Dirty Mouth

05.14.14

Holy Sh*t: Swearing Is Good for You

No need to put money in a swear jar—science says the occasional F-bomb is actually good for you.

Swearing is good for you, according to new research presented to the British Psychological Society. Though previously classed as the preserve of vocab-deprived dumb-dumbs, the study found that using expletives wasn’t necessarily linked to intellect, meaning science has now officially given us permission to curse freely without fear of being perceived as stupid. Fuck yeah!

The idea for the investigation came about after Keele University’s Dr. Richard Stephens heard his wife swearing during labor, and asked the hospital’s midwives whether this kind of reaction was normal. They told him that it was, as pain and cursing go hand in hand, so Stephens decided to pick this idea up as a research project into whether bad language can actually provide pain relief.

“I’ve been curious about swearing since childhood,” he explains, “because there’s a sort of fascination around hearing adults curse and use a language that you can’t. That interest stays with people.”

“I thought there was a good chance that swearing would help people cope with pain, because there has to be a reason people do it,” Stephens continues. During the initial research, one hypothesis to emerge was that using obscene language was a form of catastrophizing: a cognitive distortion whereby the threat of a painful event is maximized in the mind of the sufferer. “This was the best scientific line we found,” he says. “But as we looked into swearing further, it became apparent that it’s actually emotional language, and can make you feel better in certain situations. If you’re waiting for an ambulance and have no drugs, cursing can actually reduce the feeling of pain.”

The research process involved asking participants to play video games at different levels of the emotional spectrum, and then testing their relationship with aggression and swearing after this. After playing a golf game, candidates scored lower on the swearing fluency test, only being able to recall seven expletives. But after playing a shoot-’em-up game, participants were found to have higher levels of aggression and the ability to reel off eight curses. This finding was key in proving that swearing is in fact emotional language, and can serve an important purpose in both conveying certain emotions and acting as a coping mechanism for discomfort.

Swearing is in fact emotional language, and can serve an important purpose in both conveying certain emotions and acting as a coping mechanism for discomfort.

Demonstrating that swears aren’t de facto the product of language-impoverished minds is also important, and lends more weight to the idea that curses can legitimately be counted as a part of our vocabulary. “I swear like a sailor and think it can be cathartic,” says 23-year-old student Hannah Donovan. “When I curse, it’s to make or emphasize a point, and if you’re genuinely passionate about something, the PG13 version just won’t do. Of course, it all depends on the situation—I wouldn’t start throwing the F-bomb around a bunch of unsuspecting toddlers—but swears can also be funny when used well.”

Firing off obscenities isn’t a new phenomenon, but it’s certainly getting an increasing amount of time in the spotlight thanks to reams of sweary characters on the small and silver screens. Monika Bednarek, senior lecturer in linguistics at the University of Sydney, examined some of America’s best loved TV shows and totted up how many curses are dropped in each one, with The Wire easily leading the swear stakes. Averaging more than 100 expletives per episode, it crushed the rest of its counterparts in the top 10, which also included Dexter, Entourage, and Breaking Bad. And, not to be outdone by its televisual peers, the five-times Oscar-nominated Wolf of Wall Street smashed records of its own by blasting 506 profanities in its 179-minute duration. That’s almost three every 60 seconds.

While the U.S. love affair with curse-laden lingo rolls on, this attitude isn’t necessarily indicative of the rest of the Western World. Arbiter of all that is sane and balanced, Putin, is the latest nay-sayer to jump aboard the profanity-banning bandwagon, having ruled that four of Russia’s naughtiest words will incur a fine starting July 1 when used in plays or movies. The terms ebat (to fuck), khuy (cock), pizda (cunt), and blyad (whore) will also be outlawed from television broadcasts, public performances and books under new legislation aimed at “protecting and developing language culture,” the Kremlin said. Now, it may be a bit of a jump to draw a link from the statutory whims of Russia’s leader to society’s penchant for profanities, but this is (possibly) further evidence that cussing is still viewed pretty negatively by many.

Clearly, not everyone is on board with a laissez-faire take on cursing, but, as Dr. Benbarek elucidates, “In addition to the psychological function of swearing, we mustn’t forget its social functions. Swearing is important for creating close relationships, friendship or intimacy with others, and bonds can be formed around it.”

A friendship-starting, pain-decreasing, Kremlin-bothering pass for dropping F-bombs? Count me fucking in.