Scheiße, merde, cachau bant: The surprising benefits of swearing


Scheiße, merde, cachau bant: The surprising benefits of swearing

An interaction in the comments about one of her stories made ANNELIESE BURGESS wonder why people are still triggered by rude words. She looked at the science and discovered that cursing is f***ing awesome.


I REMEMBER it like yesterday. I must have been about 13. I was in the bakkie with my dad when I used the word “crap". My father was horrified. So powerful was his reprimand (and the shame that I felt) that 42 years later, I remember exactly where it happened — just past the silos on the gravel road at Vergenoeg.

Like most words, “crap" somehow oozed its way into my inner vocabulary. I did not know what it meant. My dad's displeasure was a lesson in the power that certain words hold, but it did not cure me of swearing. 

I am a fluent and unapologetic swearer and remain fascinated by the word magic of profanity — how a word can hold no taboo for one but remain deeply offensive to another.

In the comments section under a recent story I wrote, a reader responded with a playful use of the F-word. A judgemental anti-swearer was triggered to say: “... you probably think you are cool because you managed to slip in a swear word". He was supported by another judgemental anti-swearer: “She swears like a sailor, and if you dare differ from her about anything, she tells you she is studying for her PhD and is ostensibly well-read."

There are many myths about profanity. And foremost of these is that people who swear do so because they are unintelligent, lazy, uneducated and have a limited vocabulary.

Research suggests the opposite. 


Timothy Jay is an emeritus professor of psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. He has studied swearing — or what he also refers to as “taboo words" — for more than 40 years and is the author of several books on the subject.

Researchers divide obscenities into three categories: religion (“damn”, “hell”), bodily excretions and sex, including the countless slang words in every culture for genitalia. 

Jay says the many benefits of swearing have only emerged in the last two decades thanks to research into the brain and emotions and the improvement of technology to study brain anatomy.

One of his studies, with the wonderful title Taboo word fluency and knowledge of slurs and general pejoratives: deconstructing the poverty-of-vocabulary myth", found swearing is not an index of language poverty. In fact, he found that people who are good at language are also good at generating a swearing vocabulary, which is a sign of intelligence because language is correlated with intelligence. 

In the study, participants were asked to list as many words as they could in a minute starting with F, A or S. Another minute was given to create as many profanities as possible beginning with the same letters. They found that those with the most F, A and S words also produced the most swear words.

This is supported by research into swearing by Irish people (who, like sailors, troopers and journalists, are stereotyped as swearers). It found that “taboo language fluency" correlated with other verbal fluency indicators, suggesting that the use of swear words can be an indicator of verbal intelligence rather than a marker of a poor educational background, and that a good taboo lexicon is a mechanism for expressing anger, frustration and derogation, but also surprise and elation.

So the myth that people who swear are unintelligent and inarticulate? Simply not true.


Emma Byrne, author of Swearing Is Good for You, says swearing is centred in the right side of the brain — what is often referred to as the “creative brain”.

She references research that shows patients who have had strokes on their right side tend to become less emotional and less able to understand and tell jokes, and they stop swearing even if they used to curse a lot.

The hypothesis, she says, is that swearing is “actually a very specialised and emotionally fluent form of language that requires us to have a mental model of the emotions not just of ourselves but also of the person who hears us swearing".

And this is why swearing is also often an important part of bonding between people.

“Swearing and insults — even ones that can sound quite vicious to the uninitiated — are all part of the banter in many workplaces. It’s good for group bonding, and inclusivity makes for a productive workforce. Banter occurs when people are in good humour; when people are playful, they are at their most creative."

So the myth that swearing is just all about negative energy? Wrong, again.


The most fascinating research of all relates to swearing and dishonesty.

Because both, to a certain extent, are seen as “norm-deviant behaviour", there has been an assumption that they are related — that sweary people are dishonest and unreliable.

But science has found a positive link between profanity and honesty. People who cursed were associated “with less lying and deception at the individual level and with higher integrity at the society level" because profanity is often used to express unfiltered feelings. Innocent suspects, the report says, are more likely to use swear words than guilty suspects when denying accusations, and testimonies containing swear words are more credible. 


There's more. There is scientific evidence to suggest that swearing increases our pain threshold.

In the famous “ice bucket test", volunteers were asked to stick their hands into ice water and keep them there for as long as possible.

Half of the volunteers were allowed to use a swear word during the experiment, and the rest were only allowed to use “neutral expressions". The swearers could keep their hands in ice water longer than the non-swearers.

Other studies on pain management back this up. People on bikes who swore while pedalling against resistance had more power and strength than people who used “neutral” words, and people who used curse words while squeezing a handgrip could press harder and longer. 

But interestingly, the “positive power" of profanity lies in its taboo nature, and swear words lose their power over pain when they are overused.  

The power in the taboo

We only need to look at how swearing has changed over the last century to see how words that would once have seen you burnt at the stake can become mild and ineffectual through overuse or shifting cultural values. Where blasphemy was once the true obscenity, the modern unsayables, says Emma Byrne, include racist and sexist terms as swear words.

And to see how deeply embedded the power of taboo is in our DNA, we have only to look at primates, she says. 

“Chimpanzees in the wild tend to use their excrement as a social signal, one that’s designed to keep people away. Hand-raised chimps who were potty-trained learned sign language for ‘poo' so they could tell their handlers when they needed the toilet. And as soon as they learned the poo sign, they began using it like we do the word shit,” she says.

And if even chimpanzees find swearing useful, why would we humans want to be any different?

♦ VWB ♦

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