Leaving my room in a rush one day, I walked straight into the wall opposite my door. It was a high-speed collision, the wall was a properly constructed one – not a paper thin one like the one separating me from my neighbour –, and the result could be described as full-on face-meet-wall contact. “Oh oopsy daisy!” I exclaimed, brushing off the blood gushing from my nose, patting some powder onto my increasingly blackening eye, and wondering how much reconstructive facial surgery would be necessary.
I lie. Hugh Grant may have gone for an ‘oopsy daisy’ in Notting Hill (for those who haven’t seen the British romcom classic, shame on you: he fails at his attempt to climb into a private garden over a spiked fence), but I had no Julia Roberts around to keep my language in check. Suffice to say that it was an expletive heavy incident for me, with said wall undergoing heavy verbal abuse – details of which would probably lead to this post being censored.
But I feel justified in my expletive outburst given what swearing can tell us about language, culture, and society.
Back in 2009, scientists at Keele University discovered that swearing can in fact ease pain. They had participants (or ‘volunteers’ as they put it – I’d hope so!) submerge their hand in iced water, and repeat either swear words or words that could be used to describe a table (‘brown’ for instance). Interestingly, the participants were able to keep their hand in longer when they swore; their heart rate also accelerated, and their pain perception was reduced. I was basically just applying a verbal painkiller!
Just a few weeks ago, Keele University came back with more swearsome results: swearing also makes you stronger. This time the experiment was somewhat less painful, with volunteers hopping onto an exercise bike and performing a hand grip test. When swearing, the participants’ peak power rose by 24 watts in a 30 second cycling challenge, and there strength was boosted by the equivalent of 2.1kg in the grip test – not surprisingly, table-describing words didn’t do it for anyone.
Swearing isn’t only about enhancing physical powers, though. It can also shed light on how emotionally connected we feel to a language. To throw some science at you, there is a phenomenon called reduced emotional resonance of language. It’s not uncommon for bilinguals to report that they ‘feel less’ in their second language. They may, for example, find discussing taboo or emotionally involved topics – love, sex, death, you know the drill – easier in their second language because they’re emotionally more distant from it. Swearing falls into this category, too: chances are that if a speaker is more profane in one of their languages, it won’t be their first one. Why and how exactly this works are still question to be answered – keep your eyes peeled for exciting results from Glasgow, though!
What exactly you say to swear once you’ve picked your language to do so varies from one language and culture to another. Universally speaking, though, items bad enough for swearing tend to involve forbidden desires, and have some societal power or control structure attached to them.
Genitalia, for example, is a cross-cultural favourite when comes to qualifying items for swearing vocabulary. Female anatomy often makes for more powerful swearing: some say this is because the male bits and pieces are key (no pun intended) to power in society, while female genitalia are to be reserved to a specific male, and hence more forbidden. In Rinconada Bikol in the Philippines, buray ni nanya ‘mother’s vagina’ is a common expression, while in Finnish vittu ‘vagina’ (not just your mother’s, any will do) is one of the crudest swearwords, coming in an array of noun, verb, and adjective uses. In Arabic, you can insult someone by calling them fatah ‘foreskin’. In Italian, you can always opt for che cazzo! (‘What the cock!’). You get the picture.
Power structure also crops up in religious swearwords. In Quebec French, a lot of strong language favourites come from church objects rather than the classic continental merde: tabernacle (where communion wafers are stored) and calice (a chalice for wine) have taken on other uses than just the ones describing church objects, reflecting the strong prominence of the Catholic church until a few decades ago. Also in Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and Finnish the likes of hell, the devil, and co. are a go-to solution when expressing negative emotion. Take Finnish perkele for example. Roll out that trilled r to release all your pent up anger, while referring to the pre-Christian thunder god.
Needless to say, the list goes on. Next time you feel like letting it all out, do it (but don’t say I told you to) and take a note of what comes out. Chances are it’ll reflect societal trends, psychological processes, and your language preferences. How f***ing awesome is that?