Why do people swear? 6



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I move in a very refined, genteel and polite society, so I was somewhat taken aback I was asked this question only recently. Having pondered the matter, could only reply, “How the #@$% would I know?”

In fact, if the people with whom I associate are provoked into the slightest profanity or vulgarity they actually do come out with comments like, “asterisk, dollar sign, exclamation point, the-letter-‘A’- with-a-circle-around-it, asterisk, asterisk and asterisk.” When you hear that, you know how really and truly upset they are.

Indeed, the licensed premises where we gather for the occasional libation has a sign on the wall warning strangers, “Please do not use words ending in ‘itch’, ‘it’ or ‘uck ‘”.

My natural aversion to impolite or naughty words comes of my being bought up by a mummy who couldn’t abide even the mildest exclamations of what she called “blue words” at the more tolerable end of the scale to “toilet talk” at the utterly unforgivable end. I recall once when somebody (well, me actually) accidentally slammed the car door on his fingers, my father inadvertently let loose with a “Bloody hell!” which very quickly got a wifely admonition, “Language dear! Language” before she got around to inquiring about the state of his wounded digits.

Children – however much they are shielded from a rude world by doting parents – do sometimes pick up naughty words and I recall being sent to The Naughty Corner once for using such a word. I could bear the punishment – what I couldn’t bear was mummy’s refusal to tell me what the word meant. I mean is it rude when you don’t know what you are saying?

However, I do understand that in this permissive world there are occasions when, for weak-willed folks, “Oh dear”, “Bother!” and “Silly you!” just doesn’t cut it. We all have to face up to this however distasteful it is. I’m not one to bury the head and all of that.

My research has thrown up some interesting facts. It’s just amazing what you can learn when you root around, isn’t it?

It seems there are fashions in rude words.

The playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan once observed, “Ay, ay, the best terms will grow obsolete: damns have had their day” and he was called home to his Maker in 1816. Then again, he was Irish and we all know about those rude basta…people.

American academic Dr Timothy Jay, a psychologist at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, has made the study of rude words his life’s work. You have to wonder what sort of a home he came from, to be honest. And, by the way, the use of the word “Liberal” in the name of his institution means “free-wheeling” if you get my drift and not at all in the nice way like “Australian Liberal Party”.

According to Dr Jay, “The point of swearing, in many cases, is to vent one’s emotions and convey emotional information about one’s state of mind to others. Some swear words lose their punch. ‘Oh my God” has declined in power as have other profanities such as ‘hell’ and ‘damn’ and ‘goddam’. Language is organic and it grows what it needs and kills off what is obsolete, so if a word fell from use there was probably a good reason for it.”

An English medieval language expert, Dr Melissa Mohr, who shares Dr Jay’s penchant for getting down and dirty says that way, way back oaths were believed to physically injure Jesus Christ. In medieval society, she says, “certain vain oaths” were believed to actually tear apart the ascended body of Christ as he sat next to his Father in Heaven.

A British campaigner for niceness, Mr Peter Foot – chairman of the National Campaign for Courtesy – says that there are two kinds of swearers.

“There are people who can’t get a sentence out without the F-word in it. And then there’s people who naturally react to a situation, like when a hammer hits the thumb instead of the nail, and causes an outburst. The latter is probably excusable but the former isn’t,” Mr Foot said.

And, as language evolves and some words once regarded as seriously rude become more or less acceptable, previously acceptable words have become unacceptable – think of, for example, “nigger”.

A major UK study has found that 77% of people think swearing is routine, 78% say they swear regularly for no reason whatsoever, and 90% of men swear regularly compared to 83% of women. Only one in ten say they never use bad language. I fear that the loss of the Empire has torn at the very fabric of British society.

Another British psychologist Dr Richard Stephens found that people can keep their hands in ice-cold water if they swear while doing it. “Because swearing is taboo and offensive to some people, when you swear you set off the flight-or-flight response in yourself. One of the components of this response is called stress induced analgesia which means you become less sensitive to pain,” he said.

To my mind, it only proves what idiots swearers are. Who in their right mind plunge their hands into ice-cold water?


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Russell Grenning

Russell Grenning is a Brisbane-based former journalist and retired political adviser who began his career with the ABC in 1968 in Brisbane and subsequently worked on the Brisbane afternoon daily, "The Telegraph" and later as a columnist for "The Courier Mail" and "The Australian". He worked for a string of senior Ministers in the Federal, Victorian and Queensland Governments as well as in senior executive public relations positions, including Assistant Federal Director, Public Relations, for Australia Post, Public Relations Manager for the Queensland Department of Main Roads and Principal Adviser, Corporate Relations, for the Queensland Law Society.

  1. I never swore as a child, I would be horrified if someone said shut up. I walked out of school and went home when one girl called me a devil.

  2. I wonder why people who don’t belong to God use the phrase often abbreviated to OMG, when those who do belong to God wouldn’t dare use that phrase as a swear word or expression of surprise.

  3. There are different “classes” of people associated with their level of education…I know some very loving and caring people that curse a lot.
    Their use of the coarse language seems to be their way of expressing themselves as they don’t have the language skills to use other words.
    I’m afraid this seems to be the future of our language unless the poorer people become better educated. Ask our Govt.

  4. Where once we attributed the use of coarse language to those lacking language skills, Russell, those unable to put together a statement without the use of descriptive but unhelpful profundity, there seems to be a high level of acceptance, among many better educated, that it is the norm rather than the exception. Two recent events highlighted this to me:
    I attended an event where the bulk of the invitees were people well- considered in the community. The language used within one of the little sub-groups would best described as procreational-cuneiform. The same applied to conversation heard just this week among a group of year-12 students.

    1 REPLY
    • Blush… blush…
      Did I really write profundity…!?

  5. I grew up in a family that used profanity infrequently (hammer on thumb an exception) and married a man for whom the use of profanity is normal and to be used in every day speech (opposites attract I am told). I saw a television series presented by Stephen Fry in which he investigates the use of profanity in language in general and the iced water experiment was used as an example, it did work on Mr Fry as explained in this blog.

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