An article at the Philadelphia Inquirer caught my eye due to it’s topic being one of the very few, but a personal favorite, vice of mine—swearing—and it asks the question of why are sex words our worst swearwords? Alas, the article doesn’t really answer the question as the author apparently has ADD and gets distracted by the whole (admittedly fascinating) area of research known as Linguistics. The article talks a bit about how linguists don’t so much discuss why certain words are “bad” as much as how different cultures have linguistic taboos and gives us a link to Mark Liberman’s Language Log, which I’ve added to my feed reader.
Despite not really answering the question the article still manages to provide us with some interesting notes about swearing in other cultures and how swearing is actually good for you:
Overall, the scientific evidence suggests swearing is good for you, says psycholinguist Timothy Jay of Massachusetts College of the Liberal Arts and author of Cursing in America.
We’re the only animal that can curse, he says, which sometimes helps us avoid physical violence. “It allows us to express our emotions symbolically and at a distance.” For example, Jay says, when a woman was weaving in front of him on the road that morning he was able to call her a “dumb ass” instead of getting out of his car and biting her.
To further understand swearing, Jay studied people with Tourette’s syndrome because they sometimes involuntarily blurt out swear words. He found the words tend toward the most unacceptable in their native tongues.
For the rest of us, he said, as a general rule, the most stress-relief mileage comes from the most taboo words in one’s personal culture.
The British have a slightly different swearing vocabulary, favoring bloody, bollocks and another b-word that ends like skulduggery. Last year a copy editor expunged that word from one of my columns. We can’t say it because it means anal sex, which we can say.
Americans, in contrast, rely heavily on our F-word.
In addition to helping Dick Cheney refrain from biting all the Democrats in Congress, it represents the most direct and concise English term for sexual intercourse.
Some commentators have warned that we’re wearing out the poor word with gross overuse, draining it of its original cathartic power. But Jay says we have nothing to worry about. It’s an old word, possibly stemming from German and not an acronym for For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, as urban legend has it. It’s been part of the English language for more than 1,000 years, he said, and it’s still so taboo you can’t say it on TV or in school. Or in our newspaper.
Who knew that the reason I’m so laid back in real life is because I have a healthy stress-relieving habit of uttering offensive words? Mark Twain was a fan of swearing as well. Four of my favorite quotes from him deal with the topic:
- Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.
– Mark Twain, a Biography
There ought to be a room in every house to swear in. It’s dangerous to have to repress an emotion like that.
– Mark Twain, a Biography
…quadrilateral, astronomical, incandescent son-of-a-bitch.
– Letter to W. D. Howells, (attacking an enemy)
My swearing doesn’t mean any more to me than your sermons do to you.
– comment made to Rev. Joe Twichell, quoted in Mark Twain and Hawaii, by Walter Francis Frear