There are rules, you see

There's a reason that even an article about the benefits of profanity can't swear—and it's part of a much deeper cultural problem

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“What a stupid son of a bitch,” President Biden inadvertently muttered on a hot mic, words forever captured in an official White House transcript of remarks on Jan. 24.

And the typical frenzy began.

Everyone knows from a young age that they aren’t allowed to utter certain “bad” words. Swearing makes us look uneducated, we were told. It “offends” people. But recent studies show swearing curbs pain, reduces anxiety, builds connections, and can be just plain fun. Contrary to the old mantras that only those with low intellect and small vocabularies swear, cursing is often the most effective way to fulfill emotional catharsis.

So why is it that Americans take such an all-or-nothing approach to swearing, sending kids to their room or to the principal’s office, instead of engaging in more nuanced learning moments on word choice, feelings, and even proper utilization of “profanities”? Why does so much media, even outlets geared toward adults, still mask anything that falls into certain word categories? 

Maybe it’s our puritanical roots. Maybe it’s that religious Americans really hate “swear words”—and therefore media companies deem using forbidden words not worth the gamble. 

The religious may say using the Lord’s name in vain is verboten, and of course all the typical four and five-letter words are also off-limits. But they don’t stop there. Some even consider “damn,” “hell” and “crap” to be cursing. Focus on the Family, a conservative-leaning “family values” organization that aims to affect public policy, says profanity is always negative and hurtful.

“Someone has estimated there are over 170,000 words in the English language. Given the many choices of words, swearing is either a sign of a poor vocabulary, a lack of creativity, outright laziness – or maybe a combination of all three,” said Paul Batura, Vice President of Communications for Focus on the Family. “It was the apostle Paul who warned, ‘Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift’.”

Some quote other Bible passages such as Ephesians 4:29, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

And then there’s the science

But for those more irreverent among us, including the approximate third of Americans who don’t identify with any religion, see no reason to obey a couple-of-millennia-old story, and may find frustration in the censorship.

Cognitive science professor Benjamin Bergen, author of What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, says swearing serves a purpose. You may have caught Bergen in the 2021 Netflix special series “History of Swear Words” (with Nicolas Cage).

Swearing can be funny, cathartic, or emotionally arousing, according to Bergen. Profanities are not all harmful and shouldn’t all be taboo. In fact, studies show that cursing on the reg could be a sign of honesty and intelligence.

But unfortunately, using swear words sometimes has social consequences. Due to ingrained cultural norms, if a child swears in school, the parents will still be judged.

Who the frack cares if you curse swearing is useful
George Carlin performing ‘The seven words you can’t say on television’ | Bonnie from Kendall Park, NJ, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0

Neuroscientist Emma Byrne, Ph. D., author of Swearing is Good for You, professes that swearing is actually (to quote the title) good for you. 

A psychological study asserts that swearing after pain helps with emotional catharsis and can help healing after an injury or emotional event, especially if the subject doesn’t swear all the time. Dr. Richard Stephens and Claudia Umland ultimately found that swearing is an effective short-term pain reliever. Their research conducted at the Keele School of Psychology revealed that those who swear less can experience an even greater effect when its used in a response to pain. 

This study replicated his earlier findings that showed people can withstand ice-cold water longer while reciting a string of profanities. The Brooklyn and UK-based college research study found that swearing during exercise could increase physical strength and power performance due to increased pain tolerance. Another study found a correlation on both the individual and societal level between swearing and honesty.

In other English-speaking countries, including the United Kingdom, where Byrne and Stephens reside, swear words get more of a mixed review than they do in the US. (Brits are more into it.)

In the US, even Cosmopolitan stories trade vowels for asterisks in choice words. Bryne says “it comes back to that in-group/out-group pattern. If we’re not entirely sure who is in our audience, we all take fewer risks with emotive language. I think publishers and broadcasters err on the side of caution because you can never be sure who is tuning in and what their own taboos might be.”

Wordsmiths and academics may also find it puzzling that using vernacular from an arbitrary list of “bad words” is considered off-limits, regardless of context or meaning. Hell, most of the swear words either mean poop or a body part. Some of the cruelest things a person could say don’t involve a cussing.

“If we’re not entirely sure who is in our audience, we all take fewer risks with emotive language. I think publishers and broadcasters err on the side of caution because you can never be sure who is tuning in and what their own taboos might be.”

Emma Byrne, Ph. D., author of Swearing is Good for You

Swear words employed moderately are useful in portraying meaning. Sometimes these words are the perfect fit. Through the years, several other studies have actually proved a correlation between intellect and swearing.

Think of the children (faint)

But what about the children? They’re still harmed by swearing, right?

Byrne argues that children shouldn’t be censored from curse words, and instead should learn how to use them effectively, coached by loving adults through conversation. Children ages two and up can benefit from learning about swear words from their parents rather than their peers, she said. That doesn’t mean we need to break out all seven of George Carlin’s list. 

Still, even the most laid-back liberal parents often correct their children for swearing because it “offends” people. It’s “uncomfortable.” It’s just not socially acceptable.

Some people propose that swearing and hearing curse words negatively impacts a child’s development. Despite TV rating warnings, experts have found no proof that swearing around kids harms them, Bergan said. It doesn’t seem to cause more aggression, worse vocabulary, or troubling emotions. Bergan says swearing actually teaches young people to use words effectively.

As a caveat, slurs or insults to people based on innate characteristics, and other verbal abuse, should not be promoted. Swearing at someone is different. There’s a stark difference between a first grader saying “fuck!” when they spill paint on their Mickey backpack and yelling “fuck you!” at their teacher. Unfortunately, few organizations seem to differentiate “bad” words that hurt from others that are unfairly blasted by the censors. Verbal abuse and slurs are the two uses of swearing that actually are harmful to children, Bergan said.

Ultimately, a ban on strong language isn’t the answer. It’s puritanical. A middle schooler researching a paper on breast cancer and getting blocked out of his search results just because “breast” is considered a dirty word is completely unnecessary. Parents and teachers ought to invite nuance and engage in conversation on words, meaning and emotions. Context matters. 

In the U.S., the utilization of swear words is on the rise. A San Diego State University study by psychologist Jean Twnenge cites the growth of individualism as the cause for the proliferation of American profanity.

Both Bergen and Byrne group curse words into four categories: religion, sex, excretion, and slurs.

Another way to categorize swear words is hurtful words directed at someone (showing aggression, disrespect, racism, sexism, misogyny, etc.) or colorful expression (whether it’s for dramatic effort, to build a bond through casual speech or pain relief). 

For instance, what does the science say about using phrases like “I don’t give a fuck!”? “Largely we’re reinforcing our membership of an in-group when we do this,” Byrne said. “We’re demonstrating a degree of familiarity and relaxation that helps us feel more bonded.”

For example, our aforementioned president regularly uses the f-bomb in the West Wing, as part of his closed-door vernacular.

Biden’s closed-door favorites, according to his current and former aides, include: “Fuck them,” “What the fuck are we doing?” “Why the fuck isn’t this happening?” “bullshit,” “dammit,” or simply: “Fuck,” according to Politico.

His vulgarities seem to mostly qualify in the frustration category. The same piece reports that Vice President Kamala Harris’s choice swear word is “motherfuck-ahhh.”

Sources said Biden tries not to swear around women, or in public. Byrne says, however, there’s plenty of data to show that women swear as much as men do.

Previous presidents and those in other countries are known to swear, too. Of course, profanities vary through time and cultures.

Biden’s attitude somewhat mirrors the experts’. At a 2021 virtual swearing-in of his political appointees, he announced, “I am not joking when I say this, if you are ever working with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot,” Biden told the group. “On the spot. No ifs, ands, or buts. Everybody, everybody is entitled to be treated with decency and dignity,” reported Vanity Fair.

Ultimately, even though swearing on the surface appears to have become more commonplace, and the pearl-clutching is unwarranted, the unofficial ban on the public use of profanity remains. 

Because science supports the idea that profanity is useful in expressing emotions, building bonds and reducing pain, it’s time we set the little fuckers free—or at least consider the context of phrases over a blanket ban. Perhaps the growing number of nonreligious Americans can help reduce harmful attitudes and bring about change. 

allison jack

Allison Jack brings 15 years' writing experience and a Master's in magazine journalism from Northwestern University to her column at OnlySky. A former professor in journalism and mass communications, she...