7 Bleeping Good Reasons to Swear

A bad word, in the right situation, can be powerful and even healthy.

Posted Mar 20, 2015

A and N photography/Shutterstock
Source: A and N photography/Shutterstock

Our parents and teachers did their best to prevent us from swearing. 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 back.

Here are the 7 reasons why:

1. Pain relief. Swearing activates the so-called "fight or flight" response, leading to a surge of adrenaline and a corresponding analgesic effect. Richard Stephens of Keele University found that people who swear are able to keep their hands in ice water for twice as long. However, this effect only held for people who swear just a few times a day, not for so-called "chain swearers." Presumably chain-swearers are desensitized to their own swearing, and so are not particularly aroused by it. It remains unclear whether some swear words are more effective than others. But it seems very likely.

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 also provide the impetus for further corrective action to be taken. As Mark Twain put it, "When angry, count to four; when very angry, swear."

3. Nonviolent 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 have hurtful consequences, but better a few sharp words than a sharp dagger. Swearing can also serve as a warning signal or as a marker of rank and authority, a bit like an animal's growl: "Watch out. Stop it. Or you're damn well going to pay the price."

4. Humor. Swearing among friends can be quite hilarious. In such circumstances, it represents a release from normal social constraints or, like play fighting, makes light of a potentially threatening person or situation.

5. Peer and social bonding. Swearing can serve to show that we belong in a certain group, that we are able to be ourselves because we're so wholly comfortable with the members of that group. If done correctly, it can also signal that we are open, honest, self-deprecating, easygoing, and loads of fun.

6. Self-expression. Swearing can be a way of showing 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 when used, for example, to add emphasis or "punch" to our speech.

7. 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 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.