Why Do We Use Swear Words?
Pardon Me But What Did You Just Say?
No matter what country you’re from or what language you speak, there are some words that you just should not say. In every culture, certain gestures and words are just “taboo.” No doubt, as you are reading this, you have already thought about a few of them. But should it really matter what a person says? After all, they are just words, right? Isn’t a swear word just a collection of letters whose meaning is only what people make of it?
Colorful Language or Garbage?
To begin to understand why taboo words are so offensive, think about the different levels of potency attached to the various taboo words. Some, especially in recent times, have lost almost all of their effectiveness. These include words like “shoot” and “darn.” Even good and religious people use those. But what is the purpose of these verbal enhancements? The punch that a taboo word packs depends on the amount of surprise that it is capable of generating in the listener. Many people think that using swear words is just a way of emphasizing things. But when a word is connected to certain mental imagery, inappropriateness or something unthinkable, it is bound to have at least some kind of impact on the listener.
Can't You Take a Joke?
Another question we might ask is, “what is the intended purpose of the word?” Sometimes, a person will toss an inappropriate word flippantly into a sentence to generate humor. Sometimes a word that is not really taboo is substituted for the swear word, producing the same comic relief or surprise. Not too many people seem to mind this sort of verbal wrangling of the mind, especially if it is clever. In fact, some comedians go to great lengths when spicing up their jokes and rooms full of people who are normally conservative with their own use of foul language wind up roaring with laughter. Does the amount of impact a swear word has depend on the intent of the speaker?
Apples, Oranges and Rotten Eggs
To answer the intent question, we need to first take a look at what swear words consist of. Swear words can be categorized based on the type of idea they represent. Dr. Steven Pinker explains in his 2007 book, The Stuff of Thought, that there are three categories of swear words. First, there are a number of words that have shocking religious connotations. Other taboo words conjure up ideas related to disgusting things like human waste that are unclean and can cause disease. Still others words bring up thoughts about private body parts or sexual behavior. In most cases, no matter what the intent is, swear words tend to trigger negativity of some sort and give many people an unpleasant feeling.
So what are some other reasons for swearing? Often, a swear word might be used to express strong emotion, such as shock, disgust, frustration or anger. One of the most common examples of a time when a person might be prone to let loose a string of expletives is when they are injured. Shocked by the sudden pain, and usually angry, the person who has just smashed their thumb with a hammer may be seeking relief. He may also want to vent his anger in some way. No doubt, faced with a situation like this, you’d likely be a liar if you said you had never used some form of a swear word. Another reason an injured person might use curse words would be to get someone to share in their shock or pain. No one likes to suffer alone.
I Will Knock You Into Next Week!!
At other times, a person uses a swear word to inflict mental or emotional harm on another person. This person might use swearing to build up fear in their opponent or victim just prior to a violent act. This is usually the time when the vilest swear words are used. Sometimes this abusive verbal behavior is used in order to exert control over another person’s behavior. Swearing at someone can be accompanied by displays of anger and can be very motivational.
What Does it all Mean?
The bottom line with swearing is that most of the time it elicits negativity. When we are communicating with another person, we are sharing a little bit of ourselves. If you are full of negative emotion, such as anger, bitterness, vindictiveness or fear, you might be more prone to use swearing to express yourself. It is important to your own well-being and the well-being of others that you give some thought to the cause of your swearing. There may be some unresolved issues you need to deal with. We would all be better off if everyone was more considerate of the feelings of others and careful about choosing words.