The Science of Swearing: A look into the human MIND and other less socially acceptable four-letter words

by Michelle Drews

Disclaimer: This article covers the psychological, neurobiological, linguistic, and legal aspects of the use of profanity.  Readers are advised that it does contain words that some individuals my find offensive or inappropriate for young children.

What’s in a word?  Would that which I call my pen write any less well if I call it a banana?  Would it taste any better?  A core tenant of linguistics is the idea that words are merely a collection of syllables associated with ideas, yet most words are more than just their literal meanings—they also carry an emotional connotation as a result of how they are used within the language (Pinker, 2007).  For some words, this emotional connotation is so intense that that, even in a country like the United States, where freedom of speech is a fundamental tenant, the use of these words can be officially (or unofficially) banned. The consequences of using them in an “inappropriate” context can range from censorship and fines to ostracism and the loss of your cooking show.  In spite of this, swear words, taboo phrases, and other forms of curses persist across societies and throughout history—a product of culture, language, and the brain itself.

Becoming Taboo

When asked to define profanity in 1964, former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously stated that he could not describe it and added, “But I know it when I see it” (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964).  Though the material in question was pornography, the difficulty of a universal definition extends into profane language as well.  While there are some qualifications that extend to all swear words, the magnitude of “offensiveness” can vary greatly, making a precise, literal definition of the word challenging. Most swear words and taboo phrases tend to deal with material that is offensive in some manner.  Studies of swear words have shown that the most common swear words can be categorized as deistic, visceral, or social (Jay, 2009a) [Fig 1].  In particular, studies show that sex-related insults in particular are common across cultures (Flynn, 1976).  However, simply referring to sex or genitalia is not sufficient to make a word or phrase taboo.  Our reaction to the word “fuck” is much different than our reaction to “coitus,” “make love,” or even “have sex.”  There is also nothing special about the sounds or syllables in the word “fuck.”  Close-sounding words—such as “duck,” “truck,” and ”buck”—are not prohibited and in some cases can serve as a more socially appropriate substitution for what everyone understands was meant to be a curse word, for example “mothertrucker!”  (Pinker, 2007).

How then does a word become taboo?  Since taboos are cultural concepts, the answer must be through society.  The word taboo is defined as “a social or religious custom prohibiting or forbidding discussion of a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing” (Taboo).  First, taboos must be internalized by an individual, usually in childhood, along with many other social norms and customs (Jay, 2009a).  This early acquisition of taboos is evident in studies of individuals who acquired a second language later in life.  These individuals react much more strongly to swear words in their first language than in their second (Harris et al, 2006).  As children, we are punished by caregivers such as parents when we swear, and through aversive conditioning we learn that certain phrases are to be avoided (Jay, 2009a).  Later, when we mature, we learn the complex social features and characteristics that underlie certain taboos; thus, a more nuanced understanding of where and when to avoid taboo phrases develops (Jay & Janschewitz, 2008).

Furthermore, as culture changes, so does what is taboo (Pinker, 2007).  The words “gay” and “nigger” both provide excellent examples.  While the word “nigger” used to be considered socially acceptable in many circles, now it is considered a highly offensive term thanks to more modern thinking and the civil rights movement.  The word “gay,” originally meaning “extremely happy,” is now associated with homosexuality and can carry a number of different connotations depending on who is using it, and in what context.

Why Swear?

So, if taboo phrases are cultural “no-no”s, why do they persist?  The simplest answer is that in certain situations swear words and taboo phrases have their uses: mainly to evoke a strong negative reaction from someone. Speech perception is nearly automatic in mature individuals (Pinker, 2007). Try this: don’t think of an apple. Did you think of an apple anyway when you read the word “apple”?  With swear words, your mind immediately drags up whatever offensive combination of denotations and connotations are associated with the word in question when you hear it.  These make swear words powerful insults and forceful descriptors of the nastier aspects of things we may not want to think about.

Swear words are also useful and effective ways of conveying that you feel very strongly about something or of inciting strong feelings in someone else, even when used outside of their traditional definitions (Jay, 2009a; Pinker, 2007). Saying that something is “bloody amazing” does not mean that that thing was literally bloody, but adding the term “bloody” to the phrase gives it extra emotional emphasis.  Another good illustration of this is in a Stroop test, as illustrated below [INSERT STROOP TEST HERE].  Try to name the color of the word as fast as you can.  The attention-grabbing qualities of the swear words used in this task make it especially difficult (Pinker, 2007). In a similar experiment, the use of taboo phrases in a word-location task increased subjects’ ability to correctly remember the location of the word (Mackay, 2005). Swear words effectively stir up strong emotions and grab our attention.

However, swearing is not always about evoking negative emotions; swearing itself can also be a cultural phenomenon. The willingness to break a cultural taboo in front of others creates an atmosphere of informality and sense of community.  If taboos are defined by the greater society, an environment where subverting those taboos is acceptable creates a smaller, more intimate society inside of the greater society (Pinker, 2007).  Another interesting use of taboo language is as a cathartic experience, a way of expressing and alleviating pain, frustration, stress, or regret (Jay et al. 2006).  A classic example of this would be shouting “damn it” after hitting yourself with a hammer while trying to nail something down.  Interestingly, studies have shown that, when compared with people who do not swear frequently, frequent swearers also tend to have lower pain tolerance (Stephens, 2011).  Swearing was also shown to increase the ability of subjects to tolerate pain (Stephens, 2011).  All of these uses contribute to the propagation of swear words and taboo phrases in language, despite their inappropriateness in certain contexts.

On Your Mind: Swearing in the Brain

In an effort to understand how swearing provokes a strong response in individuals, neuroscientists looked to the brain for answers.  Using neuroimaging techniques such as PET (positron emission tomography) scans, they demonstrated that a small part of the brain called the amygdala is highly active when exposed to threatening words (Isenberg, 1999).  The amygdala is part of the limbic system, one of the primitive parts of the brain responsible for processing emotion and memory.  In particular, amygdala activity is correlated with negative emotional associations; stimulating the amygdala can cause panic attacks and aggressive behaviors, while destroying the amygdala causes unusual placidness or fearlessness (Zald, 2003; Davis, 2001).  Therefore, it makes sense that the amygdala would be activated in association with unpleasant words such as swear words.  The amygdala also makes several connections to memory and association centers in the brain, which could also be responsible for the increased memory skills when subjects are presented with swear words (Davis, 2001).

Swearing in the Clinic

Beyond simply determining what part of the brain is activated, neuroscientists also sought insight into how swear words are produced in the brain by looking to the clinic.  Pathological swearing is found in many neurolinguistic disorders, the most famous being Gilles de la Tourette syndrome (GTS).  GTS, which was first identified by Itard and Gilles de la Tourette in the 1800s, is a hyperkinetic motor speech disorder characterized by frequent involuntary “tics,” which are sudden pattern-like movements or sounds (Van Lancker, 1999; NINDS, 2012).  In most pop-culture portrayals of Tourette’s, corpolalia, or involuntary swearing, features very prominently.  In GTS individuals with corpolalia, swearing is a tic.  However, despite the prevalence of corpolalia in media depictions, only about 10-25 percent of individuals with Tourette syndrome exhibit corpolalia (Van Lancker, 1999; Pinker, 2007).

Though it is lesser known than Tourette syndrome, aphasia can also heavily feature swearing. Aphasia is a clinical language impairment resulting from damage to the language centers of the brain [See Figure 3], usually following a stroke.  The exact specifics of a particular aphasia depend on the location and severity of the damage; in general, though, aphasic individuals have problems with speech, listening, reading, and writing (Van Lancker, 1999; NINDS, 2012).  In the most severe case—global aphasia—speech is almost nonexistent.  Yet, in numerous cases these individuals are still able to swear normally (Van Lancker, 1999). Even in individuals with less extensive aphasias, where speech is possible but difficult, limited, and often incorrectly pronounced, patients have been known to use swear words easily with the proper pronunciation (Van Lancker, 1999).  For example, R.N., a patient with global aphasia as a result of a stroke involving his left frontal, temporal and parietal lobes, could only say “well,” “yeah,” “yes,” “no,” “goddammit,” and “shit” (Van Lancker, 1999).  Patient R.N. was able to produce these words properly in the proper context, however, when asked to say the word “shit” out of conversational context by reading it from a written card, he was unable to do so (Van Lancker, 1999).

The use of swearing in both aphasia and GTS gives us a real insight into how swearing works in the brain.  Individuals with aphasia have damage to the normal parts of the brain that produce formal language, such as Broca’s area or Wernicke’s area, found in the left hemisphere of the brain. The fact that they are able to swear suggests that swearing is localized outside of these damaged areas and is handled differently in the brain than other parts of language. Psychologist Chris Code, who studied individuals who had their left hemispheres removed, proposed that swear words and several other types of speech preserved in aphasic individuals fall into a category of “lexical automatisms” or automatic speech, which are localized to the right hemisphere instead of the left one (Code, 1996; Van Lancker 1999).

Pathological and neuroimaging studies of individuals with Tourette syndrome implicate the basal ganglia and the limbic system as key players in GTS and corpolalia [See Fig3].  The basal ganglia have several main roles in the brain, including the regulation of actions, and use dopamine as their main neurotransmitter.  Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease are two classic examples of basal ganglia dysfunction.  In Parkinson’s disease, the basal ganglia are damaged in such a way that they inhibit motor signals coming from the cortex, and thus movement is very difficult.  In Huntington’s disease, the basal ganglia are damaged in just the opposite fashion – they do not inhibit motor signals like they normally would, and patients move unintentionally and uncontrollably (Kandel, et al. 2000).  If we consider speech as just another type of movement that can either be suppressed or released by the basal ganglia, it makes sense that they would be involved in swearing, keeping taboo ideas that cross our thoughts from being expressed more fully.  This is a useful tool for the brain because, to quote Harvard Psychologist Steven Pinker, “you have to think the unthinkable to know what you’re not supposed to be thinking” (Pinker, 2007).

Though studies of GTS individuals show a high level of variability in the brain areas they implicate, the basal ganglia and dopamine system in particular have been shown to be dysfunctional in many studies (Van Lancker, 1999).  Dopamine antagonists , drugs that block or lower the effects of dopamine receptor signaling, have also proven effective in alleviating some GTS symptoms, further supporting the idea that the basal ganglia are involved in GTS (Regeur, 1986).

The limbic system, which includes the amygdala, also has a variety of other roles, most of which involve emotion (Van Lancker, 1999).  Important to the topic of swearing, the limbic system has been shown to be important in the production of emotional language (Pinker, 2007).  Therefore, one theory is that dysfunction in the limbic system and basal ganglia can produce corpolalia, which stems from a loss of inhibitory ability coupled with high emotional reactivity.  These two areas are also usually intact after an aphasic stroke, meaning that the ability to swear should also be preserved.  Still, we do not have all the answers yet—there are exceptions and inconsistencies in every case.  Nevertheless, these findings may give us the beginnings of an understanding of how swearing works in the brain.

Sticks and Stones: Free Speech and Words that Hurt

Though understanding how swearing works in the brain is a puzzle that scientists will keep working on, the far more controversial question about swear words is how we should deal with them legislatively.  Freedom of speech, the first and foremost Amendment in the Bill of Rights, is seen as one of the founding tenants of a democratic society.  However, there are cases of what the Supreme Court calls “unprotected speech” where speech can be restricted.  Slander, libel, and “fighting words” are all examples of unprotected speech.  In each of these cases, the speech has been deemed harmful to others and is therefore illegal (Cohen, 2009).

Obscenity is also considered a type of unprotected speech, under the argument that offensive words also constitute a form of harm, particularly for the vulnerable and the young (Jay, 2009b).  This idea has been the basis of many of the rules enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has fined TV stations and Radio Networks for everything from broadcasting George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” to Bono’s fleeting use of “fucking brilliant” at the Golden Globe Awards (Pinker, 2007; Jay, 2009b).

Yet, are offensive words actually harmful?   Psychological studies have shown that context is essential in terms of harmful speech.  On one hand, a study of child victims of obscene telephone calls showed that the children suffered severe psychological consequences from these calls (Larsen et al 2000).  Verbal harassment and aggression has also been shown to have clear negative psychological effects (Vissing et al., 1991). On the other hand, the evidence against swearing alone is much less compelling (Jay, 2009b).  As discussed above, there are many psychological studies that suggest swear words, in the appropriate context, can be beneficial when used for group unity, coherence, and general expressiveness (Jay, 2009b; Jay, 2006; Heins, 2007).

This is not to say that the use of swear words and taboo phrases is totally without potentially harmful consequences; just ask Paula Deen. In most instances, these words are taboo for a reason. Usually, they are considered offensive in one way or the other and evoke strong emotions (or strong amygdala reactivity), which can be harmful to relationships and other social constructs.  However, the question of whether these social harms are sufficient punishment for the use of offensive language or if legislative action must be taken as well remains within the courts and legislators’ discretion (although hopefully informed by linguists, psychologists, and neuroscientists).

Taboo language is defined by culture and is created in the brain through a complex interaction of our speech, emotion, and motivation centers.  There are a variety of uses for it, and from a legal standpoint the context of use is everything when determining what is or is not appropriate.   While we may not have all of the answers about the science behind swearing just yet, swear words have been a unique feature of language for across cultures and time, showing no signs of leaving anytime soon.


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