Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Swearing (New elements added!)

I got thinking about swearing after seeing this great article online from Scientific American (which you can check out too): Why the #$%! Do We Swear? For Pain Relief

So you can have an idea what it says without having to read the whole thing, here's a quote:

"The study, published today in the journal NeuroReport, measured how long college students could keep their hands immersed in cold water. During the chilly exercise, they could repeat an expletive of their choice or chant a neutral word. When swearing, the 67 student volunteers reported less pain and on average endured about 40 seconds longer."

When I stopped laughing, I decided that was pretty fascinating. I mean, swearing obviously taps into something inside our brains that's pretty fundamental. Humans have been doing it for hundreds, probably thousands of years, and I even have a textbook (a rather dry one, unfortunately) about its history.

I would personally observe that you have to learn how to swear. I didn't really learn to do it myself until high school, when it became useful to know how from the point of view of general social acceptance. And the way you do it can vary, as can the types of words you use - words related to religion, to scatology, or to intimacy are common examples.

One is generally discouraged from swearing around children. This was easy for me, as I wasn't a big swearer in the first place - more difficult, however, for my husband. Children, as they learn language, will repeat the words they hear that they can at least partially understand, to test them out. When they hear swear words, the results can be surprising.

I've known plenty of parents to get very upset hearing swear words, but I think my anthropology and linguistics encourages me to take the long view and to say to my kids, "well, before you use that word again, you have to know about how it makes people feel, and why adults tend to use it." When I explain that some people can become very angry at the mere sound of certain words, my kids are very impressed - and to their credit, I've never heard them use the words a second time. I get told off by them for using the word "stupid" for things, because my kids know the intent behind its use is derogatory. I think they understand what lies behind the words better than some adults.

The meanings of swear words are almost beside the point. I used to giggle my head off in high school, thinking about the literal interpretations of some of the streams of expletives I heard. It's their evocation of a passionate, often aggressive or violent emotional state that does the trick in many cases. Or in the case of pain relief, maybe it's just a kind of catharsis. It makes me wonder if there's any relation between the pain relief/catharsis aspect of swearing, and the tendency of people with certain kinds of brain disorders to swear (I think immediately of Tourette's syndrome, but I'm sure there are more).

I've been asked on forums several times to help with the creation of sets of convincing expletives for fantasy and science fiction contexts. There are a couple of parameters that are valuable to consider: content, and realization (which I'll discuss below).

My commenter Byron Bailey was kind enough to research this topic independently and come up with a great list of content types for profanity, from linguist Steven Pinker:

1. The supernatural: fear and awe.
2. Body effluvia and organs: disgust.
3. Disease, death, and infirmity: dread.
4. Sexuality: revulsion at depravity.
5. Disfavored peoples and groups: hatred, contempt.

Okay, so now what is realization? Realization is what form the swearing takes, in terms of its sound and recognizability by English speakers - and in my experience, this is often what trips people up. There are three directions you can go:

1. create words that have no English meaning, but are linguistically suited to the language of the social group you're featuring (example "rispot!")
2. alter English or use an existing world language, creating variations on existing swear words, using swear words that don't mean anything to English speakers, or creating swear versions of words that don't currently have expletive connotations (example "frak", or the Chinese expletives in Firefly/Serenity)
3. use English or alien words that are related to the content type you've chosen, and which are appropriate to your world (example "by the Consortium!" etc.)

You can even mix 1 with 3, or 2 with 3, in different contexts. I don't encourage mixing 1 with 2, though, because mixing language sounds will make the words sound inconsistent.

Now get out there and have fun with this - and maybe alleviate some pain while you're at it.


  1. My wife and I were both raised with the notion that swearing is something you save for special occasions, so it’s meaningful; I was amused when I shocked a coworker who thought I never, ever used profanity. I think Farscape did some of the best work in creating alien profanities that really had the feel of our best Anglo-Saxonisms.

  2. Yes, I agree with you on the idea of reduced potency with increased frequency. The potency of swear words also depends on the cultural context in which they appear. If those words happen to have the same sound but different significance in two different contexts, it can lead to significant shock by one party or the other. This is certainly the case with America and Australia - something that has occasionally made my life interesting.

  3. I think that what also happens with "frequency"is that the swearer becomes desensitized to their own emotional states, since swearing is essentially a rehearsal of a negative emotion.

    Pop psychology advises that when we get angry we should perform some act of pseudo-violence like hitting a pillow. The problem of course is that it doesn't relieve anything, it just reinforces it, and the rehearsed behavior becomes no big deal, eventually leading to a kind of detachment. The conclusion of this author that swearing "might be good for you" I think is a bad reading of the study.

    As for the creation of expletives, the best place to start is probably with the given cultures mythology/religion, then toss in a bodily function or two (sexual or excretory) and/or slang names for body parts we don't speak of in polite company. The most base actions coupled with the divine provide the most remarkably offensive combination. And hard consonants help.

    -Dave K

  4. Interesting, Dave K. I'm intrigued but uncertain about your idea of rehearsal or reinforcement. Do you have a research source for this?

    This phenomenon of reduced potency with repetition reminds me of the fate of euphemisms, and I think it may be a kind of reversal of the euphemism phenomenon. Euphemisms are associated with undesirable or taboo underlying referents, and thus take on the undesirable meaning the more often they appear in that context - leading people to toss out the euphemism as too offensive and replace it with another. Swear words are intended to be extremely potent, but overuse spreads them out across contexts which are not underlyingly so potent, and thus may reduce the perception of potency by the listener who has heard them from this same person across the various contexts... dilution, perhaps?

    Hard consonants... interesting. I think there's something onomatopoetic going on, too. I'd say the intonation profile should be sharp and steep, and hard consonants are probably well-matched to swear words for most English readers.

    Thanks for the comment!

  5. Theh rehearsal idea is really just a practical thing that comes more out of my Buddhist background than psychology. I first encountered the idea in the writings of Thich Nhaht Hahn. But if you look for information on the idea of "venting anger" you'll find psychologists trying to dispel the myth that it works. Here's one: http://www.nytimes.com/1983/03/08/science/venting-anger-may-do-more-harm-than-good.html

  6. Interesting, Dave K. I'll check it out; thanks for following up.

  7. Steven Pinker spoke a great deal with great relevancy to what you're talking about. I saw this on C-Span a while back and found it on youtube. Fascinating! Profanity is very much a part of these lnks but I'll repeatr, it's highly relevant to what you're discussing. Most if not all of your questions are answered by one of the top imndividuals working in the area of brain and language. Enjoy!


    and part 2:


  8. I know Steven Pinker's work and have much respect for him, especially his ability to communicate linguistics to the masses - even if I don't always agree with him.

    To Dave K: interesting article, but somewhat tangential as I see it to the issue of linking swearing with pain relief. I don't see pain relief as directly related to anger venting, although I used the word catharsis (it may not have been the best choice). A friend of mine reminded me of childbirth class, in which everyone was encouraged to let out reactions to the pain of labor. Though the instructors did not encourage profanity, I'm sure many women there used it when push came to shove (literally).

  9. "I've been asked on forums several times to help with the creation of sets of convincing expletives for fantasy and science fiction contexts. There are three directions you can go."

    I've thought about this question myself a lot and didn't have any definite answer. My answer probably would have been much like yours, Juliette. And then one day on a slow weekend I turned on C-Span Book-TV and find that Steven Pinker has turned what I've been thinking about into a science and then some. This is what Steven Pinker says. I'm going to avoid the profanity or at least most of it. If anyone wants more detail, it's in the links I provided.

    Essentially, there's a wide variety of profanity across different cultures but they fall into five basic categories and each of these categories has a primal emotion linked to it. These five areas and their corresponding emotions are:

    1. The supernatural: fear and awe.
    2. Body effluvia and organs: disgust.
    3. Disease, death, and infirmity: dread.
    4. Sexuality: revulsion at depravity.
    5. Disfavored peoples and groups: hatred, contempt.

    Now culture can flavor these profanities. For example, not all manifestations of the supernatural are likely to cause the emotion of fear or awe. Invoking the tooth fairy in our culture isn't going to work very well as a serious swear word. I can imagine a very different culture from ours where the tooth fairy can invoke dread, though. However, with us "Hell" might work quite well.

    What I think would be very effective for creating convincing swear words and phrases in a SF setting is to think about the supernatural in your culture and what manifestations of it would create fear and awe. There's your swearing. Look at the body effluvia and organs the people of your SF culture have and see which ones might invoke particular disgust different from us. There's your swearing. Do the same for the others. Look for the broad category of profanity and think about what aspects of them would invoke the corresponding emotion within your culture.

    Also, remember that the five types can be combined like in "bloody hell" where we have effluvia and the supernatural.

  10. Byron, good comment.
    When I look at the way Pinker has approached this (through your quotes), I realize that he and I aren't quite thinking about the problem the same way, and here's why: I'm looking at the practical manifestation of the swear words, and how to approach that, while he's considering the content. So if I were to try to combine the two, I might list out Pinker's content topics as a part of my #3 in the original post where I only put "power structures." What I'm dealing with in my three-way division relates more directly to what I call "the translation problem," where a writer has to decide whether to stay in the incomprehensible (to the reader) language of the world in question (#1), to use English words to access content directly (#3), or to find a compromise position between the two (#2).

    Let me see if I can find an elegant way of combining them, and I'll add it at the end of the original post, maybe later today.

  11. Hey, Juliette:

    I don't think this is your cup of tea, but the thoughts we touched upon here gave rise to a thread on the Asimov's Forum entitled "The Nature of Horror."

    (Part of the trouble with having a little training in applied linguistigtics is that I want to apply it....) ;-)