Friday, January 6, 2017

WTF Is Up with Swearing

For a few years, a good friend of mine has given up swearing for Lent. It apparently takes a lot of conscious effort and there are certainly slip-ups, where profanities come out before he has the chance to suppress them. An article in Time explores the scientific research around swearing. Not only can it help us to deal with experiences like pain, it also appears to be somewhat involuntary:
When researchers observed how people dealt with the pain of submerging their hands in icy water, they found that people could withstand more discomfort if they repeated a swear word, rather than a non-swear word. Scientists have also found that unlike most sounds we utter, cussing can happen in both voluntary and involuntary ways. The latter—like when we drop our keys in the snow and yell “F-ck” without consciously deciding to—offer evidence that language isn’t just produced one way in the brain. That has clinical and research implications, says Bergen, and it may tell us something about why we came to communicate as we do.

It also suggests that these emotionally charged words can become so deeply ingrained in us that uttering them toes the line of being a physical act rather than a symbolic one, more like a sneeze than a sentence. “When you say them,” [psychologist Timothy] Jay says, “you feel something.”
We've all probably had the experience of uttering a swear word involuntarily, often in situations where we really shouldn't swear. And many of my friends with kids have discussed times their young children have sworn after dropping something. In fact, we probably all remember this scene from A Christmas Story:

In his research, Jay has recorded and analyzed clips of people swearing, to try to understand why we do it. Swearing offers us a release of our emotions, and elicits a physical response, not unlike fight or flight. Benjamin Bergen, another researcher interviewed for the article, has even written a book on swearing: What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves.

I've recently become more conscious of swearing in my writing. Before, I would try to avoid it as much as possible - my mom was a children's writer and very strongly dislikes bad language - but I felt that it left my characters too wooden. If they spoke more like I did, and the way many of my friends do, they would be a bit more crass. Now I just let fly in my writing. None of my readers have commented on it, positively or negatively, which is probably the best reaction.

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