Profane language varied from epoch to epoch


By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.

Natasha Josefowitz

LA JOLLA, California — “Son of a motherless goat!” You would not hear this in the U.S., but you might hear these as swear words in the Middle East. The word “cretin” is a slur in France, but not common in the U.S. However, calling someone an “idiot” has the same effect in both countries.

Our puritan heritage may have influenced our proclivity to eschew using swear words, whereas the same does not hold true in Latin countries. Having been raised by Russian parents, I don’t remember hearing any so called “bad words,” nor do I know of any. However, putting your thumb between your index and middle finger in Russia and some Middle Eastern countries is as bad as flipping the finger here.

Remember the controversy when Clark Gable said in the 1936 movie Gone with the Wind:  “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” Mothers worried about taking their children to see this movie with such a bad word spoken out loud. In the 18th century England “bloody” was a swear word; it no longer is today. All body parts, including genitals, can be mentioned in conversation in France, but not in the U.S.  As we have recently seen in Washington D.C., a government official can be fired for using bad language.

In other words, what is unacceptable today might well be accepted in the next generation. No words are intrinsically bad; they are only taboo if the culture so dictates. Two bad words of my French childhood were “pipi” and “caca.” In America today, “pee” and “poo” are okay and appear in baby and dog training manuals.

According to Dr. Richard Stephens of Keele University, swearing can increase our ability to withstand pain. In an experiment where subjects were asked to keep a hand submerged in ice water as long as they could, when given a list of swear words, they could keep their hand in fifty percent longer than saying neutral words. The pain was also less intense.

In another experiment, subjects were asked to pedal a bicycle against resistance as long as they could while saying either swear words or neutral ones. The result of this study showed that cussing improved performance.

The use of profanity reduces tension and serves an emotional need. According to Dr. Bergen of UCSD, swear words are a cultural construct that perpetuate itself through time. In other words, if no one objected, it would not be considered profanity. Kristen Wong in her New York Times column on “The Case for Cursing” (July 27, 2017) writes that in a social setting, swearing can act as a connector. Every generation has its special slang and swear words which bond people together. Today it seems that the “f” word fulfills that need. It seems to occur every few sentences both in movies and television shows as well as on the street. As people grow older, they swear less.

There is a difference between cursing and cussing. Cursing means to punish someone, wishing them a bad outcome. There may be an evolutionary reason for the use of cursing. It is an expression of anger or frustration towards others which takes the place of hurting them physically. It is a way of coping with stress.

According to Dr. Timothy Fay, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, people don’t swear because they have a limited vocabulary. It is the other way around; the more fluent people are, the more swear words they can generate. Sometimes politicians will swear at rallies or while being interviewed in an effort to look cool; but if they keep doing it, it loses its punch.

If you do not tell your children that they have used a bad word, they will have no interest in using it. However, if you tell them that a neutral word is bad, they will start saying it just to annoy you. A friend told me the story of her five-year old grandson who was using swear words. She told him that these words were okay, but if he really wanted a bad word, he should never use the word “papaya.” Next time she visited and took him for a walk, he crept up behind an old woman and whispered loudly “papaya” and ran off, very proud of his naughtiness.

So the next time you stub your toe and use an expletive, know that you’re reducing the pain and you are self-medicating yourself.

© Natasha Josefowitz. This article appeared initially in the La Jolla Village News. You may comment to [email protected]

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