Why the Blank Do We Cuss?

When I started doing Amaze-ing Words Wednesday posts, I knew that I eventually wanted to cover the topic of cussing. Why do we cuss?

English is hardly the only language with its collection of the colorful and profane. In fact, linguists and researchers have noted that every language and dialect ever studied has included words that are not to be spoken in polite company. There appears to be some natural human drive toward foul language.

Indeed, children pick up swear words and usage easily, and all adult speakers know how to use these words properly in multiple contexts. Some use them, some refrain. But we all know how to use cuss words. In fact, it can be a shock to a family when a dementia or brain-damaged patient reveals their implicit knowledge of cursing. Suddenly, Grandma is shouting, “Holy *&@#!” when she would have washed your mouth out with soap for such utterances before the dementia set in. Whether we use them or not, though, our brains are programmed to understand and formulate cuss words as needed and/or desired.

Psychologists note that cussing can relieve stress–such as when you stub your toe or a nearby driver cuts you off in traffic. Mark Twain said, “Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.”

Cussing around friends can also demonstrate a level of comfort and unity: You feel relaxed enough in that environment to let loose and let ‘er rip. There is the added benefit that cursing appears to be more memorable in contexts where other words are more common, so that insulting someone with a cuss word is likely to leave a more lasting mark than calling them, say, “a jerk.”

Now some of you have the mouths of sailors, and some of you can hardly vocalize the word “crap” without feeling guilty. Plenty of people fall somewhere in between. We can prime ourselves to use profanity as part of our regular speech, to use it more sparingly, or to eschew cuss words altogether. I think you can discover where you fall in the continuum with this quick test: Mentally fill in the blanks below.

1. Son of a _________.

2. What the _____ were you thinking?

Was your answer for #1 “gun,” “bitch,” or something even more colorful?

Did you complete #2 as “heck,” “hell,” or something else entirely?

Plenty of well-respected English authors cursed. Shakespeare used “zounds,” a highly offensive term for “God’s wounds” 23 times in his works. And if an original classic doesn’t cuss, you can always turn to BBC Radio 3, which produced a 2011 version of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte with brand-new swearing “to help capture the shock that was associated with the original book when it was published.”

In my lifetime, social acceptance of curse words has increased exponentially. In fact, the Family Research Channel has tracked a rise in profanity during prime-time shows: “Using absolute totals, across all networks use of profanity on prime-time broadcast entertainment programming increased 69.3% from 2005 to 2010.” Sure, a lot of this gets bleeped, but you don’t have to be a master lip-reader to know what they’re saying and hear it in your head.

Is it good or bad or neutral that we have cussing? That we are cussing more?

pic from dalailina.com

I personally try to avoid cussing. That’s part of my own faith and moral stance. Moreover, if you almost never cuss, when once in a blue moon you do, it makes a far bigger splash. (I’m talking cannonball, people.) I was also raised to believe that you could be more creative with speech and come up with your own words and phrases for frustrating moments or situations. Admittedly, my current oft-uttered phrase “Good gravy” isn’t exactly inspiring, but no one blushes either, and I don’t worry about my kids repeating it at school.

Jenny Hansen had an interesting post on 10 Creative Ways to Express Your “Inner F-Bomb” with some more imaginative ways to say what you want to say without saying it. But I admit, it isn’t always easy to push-off the potty mouth and keep it clean. In fact, Christian comedian Brad Stine talks about how maybe Christians should have their own curse words:

Since I try to keep my blog PG-ish, I chose not to name each and every crass or cuss word in the English language or trace their etymology. There are plenty of online resources that do that. Besides, you’ve known them all since you were a kid–whether they were uttered constantly in your family or you discovered them scrawled on a bathroom stall.

But I do think cussing is an interesting language phenomenon. What I want to know is: Do you cuss? Why or why not? Why do you think are some words considered foul and others not? How do you feel about others using profanity or books that contain profanity?

Sources: NY Times: Almost Before We Spoke, We Swore; Parents Television Council: Habitat for Profanity; TwainQuotes.com; Socyberty: Evolution of Profanity–How Swear Words Came to Be; h2g2: The Origins and Common Usage of British Swear-words (fascinating article about etymology of British cuss words); The Guardian: Wuthering Heights to Turn the Airwaves Blue; Why We Curse: A Neuro-Psycho-Social Theory of Speech by Timothy Jay

34 thoughts on “Why the Blank Do We Cuss?

  1. Great research, Julie! I try not to use profanity, especially around my children and certainly not in my day job. It’s sprinkled in my writing when appropriate.

    I agree with your stance that intelligent people use more creative ways to express themselves. This isn’t to say I never curse, because anyone who has ridden in the car with me when I’ve gotten cut off knows, but I earnestly limit it. I am most inclined to drop the F-bomb when arguing with my husband. I have a feeling that’s because I’m subconsciously trying to get him to back off or appreciated the depth of my frustration. He knows I generally don’t curse, and that’s a sure way of getting his attention. (I’ll have to work on alternate phrases, now that I’ve considered this.)

    As far as the dramatic increase in cursing on media, I think it’s more difficult for parents of young ones to explain which words are offensive and why they shouldn’t use them. The Swear Jar almost seems outdated, considering the prevalence of cussing, from reality tv shows to PG movies to overhearing a teenager conversation in the mall.

    1. You wrote my story, Jolyse. My cursing is pretty much limited to venting at other drivers, who can’t hear me anyhow, and occasionally around the house. (Aren’t computers an exception to all cursing rules?)

  2. Um. I filled in the blank on #2 with a word MUCH worse than “hell” or “heck”. It may or may not have started with an F. *blushes*

    I have a potty mouth, which can be a challenge for me around my kids. I have to really concentrate on making sure I don’t say bad words and when I do to not draw attention to them. Just the other day I said something like, “We need to pick all this sh–stuff off the floor.” And my son picked up on that faster than if I had just said the word in the first place. He marched around for the next five minutes chanting, “Sh-stuff! Sh-stuff!”

    People are surprised to learn that fact about me. And I have no idea how or why or when I picked it up. Maybe college? (Like all bad habits, right?)

    *slaps my own hand*

    Fun post, Julie!

    1. Kids can really straighten you out on that stuff. When your 3-year-old copies you and says *#&@!, you start to think, “Ooh, that’s not pretty coming out of a preschooler’s mouth.” It’s also amazing how they seem to instinctively know how to use such words in the right context. I remember one of mine throwing out a “damn” when he was 4 (no idea where he picked it up), and he used it correctly.

  3. I’m with Erin in my response to the second blank. Um… yeah. I try hard not to swear in most social contexts. Part of my unpaid work involved being a leader of my church’s high school yearbook. My kids there can attest to the fact that, once or twice over the years, a word has slipped through the cracks. Just yesterday, we were out with the youth group for a marathon of laser tag. At one point I was really getting it handed to me, and my wife was harrassing me mercilessly, and “D— it.” may have slipped out.

    However, I do have a couple areas of my life where my mouth seems to flow uncensored. My two brother-in-laws and I seem to have this rule that, if we haven’t sworn within the last five minutes, we must be wusses. One of my nephews picked up a word or two from one of the game nights the three of us have, and we were subsequently banned from that house for two months. I can’t explain why I cuss so much in this setting, as it’s not really in my nature to do so, but it just happens. I think it is freeing to not have to worry about every word that comes out of your mouth, even if just for a couple hours every two weeks.

    As for where I picked up the habit, it was definitely in college, as I had a heavy-drinking, foul-mouthed group of friends that knew how to have a good time, and, once you’ve learned the fine art of cussing, it’s like riding a bike… you never forget.

    1. I worked for a lawyer once who could curse a blue streak, but he turned it off entirely in court. We do seem to change how we talk depending on our audience. I cracked up with “if we haven’t sworn within the last five minutes, we must be wusses.” I’m betting y’all could come up with a better descriptor than “wuss” as well. Thanks, Mike.

  4. Yeah, I’m with Mike and Erin. The F-bomb immediately came to mind when I read #2. I tend to have a potty mouth especially when I’m around friends or really upset. However, having a kid has really helped curb that. I try very hard not to swear in front of her. But it seems to build up and then when I’m alone or with friends, my cursing is unleashed, lol!

    I don’t know why I curse. It’s a habit I picked up in junior high and haven’t really let go of. But I can keep a lid on it in company, so I’m not a total tactless slob:)

    Great, thoughtful post.

    1. Ah, the kids. They make us think twice on all sorts of actions, don’t they? I’m probably more tempted to curse when I’m alone. I stub my toe and bam! the word just pops into my brain. Thanks, Stacy.

  5. I don’t swear in front of people who I don’t know because it may offend them. I reserve my cuss words for family and friends. And I’m pretty bad. Why I cuss is up for discussion and thought. I’ve sworn since I was 15 years old and all my friends did as well, so perhaps it was just a “fitting in” sort of thing back then. Now, it’s a way of venting that is only appropriate with certain individuals. These days cussing is taken in stride. I hear the way my son and daughter talk to their friends and am surprised, however they’re good kids and morally upright. I don’t believe in the “do as I say and not as I do”, so I don’t feel comfortable telling them they can’t, especially since I know they’re going to do it anyway, behind my back. But I do know they tone it down in front of me.

    1. I think everyone should be able to turn it off if needed for work or social contexts. I’d hate to meet the queen one day and utter a profane word in her presence when I trip over the red carpet. Then again, she might chuckle and have her own words to share. Who knows?! I do think that cussing is “mastered” in adolescence. Thanks for the comment!

  6. I don’t cuss. Like you, it is for religious reasons. I have my own forms of cuss words I use. They all seem to include words such as “monkey” and “muffins” and “cheese”. Yes, I’m an odd one. However, using made concoctions of swear words makes me laugh afterward to lighten my mood. Make sense? Anyway, I will use the word “Hell” if is describing the place in which the devil resides, but just to say it, no. I will used the word “damned” too. This is very rare. The other day I was very upset and said something where I actually used the word “Hell” when not speaking of the place. I felt bad afterward. It’s like you said, it was a cannonball for me to curse in such a way. I used to use the word “Bloody” a lot but then I moved to England and ceased such use for obvious reasons. haha
    Great post, Julie!

    1. Monkey, muffins, and cheese? I’m so intrigued! Love it. I find it fascinating to read Christian apologist C.S. Lewis and see the word “damn” because he uses it in terms of its actual meaning. And wasn’t there a lot of “bloody brilliant” in Harry Potter? Thanks for chiming in, Julia!

  7. Oh, man… GUILTY! I cuss. Everyone in my family cusses. Or curse as they say outside Texas. The older I get, the more I try NOT to cuss. But sometimes I just can’t help it. I’m Catholic, and every year for Lent I try to give up cussing. It hasn’t worked yet. But it did take me five years of giving up all sodas to really give up all sodas, beyond the Lenten period. So I’m not giving up yet.

    There are also words that I don’t consider cuss words… maybe that’s my problem. LOL

    Oh, and I LOVE using Bloody. Since I’m not from England, it doesn’t count as a cuss word, right? 🙂

    As I YA writer, I tried so very hard to watch my language in Football Sweetheart… and I think I accomplished my goal. Even my psuedo-mother-in-law (you know, because my guy and I aren’t married but have been together almost ten years) said that it’s a very clean book. That’s surprising knowing me the person…

    1. I would LOVE to be able to give up soda. I can’t seem to kick the habit! (Because I really don’t want to, I guess.)

      I decided to post on this subject finally because I’m realizing that I can’t write a YA novel and type, “kick your derriere.” Seriously? No way a high school jock is saying that!! So I’m having the opposite problem of having to tone it up, so to speak! And yeah, FS is clean, and good.

  8. In college I said geez-oh-pizza a lot. Sure my friends made fun of me, but I didn’t care. Now a days it seems to turn on and off depending if there are kids around. I call it the mommy radar. If they are, I’ll grumble, “oh” a zillion times. If they’re not around, well, who knows. But, my friends are always shocked if I do slip. If the kiddos aren’t around and you’re not swearing at someone, I don’t mind so much. I guess with anything, it’s all in the way you say it.

    1. I actually think it’s worse to needlessly insult someone with no cuss words than to utter the s-word or whatever when you injure yourself. It’s very much about not swearing AT someone. Great point, S.J.!

  9. As I said in my response to Jolyse, I curse in very limited situations. As for writing, I always have in the back of my mind that my grandsons or Sunday School classmates might read what I write.

    1. Having run a children’s ministry, I’m well aware of how things could look if I’m not careful. I ask myself how I would feel about my own kids reading my stuff and write accordingly. Thanks, David.

  10. You’ve been around me a couple of times. Did I cuss? I bet I did, even though I tried not to. 😀

    I cuss because my uncles and daddy thought there was nothing funnier than a cute little brown haired, browned-eyed six-year-old who could talk like a sailor. Man, I could make ’em roll just by saying mofo or sob.

    My daddy and uncles learned to cuss from THEIR grandfather, who was bootlegger and a convicted murderer. And, later, a successful business owner. I’ve heard that man could give even me a run for my money.

    Because I started cussing so early, I don’t realize when I’m doing it. I don’t realize when I’m writing it. I don’t realize when I’m hearing it unless it’s bleeped out or I’m paying special attention. I almost understand why it’s offensive to people…almost. To me, they are just words.

    Over the years, I’ve come up with some creative combinations. I won’t share them here. 😉

    P.S. When are we getting together again?

    1. I don’t recall you cussing, but that’s probably because I don’t have an ear for it in others like I do for myself. Creative combinations, huh? I admit that piques my interest a bit.

      P.S. When the kids start school, I am praying that makes my schedule finally come together and then I’ll get out your way!

  11. Very interesting post. I try very hard not to cuss. But what I tell my children is, “Now I understand why my mom cussed. We made her!”

    But I will say, that in the 25 years I’ve known my husband, I have never ever heard him cuss.

    1. Definitely, Linda! Certain moments of parenting are far worse than stubbing a toe. LOL. Amazing that your husband has never cussed. Some people have excellent restraint.

  12. Loved this post Julie!
    As you know, I have a huge potty mouth. I’ve made cussing a national sport. Although I keep it lean and clean at work and around children, just about everywhere else is game. I think it’s pretty much become a habit for me. Just my natural tone and voice.
    Although recently, I’ve been thinking about trying to tone it down a little. Because like you said, if I cuss every 3rd word, those words do become less “powerful” when I need them to be. And not only that, I’ve been concerned about making people uncomfortable periodically. If there’s no real value in cussing, why bother?
    You’ve definitely got me thinking….fabulous!

    1. A national sport?! ROFL. At the very least, if you cut down the cussing, you can really savor the times when you do. Frankly, I would think you could be incredibly creative with your exclamations! (With all of the hilarious things you and the hubs say.) Thanks for stopping by!

  13. Fun post Julie! I don’t cuss much….son of a bitch is most of the time..usually a cry from pain when I’ve whacked something! I love it in Die Hard when Bruce Willis yells ‘”Yipee Ki Yay M——fker”. I love it so much I made a kid version which may or may not have been a good idea….My son and I yell “Yippee Kiy Yah Muddah Buddah!” Try it sometime . Works great 🙂

    1. A kid version of Die Hard cussing? Oh my goodness!

      It’s definitely hard to keep from uttering a colorful phrase when you whack yourself and cry out in pain (or when someone cuts me off in traffic). Thanks for adding to the conversation, Donna. 🙂

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