I’ll be the first to admit that I like to swear… a lot. Whether it’s looking at pumpkin grades, forgetting something in my dorm, or addressing my friends, there are many causes for my f-bombs and other expletives. But why exactly are we as humans inclined to swear?
What’s a swear word?
Swear words words typically carry a negative connotation as they stem from taboo categories such as sexual references, disgusting objects, profanity, and overall offensive jargon.1
There’s a special distinction between formal language and swear words. Swear words are more emotionally based. While the Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area are responsible for formal language, swear words are stored in the limbic system- a neural network that controls basic emotions and drives. 2
Are some people more inclined to swear?
In recent years, there seems to be an increasing amount of exposure to swearing. The Parents Television Council reports that profanity on primetime TV increased by 69% from 2005 to 2010.2 Despite this, swearing trends appear to be relatively the same.
Swearing is most common among adolescents and men.4 Personality, however, plays a significant role in predicting the frequency of swearing. There is a positive correlation between swearing and dominance and extraversion, personality traits associated with Type A. 1 With agreeableness, sexual anxiety, and religiosity, there is a negative correlation with swearing.4
No matter how often you swear, swearing has a notable presence in language. In fact, swear words constitute 0.3%-0.7% of our overall speech. While this number may be deceptively small, consider personal pronouns make up 1% to put it into context.1
Why exactly do we swear?
Swear words are an integral part of language development. When children enter school, they already know 30-40 offensive words.4 These swearing habits develop and become more adult-like around the age of 11-12.
Our use of swear words depends heavily on the context and environment we are in. Depending on the people we’re with and our relations to them, we moderate our use of profane language. With peers and close friends, we are more inclined to swear than in a business or work setting.1
The primary reasons for swearing are catharsis, insults, group solidarity, and stylistic choice.2 In terms of catharsis, swearing allows us to release feelings of frustration and anger. Swear words are also a method of teasing or poking fun at friends. As a result, these words play a role in group solidarity as terms of endearment for friends. It’s not uncommon to greet a friend with a profane nickname to demonstrate a close friendship. Stylistically, swear words are able to add a sense of urgency and emphasis. As supported by Geoff Nunberg at University of California Berkeley who stated,"'Big f-ing deal' is a perfectly reasonable thing to say when you're talking to a friend about something that was a big f-ing deal.It's emphatic and has an intensity of emotion." 3
Swearing is a normal emotion-coping and social mechanism used by people of various backgrounds. Don’t swear in the wrong context, such as a job interview, but in a casual setting, feel free to say whatever the fuck you want.
Amani Ramiz is a freshman in Brown College at Rice University.
Grohol, J. Why Do We Swear? http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/03/30/why-do-we-swear/ (accessed 10/23/15), part of PsychCentral
Sperling, K. Why the &@$# Do We Swear?
https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/why-do-we-swear (accessed 10/23/15), part of Babbel
Sohn, E. Why Do People Swear?
http://news.discovery.com/human/psychology/f-bomb-swear-curse-words-biden.htm (accessed 10/23/15), part of Discovery News
Jay, T.; Janschewitz, K. The Science of Swearing http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2012/may-june-12/the-science-of-swearing.html (accessed 10/23/15), part of Association of Psychological Science