Four-letter words, expletives, obscenities, insults, curses and cusses—there are almost as many euphemisms for offensive language as there are swearwords. But why? How has bad language retained its emotional valence in an increasingly liberal and secular society? Why do people still cringe when someone drops an f-bomb in front of a grandmother, or, worse, a toddler? These questions form the basis for Melissa Mohr’s new book, Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing. Mohr traces the history of English swearing back to its Latinate roots, through the Middle Ages, Reformation and Victorian era in order to explain its modern-day instantiations.
And she does so with good reason. Swearwords are now the most commonly used words in the English language—studies by psychologists such as Paul Cameron and Timothy Jay show that the average speaker uses expletives at least as often, if not more so, than pronouns and prepositions. In our language words like fucking, goddamn and bloody are unique in that they have a dual linguistic function. In addition to referring to specific objects and actions, they can also act as emotional intensifiers.
Mohr describes how swearwords “induce greater skin conductance responses than do other words, even emotionally evocative words such as death or cancer. (The skin conductance response indicates the extent of a person’s emotional arousal by measuring the degree to which his or her skin conducts electricity.)” Hearing obscene words is literally electrifying. A recent experiment led by the psychologist Richard Stephens found that swearing is also physically cathartic—people who repeat a swearword can keep their hands immersed in extremely cold water 40 seconds longer than if they say a neutral word. But why?
One explanation for the physiological power of swearwords is that they are stored in a different portion of the brain. Obscene words occupy the lower brain, or limbic system, along with automatic speech acts like formalities, counting and song lyrics. This part of the brain is separated from the cerebral cortex, which controls voluntary actions and the kind of “higher” vocabulary that depends on syntactic construction. But although offensive language occupies its own, instinctive part of the human mind, the specific words that become associated with this region are entirely dependent on a given individual’s cultural context.