Why Swearing Is Good for You

When popping a pill doesn't work, try dropping an F-bomb.

When popping a pill doesn't work, try dropping an F-bomb.

Like the music of Celine Dion, swearing is a noisy phenomenon some people enjoy more than others. Military folks and college students have a well-earned reputation for salty language, but even the most mild-mouthed saint might have trouble resisting a "Jesus Christ!" or "Shit!" on occasion.

Well, it turns out a potty mouth does more than earn your conversations an R rating: it actually relieves pain, according to a new study by Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston of Keele University in the UK. But that's not all: you'd never know it from what your mom told you, but there are many positive, beneficial aspects of swearing, including harmless venting and social bonding (not to mention reams of adult comedy). Bad language does a lot of good.

In Stephens' study, college students were asked to list "five words you might use after hitting yourself on the thumb with a hammer" (they came up with fuck, shit, bugger, bastard, bollocks, etc.) and "five words to describe a table" (such as brown, flat, and hard). If there was a swear word on the first list, they would repeat that word at a steady rhythm and volume (no yelling allowed) while one hand was submerged in cold water. The same procedure was then followed with the non-filthy word.

Going into the study, the researchers believed that swearing was actually a type of pain-related catastrophising-in other words, a "maladaptive response to pain" that made things like horrible agony worse, not better. But Stephens and company found that "...repeating a swear word, compared with repeating a neutral word, allowed participants to hold their hands in ice cold water for 40 seconds longer (on average), they perceived less pain on a pain perception scale (questionnaire) and they had a larger heart rate increase. Because we saw an increase in heart rate we think that people had an emotional reaction to swearing (indicated by the increase in heart rate), bringing about the fight or flight response, which is known to increase pain tolerance (make people more able to withstand pain)." In a nutshell, swearing has an analgesic, pain-lessening effect that could give Ibuprofen a run for its money, probably by working us into an aggressive, heightened state.

But if pain relief isn't enough to make you start "working blue" in your workplace and at family picnics, consider the work of Timothy Jay, Professor of Psychology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, who has repeatedly found that "...swearing is a common conversational practice resulting in no obvious harm." His work makes clear that social cohesion, emotional satisfaction, and humor are among the top good things about bad words. By email, I asked what else swearing accomplished, and Jay made a rare defense of what would normally be considered fighting words: "Angry swearing can help the speaker change the listener's behavior-yelling at someone who did something wrong-‘you fucking idiot, you made an illegal left turn, cutting me off.' Much of swearing is like this, a corrective measure, but usually between people who know each other." That sounds considerably less positive than a cookie or medal of honor, but if you agree that a sharp word is less damaging than a sharp trident, I think you see Jay's point.

I wondered whether innocent exclamations like "By the hammer of Thor!" and Battlestar Galactica's frak have the same beneficial effects as taboo language, but Fay emphatically said, "NO. Euphemisms exist because they don't do what the more offensive words do.... We already have a rich vocab and the inventions have to compete for space, which they don't very well, historically speaking. The seven dirty words have been around for centuries." Stephens agreed, saying that "...I doubt they (pain-sufferers) would have the same emotional reaction to frak, although because frak is somewhat similar to fuck, maybe there would be a lesser effect. That remains to be seen."

Frak is the obscenity of choice for a fictional military, a la the filth-mouthedness of the real armed forces. Stephens' work makes me wonder if the pain of being a soldier-including physical pain, mental anguish, moral quagmires, and problems I can't even conceive of-might be one reason for all the naughty talk. Stephens said, "...it fits with our theory that people can self-regulate their own emotional state by swearing-think of a sports team coach using four letter words in a team talk about getting at the opposing team). On the other hand, if it is the shock value of the words that produces the effect then one would expect overuse of swear words to lessen the effect. Investigating this would make a great follow-up study."

Yes, it would. Sigh. You know, it kind of hurts to leave such a fascinating topic after just one column. At least I know how to relieve the pain...

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