Here's Why Bad Language Is Really Good for You
Contemporary research attributes multiple benefits to cursing out loud.
Posted Jun 23, 2020
You might think that human beings are the only animals on Earth who occasionally slip into foul language. It’s an understandable assumption, but it’s wrong. Back in 1966, as reported recently in the audio podcast The Allusionist, when some scientists made an experiment out of raising a young chimpanzee like a deaf child, they learned that chimpanzees could swear, too. Almost as soon as the chimp, Washoe, was taught the sign for “dirty”—referring to his own excrement—he began using it spontaneously in anger, to label the experimenter “Dirty Roger.”
By doing so, the wise and witty little chimp probably helped himself out quite a bit, psychologically speaking. The tension he felt when he disagreed with Roger could be managed by flinging insults instead of feces, as he might have done out in the wild (according to Emma Byrne, author of Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language). And, as Timothy Jay—professor emeritus at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts—told Discover magazine recently, this is one of the primary evolutionary benefits of bad language: the ability to strike out at someone without embarking on a dangerous or potentially costly physical conflict.
For human beings, bad language sometimes feels like it might be bad for you, personally. After all, you were probably told not to use it as a child, and perhaps you’ve even been warned that it’s a sign of a low IQ or a poor vocabulary. However, as reported by NBC News in 2018, researchers found evidence that if anything, study participants' fluency with curse words was associated with better ability to generate words more generally. "Fluency is fluency, people who swear aren't necessarily otherwise inarticulate, and, arguably, a good taboo lexicon may be considered a complement to the lexicon as whole," the researchers write.
There appear to be quite a few physiological benefits to the ability to swear freely in appropriate situations. Primarily, it works as an effective moderator for physical pain. Keele University psychologist Richard Stephens has found that experimental volunteers can hold their hands in painful ice-cold water for longer when they are told to shout out swear words to express their discomfort. Further, as Emma Byrne mentioned on The Allusionist, the study participants who were asked to avoid using swear words reported greater pain than did those who could curse out loud. This turns out to be true even if the pain you’re experiencing is self-inflicted, as in a particularly intense workout: another study, reported on NBC News, found that using swear words while exercising can lead to a boost in strength and performance. But you do need to use real swear words to experience real pain relief; Byrne reported in Time magazine that fake curses, like the ones you might hear in a sci-fi movie, just don’t do the job. Similarly, if you use swear words too often, even when you’re not in sudden pain, you may not be able to moderate your pain response the same way—according to a recent article in Mental Floss. As in many things, habitual or casual use may dull cursing’s effects.
You might also think that swearing freely could convince other people that you’re rude, or mean, or unpleasant to be around. But then again, you probably use more foul language when you’re with close friends than when you’re in polite company. National Geographic reports that swearing around friends sends a powerful signal of trust about the bond you share, together. And even co-workers who curse together may work together better: a 2004 study, reported in Mental Floss, suggested that dropping the F-bomb can help express mutual solidarity, or can even help ameliorate minor problems between factory employees.
Overall, swearing offers the interpersonal benefit of verbal catharsis. Letting go of a stream of invective, in a private or appropriate context, may always be the best way to vent our negative feelings—or at least, it will always be better than resorting to physical violence (just as it is with chimpanzees). Professor Jay describes cursing as an “emotional release valve” for this reason. In the end, Emma Byrne herself theorizes that everybody has their own “perfect” swear word—the word or phrase that seems most powerful, because it was once the most forbidden. As she told Time in 2018, “without knowing it, the laughter of a friend, the disappointment of a parent, [or] the fury of an enemy taught you how to swear,” when they first impressed you with the emotional power those words can convey.
Perhaps this feeling is what we’re really reaching for when we let the swear words fly: that original sense of profound transgression that we may have felt when we first heard, or voiced, those harsh words. But even now, for brief, efficient moments, each of us can still use strong language to plumb the depth of our feelings and to feel genuine relief.
Byrne, E. (2018). Swearing is Good for You. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
Byrne, E. (2018, January 23). The Absolute F-cking Best Swear Word For You. Retrieved from https://time.com/5115683/swearing-is-good-for-you-emma-byrne/
Orlando, A. (2020, January 14). Worried About Swearing Too Much? Science Says You Shouldn't Be. Retrieved from https://www.discovermagazine.com/health/worried-about-your-foul-mouth-swearing-could-actually-be-good-for-you
Page, Danielle. (2018, February 4). When cursing is good for your health. Retrieved from (https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/when-cursing-good-your-health-ncna843776)
Vidyasagar, A. (2018, June 6). 6 Reasons Why Swearing Is Good for You. Retrieved from https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/541391/reasons-swearing-good-you
Worrall, S. (2018, January 27). Swearing Is Good For You — And Chimps Do It, Too. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/01/science-swearing-profanity-curse-emma-byrne/
Zaltzman, H. (2018, March 9). The Allusionist [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from https://www.theallusionist.org/allusionist/swear-pill