“Under certain circumstances, profanity provides relief denied even to prayer.” -Mark Twain
Whether you call them swear words, cuss words, or profane language, many of us are raised to believe that obscenities are never appropriate. Your parents might have threatened to wash your mouth out with soap, or grounded you when you first learned to swear. More than likely, the discipline handed down by your parents helped to teach you an important life lesson, which is the idea that your mouth and the words you choose can get you into all kinds of trouble.
Furthermore, many speculate that profane language is a sign of a poor vocabulary (1), low-level intelligence or even a lack of self-control. Still today, in this modern era, profanities are censored or simply omitted from most public television broadcasts. Television stations can even be fined for broadcasting profane language (2). While it is true that profane language is certainly not appropriate in all settings, it is not true that profanity is always a bad idea. In fact, recent research has uncovered some surprising trends for those who regularly use swear words.
Eloquence and Intelligence
Contrary to popular belief, research has demonstrated that cursing is absolutely not an indicator of poor vocabulary or low intelligence. In fact, researchers have found that those who swear may have a greater vocabulary, or may even be more eloquent and more intelligent, than those who do not (1). Now, this certainly doesn’t imply that we should all take up swearing more regularly; of course, there is a time and place for everything. This does, however, let us know that those who do swear aren’t necessarily the inarticulate dummies that they may have been stereotyped to be.
You might have thought that swear words destroy speaker credibility, but the truth seems to be quite the opposite. Swearing has been shown to be associated with more persuasive speech (3). This may be for several reasons. First, swearing can convey emotion, which offers a great deal of information regarding the topic of discussion and the impact this can have on others. With this in mind, we can see how greater meaning can be derived from an emotionally charged vocabulary. In addition, swearing in persuasive speech can often heighten the attention of the listener, partly due to the emotion and meaning being conveyed. Similarly, swear words can trigger a near fight or flight response, telling your brain to pay attention due to the emotion associated with the swear words. Now, I certainly don’t believe that we should all add swear words to our speech, but a timely placed swear here and there may very well make you a better-received speaker.
Catharsis and Pain Management
Yet another of the many ways that swearing can improve our experience is through the idea that cussing can be cathartic or can even contribute to pain management (4). We’ve all probably stubbed a toe or bonked our head and quickly shouted out an obscenity. According to the research, this form of cussing may have some benefit for coping with pain. Similarly, swearing can be an avenue for cathartic release, or for the release of pent-up emotion (5). I’m sure you can recall a time when you may have been feeling angry or frustrated and chose an expletive as a means of releasing or reducing some of those feelings. In this way, swearing might be considered a coping skill or even a self-care strategy.
As you can see, there is a wide variety of potential benefits for those who swear on a regular basis. So what do we do with this information? Well, I wouldn’t go out and start cussing up a storm wherever you go, but it may be reasonable to give yourself permission to cuss when conveying a message or coping with difficulty. In this way, using swear words in appropriate situations with genuine placement may very well offer some benefits.
With this being said, although freedom of speech is an American right, your words can get you into trouble and it’s never okay to bully others. If you choose to use swear words, please do so with tact and respect, both for yourself and others.
“Never use a big word when a little filthy one will do.” -Johnny Carson
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