The b-word, the c-word, the d-word, the f-word – there’s a swear word for every letter in the alphabet, most likely. And whether you call these words obscenities, profanities, expletives, curse words, swear words or simply vulgar language, you can use these powerful words to your advantage.
First, let’s assess what makes a word a curse word – they are highly emotional (good or bad) and involve words that refer to something taboo. If it’s not taboo to someone or some group within your culture, it’s unlikely to be a powerful curse word. So in cultures where talking about poop, for example, isn’t taboo (such as Japan), there simply isn’t a whole raft of curse words connected to feces as we English-speaking folk have in our language.
Sexual body parts almost always feature heavily in all cultures, as do bodily functions, and then there are others referring to taboo behavior or ideas. So a curse word might stem from a simple descriptive word relating to a race, a sexual orientation, or even an animal – so the words in themselves are not negative but are used in a negative manner and then become taboo.
Then you have words relating to religion which in themselves are not offensive at all – Christ or God – but once used in what is considered an inappropriate moment, the words become taboo and therefore curse words. This then leads to non-taboo variations such as ‘jeez’ (way to avoid saying Jesus exclamation), or ‘shoot’ instead s*it, frigging and fudge instead of the f-word and darn instead of ‘damn’. But there’s good reason to suggest that you should stick to the real curse words rather than these less powerful versions…
Letting out a long and loud howl is part and parcel of real pain, but turn that howl into a howled cuss word and it’ll have far more impact. And here’s the thing – most of us reach for those curse words, those taboo words you wouldn’t usually bring into conversation with a new boss or the sweet woman at the corner store, at these moments of genuine pain. But why? Psychology lecturer Dr Richard Stephens from Keele University, UK, wanted to find out. So he and his students did an experiment. They asked a group of volunteers to give them five words they would use if they hit a finger with a hammer, and five words they would use to describe a table. Then they had that same group of people immerse their hand in extremely cold water, so cold it is painful. This is a commonly used method for assessing pain levels and called ‘cold-presser pain tolerance.’ Then, while the volunteers did the test, they were asked to say one of the five ‘hammer/hit’ words (each person’s chosen curse words), or one of the table words. The researchers measured pain perception as noted by the volunteers, how long they were able to withstand the pain, and also heart rate. Swearing not only increased pain tolerance, meaning individuals were able to withstand greater pain, but also lowered heart rate and decreased perception of pain. The difference was so notable that duration increased by more than half as long again when swearing as compared to not swearing. F-ing brilliant, right? Imagine how formidable that pain tolerance would become on that final, burn-out set of your workout.
It gets better. Think of Popeye with his spinach, or Samson with his hair – they drew their strength from these things. And guess what? Your secret power doesn’t lie in your hair length, like it did for Samson, it doesn’t even lie in that protein shake, no (although that’s still great for building muscle), your secret power could well stem from a verbal vomiting that would make even Gordon Ramsay blush. Those same researchers from Keele University, where they clearly enjoy exploring the power of expletives, designed an experiment to assess the effects of swearing when trying to complete a physical activity that required either strength or aerobic output. So in one part of the experiment, study participants had to undergo a short, yet intense burst of activity on an exercise bike. Each time, they were given different instructions – they had to repeat a certain word throughout. In one session that word was a neutral one, in the other session it was a curse word. In the second experiment, participants did an isometric handgrip test. This requires that a specific muscle or group of muscles is tested, ideally in isolation of others so the rest of the limb has to be at rest when handgrip is tested. This test was done three times while saying a curse word and three times saying a neutral word. The results from both experiments were clear – cursing helped produce more anaerobic power in the cycle test, and a stronger grip in the other test. During the cycling test, peak power (the amount of energy generated by the cyclist at their highest output) improved by 24 watts. What’s interesting, too, is that the participants didn’t perceive any greater level of exertion. In the handgrip test, participants’ strength increased by an average of 2.1kg. Which, in an Olympic scenario, could mean the difference between silver and gold. Not to be sniffed at. And yet, in certain sports events such as at Wimbledon, for example, tennis players get penalized for cursing; on others, they can expect a fine. Perhaps that’s a regulation that should be reassessed.
Foul Mouth Mind
While the science shows swearing has its uses, there isn’t yet clear evidence as to why it has this effect. But as both physical responses of increased strength and more power relate to being in danger or more specifically, the stimulation of your body’s sympathetic nervous system, it could be down to our flight-or-fight mode, also known as hyper-arousal. This is the state your body experiences when you’re under threat of something. Your heart pounds, your focus narrows, norepinephrine and epinephrine are released, and you’re ready to run or attack or perform whatever physical act necessary to ensure your survival. Swearing, which by association is related to these kind of dramatic scenarios, may trigger the same physical response as being in flight or fight mode, thereby giving you the same chemical rush that gives you more power and strength in the moment.
That swearing is emotionally related to being in flight/fight mode is one theory, but there is other evidence that suggests swearing is more than simply a link to a certain physical state of being. Looking at evidence from patients who have undergone brain surgery or suffered brain damage, it seems damage to the left side of the brain leaves the patient swearing more than before, and damage to the right results in less swearing or even none at all. Of course, the brain is not so simple that one side controls language and the other doesn’t, but by and large, damage to the left side of the brain affects the patient’s language (if the person is right-handed, the reverse is often true in left-handed people). And yet, when patients suffer damage to that ‘language’ side, their ability to swear is often left intact. This suggests that somehow and for whatever reason, swearing is not exactly the same as other elements of language, such as the naming of common objects for example. Scientists theorize that this is because it is an emotional type of language and so is ‘housed’ in a different part of the brain from other language elements. Or it could be that as the emotional part of the brain (in the right) is damaged, we no longer have the emotional ‘need’ for swearing. Either way, it’s clear swearing is something quite special.
It’s so special, in fact, that you can use it for various types of emotional expression, from despair and desperation, to sheer joy. Consider the curse scenes in Pulp Fiction, the f**kity-f**k-f**k from Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral, the Yippee-Ki-Yay Motherf***er in Die Hard, each with their own meaning. Sometimes we use a curse word to express something bad, but we also use the same word to emphasize something great. And that emphasis has an impact on how our listeners perceive what we’re saying.
Researchers at Northern Illinois University, USA, where study participants were made to listen to messages regarding lowering tuition fees, where a swear word (‘damn’) was either at the beginning or the middle of the sentence, or not included at all, found cursing had a significant impact on viewers’ perceptions. Participants rated the speaker as more credible when he swore and were also more likely to support the message too. Furthermore, research from the Cambridge University suggests that in some way we associate swearing with honesty, rating those who swear as being more credible.
With all these positive effects of swearing occasionally, it’s small wonder it’s also a useful construct when it comes to social settings. Certain groups, whether it be fans of a specific football or baseball club, a group of workers, friends or family members, have their own curse language and using those same words can actually bring you closer. Timed right, cursing can be really funny, make you feel like part of the ‘tribe’ and even be used to initiate new tribe ‘members’. A team of researchers from the University of Auckland, New Zealand (led by Dr Barbara Plester) found that using swearing around others, in a social group all comes down to how well you know them. The boundaries have usually been set so you know how to play according to the ‘rules’ and if a newcomer arrives on the scene, they may be ‘tested’ in the form of joshing around until they too understand the rules of cursing or jocular abuse within the ‘tribe’. Like a code word, certain curse words can be the key to being accepted, a valuable insight to remember if you’re starting with a new team.
What’s more, cursing when in your chosen group can even help alleviate the pain of exclusion in other social settings. This isn’t just an idea, it’s been proven. Researchers from the University of Queensland, Australia, found that when participants were allowed or encouraged to swear after being made to recall an event where they felt hurt or left out by a social group, it reduced the pain of that memory. Who needs expensive therapy when you can just curse like a sailor with your mates to relieve the pain of rejection?
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows for cursing, however; cussing like a sailor can make you come across as rude and aggressive to people who don’t know you. Of course, that can be useful. Swearing can allow you to vent without getting physical. Picture the scene; you’ve told the guy fixing the wheel on your perfectly restored vintage Lambretta to be extra careful. That paint job took a lot of time and money. And yet, despite this warning, he slips and there, on your beautiful Lambretta is a long scratch. You let out a furious expletive. The guy nearly poops his pants, but you haven’t laid a finger on him. Obviously his company will cover the cost of the damage, and obviously he won’t charge you for the call-out because, well, you seem scary, all without actually so much as touching him with your pinkie. Handy.
But while that effect might be desirable when dealing with someone who’s done you wrong, it’s not so great when you’re trying to impress a potential employer or trying to get a hot date into bed. Strangers who swear a lot are rated as being less intelligent and more aggressive than others, according to research from the Southern Connecticut State University, USA. This, despite the fact that research from the University of Rochester, USA, shows that those who do swear more often tend to have a larger vocabulary! What’s key here, however, is the regularity of the swearing. While using one curse word, as in the example above with the research from Northern Illinois University, makes you seem more believable, overusing swear words has the opposite effect.
Overusing your power words also reduces their effect on pain tolerance, according to the researchers from Keele. They found people who cursed regularly enjoyed less of a dramatic impact during the pain toleration experiment, in comparison with those who didn’t f and blind all day long. A well-timed expletive once in a while will have far more effect if you’re not spitting them out at everything and everyone, it seems. Use it (under your breath of course) in key points in your workouts or in your next match, just don’t overuse it. Like almost anything that gives you a power boost, be it coffee, an energy drink, or cursing, if you overdo it, it loses its power. In small doses, though? That sh*t is good.