We should all be swearing more.
Sometimes there is nothing as satisfying as a truly extravagant cuss. It fills up your senses. It empowers and relaxes. The science says that it helps increase pain resistance by a third. Here are my thoughts around swearing.
First, don’t use slurs or hate language. There is no reason to do that; it’s hurtful and it can also be illegal depending on the situation. It perpetuates racist and patriarchal structures, and is incredibly damaging. Never do it. Second, don’t swear at children or others who can’t otherwise equally wield powerful words to defend themselves. If you think you should assert your dominance in this way, you need to go to therapy immediately. You might be abhorrent, but you also might be able to get better. Third, know your audience. We tell our kids that swear words can hurt other people’s feelings, so don’t use them around other people, and I feel that’s generally good advice. If your workplace doesn’t allow swearing, or folks there may feel excluded by blue language, avoid swearing. If your friend group applauds a good salty phrase, cuss away.
Swearing is great because it is a fluency expansion pack. You thought you knew good words before? Well, swearing adds another dimension to your vocabulary, and it’s a pretty exciting one. Bad words are taboo, and nothing stokes your little inner anarchist like breaking this particular taboo. While you’re exploring this new expansion pack, you may hear people (who are not as well educated as you) say that swearing means you have a poor vocabulary. Little do they know, you actually have just activated your expansion pack, and have more vocabulary ready to trip off your tongue! Indeed, studies show that people who swear actually have a bigger vocabulary than people who don’t swear. Swearing encourages creativity with language, and a better command of your personal lexicon. This is a wonderful tool to put to use.
A typical use of swearing is for emphasis. A well-placed swear can help you add italics to your phrase, or an underline. Who doesn’t love employing typefaces while speaking? No one, that’s who. You can also draw greater attention to what you’re saying with the surprise swear. This is emphasis, but sexy. When you make your point using particularly daring phrasing, you amp up the significance. You might use this sort of phrasing when you spot a bear in a location you wish you did not, like your kitchen, or perhaps while telling the story of your near-death experience later. This is the sort of swearing you might do in the group chat, or while trading tales over drinks. You also might use this to convince others of something (in re: the aforementioned bear).
Co-swearing builds bonds. Having someone to share your swears and who is willing to tandem cuss with you is invaluable for creating a sense of community and intimacy. For many people who refrain from blaspheming in public, the people they curse with are those they consider their closest allies. Akin to letting down one’s hair, a good obscenity with someone who gets it helps to ensure they will continue to get it. It fosters togetherness and to borrow from Jason Mendoza: swearing works – anytime you have a problem and you swear, boom! Right away, you have people sympathetic to your cause.
Like a feisty pandemonium of parrots, using and developing imprecations together is a trust exercise and team building all in one (again, I’m not explicitly advocating swearing at work). You create a shared language that is a little bit naughty and a lotta bit freeing. You can toss off the restrictions of the outside world with your besties who you can cuss with most eloquently.
Swearing that is meant to be funny generally is, almost purely through being swearing (and not necessarily because it’s well-thought out). There’s a huge wealth of humor around swearing, and I strongly encourage you to discover this yourself. I want to focus on one of the funniest, most understated jokes from Arrested Development, and it is only cursing-adjacent! No one swears in the gag itself, but in order to appreciate the gag, you have to understand the expletive referenced. It’s a great use of our shared swearing colloquialism, and it’s both very clever and fairly low-brow. (And as a disclaimer, I don’t actually like the swear referenced, but I like this joke a lot.) The hinge of the below joke is that Gob has bought a boat and christened it the Seaward.
People who let slip the dogs of swear are generally seen as more trustworthy. The assumption is that you’re speaking without a filter, and therefore what you say can be trusted. If you’re Roy Kent, you can use your everyday cursing to help demonstrate your straightforward personality. With Roy Kent, WYSIWYG, and everyone loves him for it. Be warned, though, that women who swear in the manner of men are considered to be six times more obscene (read the articles listed at the bottom for more detail). One way we can all help overcome this blatant gender discrepancy is to elevate women who curse, and encourage cursing equally regardless of gender and the associate stereotypes. Cursing is one way to chip away at the patriarchy.
Pain management / Self care
If you read the articles listed at the end of this post, you’ll see they all (or nearly all) reference a study done that found that swearing helps us manage pain about one third better. I truly wish I had read this before I had any of my children. Our pain resistance goes up, and we can improve our mood to boot. An explosive naughty word can stimulate our fight-or-fight response, and quite literally make us stronger. We just feel better, faster when using a right proper cuss. Indeed, my therapist and I swear together joyfully, and it absolutely helps. Healing can be found in foul language, and we should lean into that, especially after the couple of years we’ve all had.
People sure love to say that the best offense is a good defense. I do agree that preparedness is essential to weathering whatever life might serve up (and am tired of the sports metaphor). I don’t want my kids to be hurt by swearing, so I think they should understand it well.
Further, as pointed out in the articles below, using physical violence isn’t acceptable. But channeling anger, hurt, rage through a loud and profound swear can actually help us mitigate those feelings. In other words, swearing is an innate part of how we can convert violence to words, and ultimately avoid violence altogether.
We should swear more. We’ll be happier, closer to our loved ones, better able to tolerate pain, and more likely to resolve disputes peacefully. We’ll be smarter, funnier, and more creative. Others will find us more relatable, and we’ll be thwarting part of the patriarchy. The question isn’t should you swear, it’s why wouldn’t you swear more?
Articles I reviewed, which all largely pull from the same research and same expert(s):
- The New York Times, July 2017: “The Case for Cursing” (Kristin Wong)
- Smithsonian Magazine, January 2018: “The Science of Swearing” (Claire Luchette) TW: This one talks about the former president throughout.
- Discover, January 2020: “Worried About Swearing Too Much? Science Says You Shouldn’t Be” (Alex Orlando)
- The New Yorker, June 2020: “The Children Are Swearing More During Quarantine” (Rumaan Alam)
- BBC, May 2021: “Why Swearing Could Have a Place in the Office” (Kate Morgan)
3 responses to “Vulgar language: sharing is swearing”
As you might guess, I adore this post. And I adore you, Zandy. When you gave me kudos at work for swearing, which is possibly my most cherished kudos — it made me smile and still makes me smile — I knew we’d be allies forever. I love that you explored the camaraderie aspect of swearing, I’d never thought about that explicitly even though I’ve always felt it, and you are so right, and you expressed it perfectly!
> Co-swearing builds bonds. Having someone to share your swears and who is willing to tandem cuss with you is invaluable for creating a sense of community and intimacy. For many people who refrain from blaspheming in public, the people they curse with are those they consider their closest allies. Akin to letting down one’s hair, a good obscenity with someone who gets it helps to ensure they will continue to get it.
Also, thank you for the _Arrested Development_ bit, I laughed out loud. RIP Jessica Walter.
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I’m glad it resonated with you! As one of my swearing buddies, I truly value the depth and safety of our friendship!
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I adhere more to the line of thought that there are so many words in our languages that frequently better describe something than using swear words, that it is preferable to use those instead. However, I do get your point about having shared experiences, and I think that being comfortable enough around someone to swear is a thought-provoking concept. Sometimes there can also be group-specific words or gestures. For example, on the tv show Friends, Ross and his sister Monica developed their own hand gesture to mean “F*ck you”.
I definitely enjoyed the read Zandy, even though I disagree with your stance.
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