Several studies indicate that swear words mitigate pain and ease exercise, CNN reported. Test subjects who were restricted to using “neutral words” had more difficulty with both experiences than those who weren’t. So-called “bad words” have an odd place in society.
According to the CNN article and the research it cited, cursing seems to help us alleviate pain and to help complete an exercise routine, like swimming that last lap of the pool. These benefits of curse words may be surprising, but curse words also help in other situations. The use of profanities can make a joke work, help us blow off steam, or drive a point home. However, like other spoken words in languages, the word itself depends on the context in which we are saying it, which results in the power we get from the word when we say it. Rather than merely dismissing it, we can learn a lot about—and from—the use and omission of profanity.
Function: The Other “F” Word
“Because taboo words are forbidden by parents, by teachers, by larger institutions, just to say the word can feel like a transgression,” said Dr. Anne Curzan, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. “But many, if not most of us, do say them, because these words serve a real purpose in the language, even if we sometimes apologize afterwards.”
So what purpose do these words serve? According to Dr. Curzan, “Taboo words can allow us to powerfully express emotion, and that’s one of the key things that language allows us to do. With taboo language, we can express anger and frustration, but also surprise and joy.”
However, things get more complicated—and more interesting—when we look at curse words in a potentially positive light.
When Cursing Brings Us Together
“Taboo language can also be a source of humor and camaraderie,” Dr. Curzan said. “Camaraderie” may be the last thing we’d expect cursing to do, besides maybe helping us do that last set of reps in the gym.
Of course, as Dr. Curzan was quick to point out, taboo language can be offensive and hurtful, whether intentional or not. We can offend someone’s sensibilities or can offend by using curse words in insulting and cruel ways. However, in one instance of taking lemons and making lemonade, this is also the same parameter in which a sense of camaraderie comes in.
Most of us exercise restraint in cursing, at least to some degree, even though just as many of us could easily find a place for those words in our daily lexicon. We do this out of a sense of respect for another person’s sensibilities, as often as for any other reason.
However, Dr. Curzan mentioned a situation in which her graduate students felt guarded and careful of their language in the beginning of the school year, but eventually felt they could “let their hair down” and use language around one another more freely. She said they all told her they instantly felt more like themselves for it.
Everyone has a different attitude towards taboo language, but it isn’t always as one-sided as it once seemed. As long as the company we’re in doesn’t mind, cursing can find a safe home in certain conversations and help us break down social barriers.
Dr. Anne Curzan contributed to this article. Dr. Curzan is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She earned a B.A. in Linguistics from Yale University and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan.