Hell Yes: The 7 Best Reasons for Swearing
Swearing may be frowned upon, but it can have many unexpected benefits.
Posted May 19, 2012
[Article revised on 4 May 2020.]
Our parents and teachers did their best to prevent us from swearing. Children of my generation used to have soap rubbed into their mouths each time they swore—a practice that is, of course, not to be recommended.
Yet, even as adults, nearly all of us resort to foul language, often several times a day. And our parents and teachers probably did too, albeit (mostly) under their breath or behind our backs.
Here are the 7 reasons why.
1. Pain relief. Swearing activates the 'fight or flight' response, leading to a surge of adrenaline and corresponding analgesic effect. Richard Stephens of Keele University found that people who swear are able to hold their hands in ice-water for twice as long. But this only held for people who swear a few times a day, not 'chain-swearers'. Presumably, chain-swearers are desensitized to their swearing and no longer aroused by it. It remains unclear whether some swear words are more effective than others, though that does seem very likely, and we each have our own personal hierarchy of swear words—sometimes even shifting back into our mother tongue for the highest levels! The philosopher Emil Cioran despised his Romanian heritage. But despite moving to Paris, changing his name, and writing in French, he still preferred to swear in Romanian.
2. Power and control. Swearing can give us a greater sense of power and control over a bad situation. By swearing, we show, if only to ourselves, that we are not passive victims but empowered to react and fight back. This can boost our confidence and self-esteem and motivate and mobilize us to take corrective action. As Mark Twain put it, 'When angry, count to four; when very angry, swear.'
3. Non-violent retribution. Swearing enables us to get back at bad people or situations without having to resort to violence. Instead of punching someone in the face or worse, we channel and disarm our anger by swearing instead. True, swearing can also be hurtful, but better a few sharp words than a cold dagger. Swearing can also serve as a warning signal or marker of rank and authority, a bit like an animal's growl says: 'Watch out. Stop it. Or you're damn well going to pay the price.'
4. Humor. When among friends, swearing can be a source of mirth. In such circumstances, it represents a release from normal social constraints or, like play-fighting, makes light of a potentially threatening person or situation, and, to some extent, also of ourselves. In that much, swearing, and humor in general, can help to restore perspective on a certain person or situation.
5. Peer and social bonding. Swearing can show that we belong in a certain group, that we are able to be ourselves and wholly comfortable and secure with the members of that group. If done correctly, it can also signal that we are open, honest, self-deprecating, easygoing, and fun-loving. Another form of verbalization that is closely connected with our emotions is singing, and, in clinical practice, I’ve noticed that when people lose the faculty of speech through brain damage (most commonly dementia or stroke), the ability to sing is often preserved—along with the ability to swear.
6. Self-expression. Swearing can be a way of signaling that we really mean something, or that it is really important to us. That's why swearing is so much a part of any sport. It also broadens our register and makes us more lively and interesting, being used, for example, to add emphasis or 'punch' to our speech. Shakespeare often used foul language, albeit more inventively than most: 'Away, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish!' At the same time, swearing can also be a way of showing that something really means something to us. The philosopher Paul Feyerabend made this point very profoundly: '...when sophistication loses content then the only way of keeping in touch with reality is to be crude and superficial.'
7. Improved psychological and physical health. The health benefits of swearing include increased circulation, elevated endorphins, and an overall sense of calm, control, and well-being. The key is to do it sparingly and not to get angry at the same time, which would be very bad for you—as well as terribly vulgar.
If you can think of any other good reasons for swearing, please be sure to add them in the comments section.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.
Stephens, R. & Umland, C. (2011). Swearing as a response to pain—effect of daily swearing frequency. Journal of Pain, 12, 1274-1281.