The power behind a profane tongue

In emotional situations, swearing takes on an expressive and reactionary role in everyday language

With overuse, people grow desensitized to swear words, disassociating them from their negative meaning, said department of philosophy professor Adèle Mercier.
With overuse, people grow desensitized to swear words, disassociating them from their negative meaning, said department of philosophy professor Adèle Mercier.

Sometimes a good “fuck you” is all you need.

“There is nothing that will serve better,” department of philosophy professor Adèle Mercier says at the end of our interview, as an afterthought of sorts.

“Offensive words serve a kind of purpose in language,” she said earlier in the conversation. “They serve to express disgust — either emotional or physical.”

So the phrase — an expression used in situations of great disgust or anger — is an appropriate expression, yet it doesn’t exactly represent what the word means.

Though it doesn’t have any clear-cut origin, the word can translate to any sort of copulation or sexual act.

Profanity like “fuck,” however, have become so entrenched in our everyday language, Mercier said, that it’s lost all meaning.

“They are expressive,” Mercier, who specializes in the philosophy of language, said. “When you say ‘fuck’ because you banged your nail with a hammer, the meaning of ‘fucking’ is not a part of that expression.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, swearing is the use of profane and impolite language.

Cursing, which is sometimes mistaken for the same thing, usually involves damning another individual with a wish of ill will — not exactly the same as the stray swear word uttered after a poor mark on an essay.

In June, a Massachusetts town banned swearing in public with individuals who didn’t abide by the rules incuring a fine of $20.

While we don’t completely understand why people use profanity, Mercier said there’s some biological basis for the act.

And it has to do with two regions of the brain: the basal ganglia and the amygdala.

The basal ganglia package routine movements together, so the brain doesn’t have to do it anew each time, Mercier said.

“And the amygdala is what helps invest memories with emotion, especially negative emotion,” she said.

According to Mercier, the amygdala will “light up” when someone sees an angry person or hears a taboo word.

“There is a connection between the amygdala and swearing in the sense that a bad negative emotion will trigger the amygdala which is somehow close to the basal ganglia,” she said. “It’s a reaction.”

Despite this connection that’s in all humans, certain groups are associated with profanity more than others.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that teenagers experiment with swearing simply because teenagers experiment with language as a way of creating their own separate culture,” Mercier said.

Profanity isn’t solely characteristic to youth, however.

According to a 2012 Forbes article, swearing or cursing in the workplace can be seen as a trait of the uneducated.

Mercier said swear words are used as fillers in speech, a way of holding one’s place in a conversation by preventing others from butting in.

“Educated people do that less because they have a wider vocabulary,” she said. “They make less use of fillers and they have also been trained to avoid certain kinds of fillers.” There are five kinds of taboo words that occur across all languages — sexual terms, religious profanity, terms that deal with bodily functions, words about death and disease, and words for groups held in contempt.

Not all profanity is negative, though. Sometimes it can be used in happiness or surprise.

“As an expression of joy, the taboo words that would be used would be preferentially those that have lost all real disgust attached to them,” Mercier said. An example of this is the term “holy crap.” It can be used to express surprise, because it’s no longer commonly associated with fecal matter.

The word is still retained as a reactionary word, without any negative emotion associated with the amygdala, according to Mercier.

Other words, like “queer” have been detached from negative emotion, simply through a community reclaiming them.

It’s a matter of desensitization through overuse.

“There’s a big discussion right now over the [‘n’ word],” Mercier said. “Some people want it to be used over and over again, like rappers, so that by overuse you can get rid of its sting.

“Other people like the Reverend Al Sharpton [an American Baptist minister and civil right activist] said it’s very dangerous to sanitize a word.”

According to a 1993 New York Times article, the use of the word in raps is simply a representation of street vernacular in black culture, which plays a prominent role in the rap community. Others feel that the word, which has been seen as a term of contempt and abuse, shouldn’t be used at all.

It’s a cultural aspect that’s up to political debate, she said.

According to Mercier, cultures in Mediterranean countries, such as Spain, Italy or Greece, lack the “pudeur” that Northern cultures, like in Germany or England, have.

It’s a French word that translates to modesty or propriety, but Mercier uses it to describe the hang-ups that a culture might have over using certain profanities.

“In Italy, in Spain, people are very free with their tongues. These are cultural temperamental differences,” she said. “Latin cultures tend not to censure outward displays of emotions, whereas cultures of the north do.”

On the streets of Italy, Donato Santeramo, a professor in the department of Spanish and Italian, said the country’s Catholic background has led to profanities geared to the church.

“In order to curse, you have to go against a set of rules or a set of beliefs,” he said. “Because the Catholic Church has a system of saints, it is not uncommon to hear curses against saints.”

It’s a stark difference from curses in the English language because of its Protestant origins.

“In English, curse words have god in it,” Santeramo said. “It’s not very common to have curses against saints because in Protestant tradition you have no saints.”

Italian profanity isn’t just limited to the church, though.

“Vaffanculo,” the Italian expression for “fuck off,” is so commonly used that there’s now an unofficial holiday called “V-Day” or “Vaffanculo Day,” created by popular Italian comedian Beppe Grillo in protest against corruption in the government.

But the appropriation of profanity through overuse isn’t just limited to Italian cultures, Santeramo said.

“There are some in every culture but then there are so many variations,” he said. “This happens all over the world.”

Profanities of the past

In case you’re wondering what the swear words of yesteryear were like, take a look at these profanities from the Victorian era.


Literal meaning: Containing blood or consisting of blood.
Slang: An intensifier used in a negative sense.
Origin: Germanic.


Literal meaning: An empiric who pretends to possess wonderful secrets, especially in the healing art.
Slang: A pretentious imposter.
Origin: French.


Literal meaning: The term for the unmarried mistress of a beggar or a rogue.
Slang: A mistress or prostitute.
Origin: Germanic.


Literal meaning: A synonym for “hang,” “dash” or “confound.”
Slang: A vulgar way of expressing anger or annoyance.
Origin: English.


Literal meaning: An inferior legal practitioner who dealt with petty cases.
Slang: A derogatory term for a lawyer who abuses the law.
Origins: Anglo-Norman, French, Germanic.


Literal meaning: To hang loosely or untidily.
Slang: A morally loose woman; a slut.
Origins: German, French.

Oxford English Dictionary

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