Swearing isn’t harmful unless the words hurt

Swearing isn’t harmful unless the words hurt

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Thursday, 06 July 2017
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Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Those are the heavy seven. Those are the ones that’ll infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war.” – George Carlin

Go anyplace people congregate besides a church, and you’ll find more people swearing and swearing more often than ever before. A lot of people in those churches will swear once they’re outside those sacred walls, too. In a bar, you can overhear a conversation where every other word is a swear word, and I mean that quite literally. Go into a library and the people talking on the phone or chatting online are swearing. I’ve experienced both in the last few weeks.

According to a 2006 Associated Press poll, nearly three-quarters of Americans questioned — 74 percent — said they encounter profanity in public frequently or occasionally. Two-thirds said they think people swear more than they did 20 years ago, and 64 percent said they say fuck, ranging from several times a day (8 percent) to a few times a year (15 percent). People who swear are not in the minority. We are the majority.

But we don’t swear all that often. Just one in 200 words uttered are swear words, so it’s not like we’ve become completely vulgar. But why do we swear? Researchers at Keele University in Staffordshire led by Richard Stephens found that cursing is most often associated with angry attitudes and emotions toward certain subjects and is used as an emotional coping mechanism. Cursing allowed the study’s participants to feel a sense of empowerment. Not only does it empower you mentally, but physically as well. Swearing can improve your performance of physical tasks and also reduces pain, unless you swear everyday.

So swearing is a coping mechanism that empowers. People who struggle with shyness might feel better behind sunglasses. The lonely get pets. People who stub their toe or watch their favorite baseball team blow a five-run lead and lose in extra innings swear. And it’s not due to a lack of vocabulary or intelligence, either.

Psychologists at Marist College found that those with the best handle on vocabulary also had the best handle on profanity. Those who struggled with vocabulary also struggled with profanity, so the smarter you are the more profanity potential you have.

A 2016 book by Benjamin K. Bergen investigates the linguistic history, psychology and science of swearing. It’s appropriately called What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves. What it reveals about the history and anatomy of swearing is in-fucking-credible.

Why and how do words become swear words? Bergen found that the majority of American English swear words have “closed syllables,” meaning the words end in a consonant, as in “fuck.” Most are also just one syllable and start with a consonant, like “fuck” and “tits.” “Profane English monosyllables are significantly more likely to end with a stop consonant, like t or k, than other English words” (47). So English speakers naturally find words consisting of one syllable and a stop consonant to be less pleasing to the ear. If a word sounds displeasing, it’s more likely to have a meaning that’s displeasing. A word like “cunt” sounds bad regardless of meaning.

Explaining what makes a curse word isn’t dependent simply on its sound, though. It’s the meaning of words that matters. Many curse words are associated with genitalia, like “cunt” or “cock,” the use of genitalia, like “fuck” and “cocksucker,” or the process of excreting fluids, like “piss” and “shit.” So we’ve created these mostly monosyllabic, stop-consonant words that sound displeasing to associate with things that make for displeasing conversation. Most people don’t like to talk about pissing and shitting, and some don’t like to talk about fucking, although all these taboo topics have received ample attention from comedians and comedies.

There’s nothing funny about a lot of curse words, though. For me, the most unfortunate finding of Bergen’s many studies and experiments was discovering that slurs directed at a specific community, ethnicity or race weren’t found by Americans to be most offensive. While “nigger” was far and away the most offensive word, and “fag” was third, “cocksucker” fourth, and “chink” fifth, words like “homo,” “lesbo,” “queer,” “spic,” “kike,” and “gook” settled in the middle.

Americans actually found “bitch” to be more offensive than “retard” and “dyke.” “Whore,” “pussy” and “slut” were found to be more offensive to Americans than “homo” and “lesbo.” “Asshole” and “prick” were found to be more offensive than “queer,” “spic,” “kike” and “gook.” And the word gay used with the intent of being offensive to homosexuals ranked fifth to last in offensiveness, right behind “dumb,” “sodomize” and “moron.”

What the fuck, America? Where’s the fucking empathy? Put yourself in the shoes of a homosexual and tell me you find “cunt” more offensive than “fag” or “cocksucker.” Australians throw “cunt” around like it’s “shit.” And there’s no way “bitch” is more offensive than “homo,” “lesbo” or “queer” unless you’re a misogynistic pig who thinks questioning manhood is worse than questioning sexual identity or preference. Apparently Americans do feel that way, though, which is probably why we don’t have a female President and a misogynist instead.

Swearing is also geographically dependent, though. Where you live determines what you say. Jack Grieve has researched what swear words are most popular in America and where, resulting in a collection of heat maps displaying the most commonly used swear words. The southeast United States is apparently the hotbed for swearing in America. Coastal Americans use “fuck” more often than Midwesterners, and swear more in general.

British swear words ranked by perceived offensivenessPeople in Great Britain swear differently than Americans and find different words offensive, too. For instance, Brits found “cunt,” “motherfucker” and “fuck” to be most offensive, with “nigger” coming in fourth, which is even more disturbing. Half of Brits surveyed didn’t consider “Jew” to be swearing, but “Paki,” a slur for people of South Asian descent, was found to be the sixth most severe swear word. So Americans can take some consolation in knowing they found an actually offensive word most offensive.

When it comes to the “heavy seven” as George Carlin calls them — shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits — I think all should be allowed except “cocksucker” because it denigrates homosexual males. Instead of censoring words that hurt no one, we should censor words that actually hurt some.

Words like nigger, chink, retard, dyke, homo, lesbo, cocksucker, queer, spic, kike, gook, wop, redskin, and any other racial or ethnic slur, and words dedicated to denigrating the disabled or the sexual identities of others have no place in public conversation or in mass media. “Shit,” “piss,” “fuck,” “cunt,” “motherfucker” and “tits” hurt no one — not even children. “There’s no evidence that exposure to profanity harms children, and…there are better ways to deal with profanity than to suppress it,” according to Bergen. But when it comes to the use of harmful language, I’m for censorship.

There’s nothing that hurts my ears more than the ever-increasing use of “gay” and “fag” by young people, or the use of “nigger” and “spic” by those who’ve never come in contact with members of either race they’re denigrating. I’d rather they say “fuck” and “cunt.” That’s what we’ll do here at FoulPlaybyPlay.com.

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Anthony Varriano is a news editor at GCNLive.com, editor of GoGonzoJournal.com, and founder and editor of FoulPlaybyPlay.com. He has been blogging about the Minnesota Twins since 2009 and hosts a live, uncensored, commercial-free play-by-play broadcast during select Twins games.

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