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?
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