Sunday, January 25, 2015

Swearing and Language Science

Prospero takes a look at swearing:
Taboo words can survive underlying social change. Church attendance has plummeted over the past few decades in Quebec, but a distinctive clutch of swear-words in the local variety of French are still some of the roughest words in the language: chalice (calisse!) and “host” (hosti), for example. The words remain powerfully charged partly because they are simply learnt as taboo words, and serve a special function divorced from their original context. Swearing activates a bit of the brain that is used for other kinds of emotional responses like shouting and crying. The reason it is so hard not to swear in front of a child when you stub your toe is that you haven’t consciously processed the words through the same part of the language engine that you would use to explain a maths problem. Studies have even shown that swearing makes physical pain more bearable.
The discovery by modern neuroscience that swearing uses different parts of the brain than other language finally explained for me the appeal of the whole business. I spent my whole youth wondering why people enjoyed swearing so much, found it so funny, etc. But once you understand that swearing comes, not from the highly rational language centers, but from the emotional organs, it all makes perfect sense. (Some people who have lost all speech because of brain injuries or tumors can still swear.) Obviously you can choose to swear in a perfectly logical way - viz, when you are retelling a story or putting words in the mouth of a fictional character. But no matter how you use them, their connection to deep-seated emotions clings to them like an aura, making them different from all other speech.


pootrsox said...

Because I'm prone to "swear like a sailor" and because I taught public high school where such language would no doubt have gotten me fired, I early-on trained myself to throttle swearing, and substitute acceptable language that contains the same fricatives and stops--


Hot Fudge SUNDAE!
Mother of Pearl!
Simon Bolivar!

And of course the usual "frikking" "frigging" and similar.

Used to make the kids laugh out loud :) Which also served to defuse certain tense situations.

And then, having taught Romeo and Juliet for so many years, I often was able to simple swear in Shakespeare-- "You whining, puling mammet!" etc.

G. Verloren said...


I do much the same thing, but with outdated and obsolete swears, with a particular emphasis on layering.

"Consarn it!" is great, because it's a corruption of "concern", which is itself a euphemism for "confound", and none of those are at all seen as "harsh" terms in modern parlance, despite once being so.

I also enjoy making my own corruptions. "Gadzooks!" is normally used on its own, but I like to say "Gad-zook it!". And this too is a corruption of an oath - originally "God's Hooks!", a reference to the Biblical crucifixion.

I'm also a fan of using invented swears from various sources. Invoking any of the four names of the four-faced Martian semi-deity "Grob / Gob / Glob / Grod" from the ever amusing Adventure Time cartoon series is fun because it's so close to "god" that people tend to do double takes. Sci-fi classics like "Frell" and "Frag" are proud staples of my vulgarity diet. And I'm always looking for excuses to use the classic "Shazbot!" from Mork and Mindy.

And I occasionally let fly with just the funny homophonic stand-ins, like "Oh, fuzz!", but not nearly as frequently.

Oh, and I dabble in swearing in other languages when I think I can get away with it. I avoid Spanish because I live in a region with too many speakers, but I can occasionally let slip with "Scheiße" and "Merde", but only sparingly as German and French are not as rare here as they might be, and typically there aren't obvious cultural markers to tip you off as to who speaks them. And while most of the terms I know aren't swear, I picked up a bunch of Malay english slang that I absolutely adore - it's some of the most colorful, fun to say language I've ever heard.