Is foul language really that foul? Or is it an inoffensive, necessary, enjoyable part of life?
Swearing is a wonderful thing. Whether you’ve hit your thumb with a hammer, been issued a court summons or seen Jacob Rees-Mogg’s face on television, there’s something about letting loose with a few well-chosen epithets that just feels necessary.
Every civilisation on earth has swearing of some kind, taboo words (often sexual, religious or scatological) the use of which will potentially raise eyebrows, cause offense, make vicars gasp and cause irate TV viewers to put their feet through the screen and send the broadcaster the bill.
If someone doesn’t swear at all, isn’t that kind of weird? There’s obviously plenty to be said for decorum and self-control, and not peppering every conversation you have with unparliamentary language. But never? Even when stressed, when shocked, or in moments of intimacy? It feels like if you never use such language at all, even privately, you’re confining yourself, fencing yourself in emotionally and intellectually, in a way that doesn’t seem healthy.
Linguist Steven Pinker claims swearing has five functions: abuse; catharsis; emphasis; contempt and solidarity. The first of these is obvious – calling someone nasty names is something that is greatly enhanced by the inclusion of some top-shelf phrases.
(Swearing can also mean nothing at all, though. A group of friends can happily address each other using words that would give a bleep machine operator RSI, and they’re just water off a duck’s back. If you really, really want to hurt someone’s feelings, you aren’t going to do that with a string of four-letter words. You’d go so much more personal than that – all the effing and jeffing in the world won’t make your pal Henry cry, but telling him his recent divorce was his own fault, he’s never likely to find true happiness again and he is increasingly physically disgusting will!)
Catharsis through swearing is well-documented – letting loose with a stream of asteriskable terms can genuinely reduce stress – but it goes even further than that. Research into the analgesic effects of swearing, i.e. how turning the air blue can reduce pain, won the Ig Nobel Peace Prize, and a study in Neuroreport in 2009 showed that it could even briefly increase strength – participants performed better in a cycling resistance test when shouting obscenities than when repeating polite words.
Emphasis and contempt are also straightforward enough, but solidarity is interesting. Swearing can convey togetherness, informality, can place everyone on the same footing. A bit of bad language can dissolve hierarchies, and even make people seem more honest and trustworthy – a 2017 study in Social Psychological and Personality Science concluded: “Profanity was associated with less lying and deception at the individual level and with higher integrity at the society level.”
One function of swearing Pinker neglected to mention was humour. Done well, there’s a lot of comedy mileage in bad language. The “sweet old lady comes out with a string of filth” trope might be extremely well-worn, but it’s popular for a reason. And, in the right hands (and mouths) it can become art, as with Steve Martin and Edie McClurg in this scene in the otherwise profanity-free Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
There’s a time and a place, obviously. You don’t want to see Postman Pat call Mrs Goggins the c-word, and you might not begin your bank loan application with a Richard Pryor impression. But a light dusting of creative obscenity never hurt anyone.
Speaking of hurting, isn’t it strange that violent, disturbing language isn’t seen as obscene, while the word for the physical act of love is? Genitals are how we create life, yet a lot of the names for them are seen as filthy, while there’s nowhere one isn’t allowed to speak of killing, maiming and violence. Racism, misogyny and homophobia, surely, are vastly more offensive than an orifice everyone has, or the substance that comes out of it. It seems odd that so many of our forbidden words are about things we all do – sex, masturbation, excretion – or things half of us have. Why is the word generally seen as the single most offensive one a term for the vagina? Isn’t the misogyny implied in that far more disturbing than the word itself?
Agree, disagree, swear, don’t swear. Do what you fucking like, OK?