common to someone to respond with “it’s just a word” or something to that effect.
Of course, we know, on some level, the words we consider “swear words” are somewhat arbitrary. That is to say, some words are simply more offensive to some than others. Steven Pinker, who has done research in linguistics and psychology breaks down swearing into 5 different types.
- Abusive Swearing
- These words are offensive for the sole purpose of being offensive. They are designed to hurt other individuals via objectification, marginalization, or humiliation. In Christian society, using God’s name in vain was considered cause for damnation–which is why a handful of commonly used curse words in the west refer to God or damnation. Because you know, empires (like the British) that were also Christian kind of claimed everything at some point.
- Emphatic Swearing
- These words are used to emphasize a point. It’s the difference between saying you don’t like something, and saying you really don’t like something. Because curse words are considered “outside of normal social conduct,” emphatic swearing is a good way to communicate that your feelings are also outside of social conduct.
- A dysphemism is quite simply, the opposite of a euphemism. Instead of using a softer word to refer to something you might consider unsavory, you’re using harsher language to make something savory seem worse, or something already unsavory… Even worse. A euphemism is your way of recognizing that certain language would be inappropriate. A dysphemism is deliberately exploiting that to drive your point home.
- Idiomatic Swearing
- This type of swearing is used to indicate that certain cultural norms are temporarily suspended. It’s swearing to indicate that swearing is okay. You know how you’re more comfortable loosening up around your friends and all that.
- Cathartic Swearing
- Research and neurological conditions like coprolalia appear to activate different parts of the brain when compared to normal language. Thus, swearing can be a source of catharsis.
Who would have thought that swearing in the west would have originated from class issues? Most of us, probably. We’ll use Medieval England as our case study for today.
Upper class citizens used a language related to modern French and Latin–where the lower class largely spoke a Germanic tongue. Because of the class differences between the two, lots of words we have in contemporary English are derived from either Germanic language or Latin.
Fun trivia fact, it’s probably the reason why we have a word for an animal while it’s alive, and another word for its meat when we eat it. The word “cow” is Germanic, where the word “beef” is derived from Old French and Latin. See the connection? Poor people speaking Germanic languages couldn’t afford to eat the meat they produced, but did tend to the livestock. On the other hand, our rich friends speaking Old French and Latin were so far removed from the process they were just concerned with the meat.
But we digress. Because the upper class gets to decide what is and isn’t savory, we generally consider Latin derived words to be more elegant than their Germanic counterparts in modern English. Since rich people would have considered being poor gross and unsavory, some synonyms for words become curse words while others do not.
Take the verb “to poop.” That’s derived from Latin, as is its less offensive synonym–derived from the Latin defaecare. On the other hand, our more offensive counterpart was derived from Germanic tongue, evolving into the German “scheissen.”
Alright, But Why?
Of course, cultures differ and thus what is considered offensive differs. That’s why words that have to do with sex and nudity are so offensive in America–which has historically be stooped in Puritan philosophy. Conversely, many words that have to do with sex and nudity are far more casual in other countries, like Australia. It’s part of the reason why swearing in a new language just.. Doesn’t feel the same. You don’t have the cultural context for it.
We mentioned how swearing was likely localized in a different region of the brain earlier. To be more specific, it seems to find itself localized within our limbic systems. Which means it has a lot to do with keeping us up and alert–to oversimplify.
When you think about it, it kind of makes sense. If we go back to say, emphatic swearing, someone using a swear word to emphasize something would probably have good reason to do so–since they are committing a social taboo. In a lot of cases, it could be a very significant danger–and thus, we should be alert to it.
Extending the previous point, swearing being tied to the limbic system is a good way for some to feel catharsis. It helps process strong emotions and lets one deal with them in, perhaps, a more constructive way. Same reason some people like to blow off steam by heading to the gym to have a friendly boxing match or something.
Idiomatic swearing can be used as a way to display comfort and social intimacy, you’re far more comfortable swearing around your close friends after all. It’s a way of saying “hey, I think you’re cool, so cool that I don’t feel the need to abide by every social construct around you anymore.”
So yeah, swearing serves a functional purpose for humans.
Sometimes we make up swear words in literature. See if you know them here.