Profanity Can Be Therapeutic AF
The benefits of cursing may surprise the sh*t out of you.
Posted January 22, 2018
Your perspective on the use of profanity likely depends on the neighborhood where you grew up and the messages you received from your family of origin and other influential sources. Some people view profanity as offensive, inherently inappropriate, and an indicator of a limited vocabulary. To others, it’s acceptable in select situations and in limited doses, but can be crass if overused. And still other people experience it as a non-issue and wonder what the big f*cking deal is.
Using profanity is often described as “swearing” or “cursing,” and these terms tend to be used interchangeably. However, technically there is a difference: cursing implies the damning or punishing of someone (as in "'F' you" or "Go to hell”), while swearing implies blasphemy in terms of invoking a deity to empower your words (e.g., “God dammit”).
Emphatic cursing is meant to highlight a point, whereas dysphemistic cursing is meant to make a point provocatively — basically substituting a disagreeable, offensive, or disparaging expression for one that is benign or agreeable. On a related note, obviously there’s a critical difference between the casual or general use of profanity and cursing at someone, and employing profanity to target specific groups of people, in which case it can create and reinforce prejudices.
Profanity serves several distinct and potentially valuable functions. In writing, we prioritize the “economy of words.” Certain so-called curse words epitomize this concept. There are impressively few words that have the ability to communicate an idea and raw emotion in a single syllable. Sh*t and f*ck are squarely ensconced in this select category. You may also be familiar with various social media postings about the incredible versatility of these two words.
But profanity is beneficial beyond adding emphasis and color to our language. It can also provide catharsis, conferring a degree of relief from stress and other forms of discomfort. Research indicates that cursing can increase the ability to tolerate pain.[i] In one study, subjects were asked to come up with a list of words, including curse words, they might use if they hit their thumb with a hammer. Then they were asked to come up with a list of neutral words to describe a chair (such as metal or wooden). Then they submerged their hand in ice water for as long as they could, while repeating either neutral or curse words.
It turns out that using profanity had a positive effect on the perception of pain and the ability to tolerate it. Participants who repeated a curse word were able to keep their hand immersed in ice water almost 50 percent longer than those who repeated a neutral word. Moreover, cursing correlated with the subjective experience of less pain. The use of profanity increased pain tolerance and decreased perceived pain compared with not swearing. Researchers concluded that cursing had the effect of reducing sensitivity to pain. Who knew four letters could be so soothing? So when you hit your head and loudly exclaim “f*ck!” it may serve the functional purpose of helping you get through the pain.
Another study tested the effect of cursing on strength. Subjects were asked to repeat curse words and neutral words while bicycle pedaling against resistance and then squeezing a hand dynamometer (used for testing handgrip strength). The results: Greater maximum performance was observed when profanity was used compared to when it wasn’t. In the case of both forms of exercise, cursing improved performance.[ii]
Of course, profanity doesn’t have intrinsic magical qualities that improve strength and endurance. It may be simply the act of speaking or yelling typically taboo words that makes it cathartic. That applies to emotional catharsis, too. We can express our emotions, especially anger and frustration, towards others symbolically, rather than through physical behaviors. In facilitating blowing off steam through venting, cursing can be a form of coping that helps us deal with stress.
Some people argue that the use of profanity is an indication of a limited vocabulary — that curse words are used, because speakers lack the vocabulary to find “better” words with which to express themselves. A 2015 study demonstrated that this is, quite simply, bullshit. Researchers found a positive correlation between vocabulary size and the ability to use profanity.[iii] In other words, the subjects who were able to generate more words in general (evidencing a larger vocabulary) were also able to generate the most curse words, disproving the so-called poverty of vocabulary myth.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the notion (not infrequently promulgated through social media memes posted by those inclined toward profanity) that people who curse regularly are more honest. In fact, there is science to support this. Recent research published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found a consistent positive relationship between profanity and honesty and concluded: “Profanity was associated with less lying and deception at the individual level and with higher integrity at the society level.”[iv] There is also some suggestion that people who use profanity are perceived as more emotionally honest, because cursing conveys their genuine emotional state, something that many people keep hidden — from themselves, as well as from others.
Lastly, in social settings, cursing can serve as a form of social connection. Many communities and groups have implicit preferences in terms of types and uses of language — including cursing. The use of this lexicon communicates shared understanding and experience, binding people together. When people grow up in such communities, they learn to use these language forms organically. Others consciously or unconsciously gravitate toward and utilize them as a way of fitting in and connecting. Being a native New Yorker, I have a deep appreciation for this sh*t.
[i] Stephens, Richard & Atkins, John & Kingston, Andrew. (2009). “Swearing as a response to pain.” Neuroreport. 20. 1056-60. 10.1097/WNR.0b013e32832e64b1.
[iii] Kristin L. Jay, Timothy B. Jay, “Taboo word fluency and knowledge of slurs and general pejoratives: deconstructing the poverty-of-vocabulary myth,” Language Sciences, Volume 52, 2015, Pages 251-259, ISSN 0388-0001, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.langsci.2014.12.003.
[iv] Gilad Feldman, Huiwen Lian, MichalKosinski, David Stillwell, “Frankly, We Do Give a Damn: The Relationship Between Profanity and Honesty,” Social Psychological and Personality Science, Vol 8, Issue 7, pp. 816 – 826, January 15, 2017 https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550616681055