Cobalt-60 The Cobalt Blog

Why We Love Expletives (or Love to Hate Them)

By Sherilyn George-Clinton and William Harris

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If you’ve been thinking that cursing has become more common in ways and places our parents and grandparents could never have imagined, you’re on to something.

Researchers at San Diego State found that “motherf***er" appeared in books 678 times more often in the mid-2000s than it did in the 1950s.

In corporate offices and conference rooms today, swearing isn’t always a career-limiting move. But is it necessary? Is cursing a helpful communication tool?

Some researchers have found that swearing is helpful if not necessary in our society. Our world is much more casual that it was in the 1950s.

At the same time, our society has gotten pretty stuffy. One remark can destroy a career.

On the stuffy side, there’s at least one thinker who believes cursing has no role in proper communication. His life’s work has been to put an end to it.

Keep reading to understand how both sides may be right.

Profanity defined?


In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart couldn’t define pornography, but he remarked, “I know it when I see it.”

Likewise, you may struggle to define profanity, but you know it when you hear it. That goes for academics as well.

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The Holy F**king Sh*t Ni**er Principle is the way that Benjamin K. Bergen categorizes profanity. He’s observed that in American English, taboo words come from religion, copulation, elimination, and slurs.

Dr. Bergen is a professor of Cognitive Science and director of the Language and Cognition Laboratory at UC San Diego. His book is “What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves.”

The words profane, swear, and curse are rooted in religion, and religion-based taboo words were once the most offensive. “Thank goodness” is one expression coined to avoid the profane.

While academics do recognize the differences between expletives, profanity, obscenity, oaths, swearing, cursing, and cussing, they use the words interchangeably. In considering cuss words, some academics include words you might hear on television, but you wouldn’t dare say around your grandmother.

It’s not like it used to be. But it is.


Taboo words vary in degree of offensiveness over time, just as societal norms change over time. Currently in American English, slurs are regarded as the most offensive. The offensive power of slurs has increased as the prevalence of social media and online forums has increased. There, anonymity and freedom from repercussions make it easier, maybe even tantalizing, to swear with a reach beyond the dinner table.

To curb the reckless use of profanity, some online forums have human moderators. Some organizations, agencies, and institutions have imposed regulations over the use of swear words. There’s general agreement that profanity negatively affects the environment, even one as small as an online forum.

Language is a living thing, but George Carlin’s 1972 Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television endures. The Federal Communications Commission (founded in 1934, part of a government founded on free speech in 1776) seeks to maintain a pleasant environment where audiences won’t be shocked or offended.

By the way, the FCC has no definitive list of taboo words. They know them when they hear them.

The physiology of profanity.


Drop an F-bomb to make a point? That’s known as propositional swearing, generated in the language areas of the brain. You planned it the way you planned the rest of your speech.

Stub your toe? That expletive you shouted is non-propositional swearing, emanating from the emotional part of your brain. People who have lost their skill with language through stroke or injury often retain the ability to curse this way.

It’s not surprising that swearing has been shown to increase pain tolerance. Test subjects allowed to repeat a swear word could keep their hands in ice-cold water longer than those same subjects could when repeating a neutral word. Richard Stephens, a researcher at Keele University in the UK, published those findings in NeuroReport. Pseudo-swear words like fudge and shucks were as unhelpful as fries and a shake.

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Using expletives can help speakers in other ways, too. Swearing can make a speaker feel relieved, or strong and powerful. Swearing shows dominance. It can also help increase performance during stressful situations. Pilots and surgeons who are allowed to swear on the job are better able to recover from stressful events they might encounter, such as navigating a tricky takeoff or recovering from a close call in surgery.

Those are profanity’s effects on the speaker. There is some evidence that the amygdala, the part of the brain involved in detecting threats, is activated when we’re exposed to cursing. When someone hears a swear word, the amygdala sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, which in turn activates the flight-or-fight response. This can be measured by an increase in heart rate, pulse, and galvanic skin response (a nice way of saying “sweat”). The physiological reaction happens before any intellectual or emotional response. And those intellectual and emotional responses vary widely.

Swearing at work.


Swearing can actually make people seem more authentic and trustworthy, traits that are valued in the workplace. In “Frankly, We Do Give a Damn: The Relationship of Profanity and Honesty,” Gilad Feldman and his team of researchers cited previous research findings that innocent suspects are more likely to curse when professing their innocence than guilty suspects are, and that cursing made them seem more believable.

For their own research on cursing, Dr. Feldman’s group analyzed Facebook status updates among users who’d granted their permission. Pointing out that “using language to tap into people’s psyches” dates back to Freud in 1901, they used the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count tool to assess status updates. Their analysis found that more profanity indicated more honesty.

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While their research wasn’t focused on workplace cussing, we know that Facebook pages are often accessible to a user’s employer, coworkers, and others, where it can leave a poor impression. At least on those not inclined to see profanity as a sign of strong character.

Barbara Plester, who studies humor and organizational culture, identified the main functions of profanity-laced workplace banter: making a point, fighting boredom, socialization, celebrating differences, displaying the culture, and defining status.

In her paper “‘Taking the P*ss:’ Functions of Banter in the IT industry” (in American slang, “taking the p*ss” would be something like “busting stones” or “talking smack”), Plester sought to show how humor — even profane humor — provides for a cohesive organization.

Similarly, in “Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language,” Emma Byrne says swearing can promote trust and teamwork. “The team that swears together, stays together.”

James O'Connor disagrees. He founded the Cuss Control Academy to train organizations to build more professional environments. His position is that cursing threatens to replace civility with hostility and offends more people than one might think. Cussers lack character, control, and maturity, he says.

Context Counts.


Plester has shown that cursing may solidify your place in the group. Two recent occasions illustrate those effects. One involved a celebrity businessman and presidential candidate who used an obscenity while bragging to an interviewer about his womanizing. The other featured a former first lady, who uttered a common swear word while on a book tour.

The businessman’s cursing was characterized as locker-room talk that proved his authenticity. His remark demonstrated his membership as well as his status. He’s one of the guys. He’s THE guy. It is rare that one in his position would use such particularly foul language, even during an off-camera moment. That rarity gave his remark power.

The context of the former first lady’s utterance matters, as well. According to Vanity Fair, she was talking about the challenges of succeeding professionally and as a wife and mother. Referring to Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s book and philosophy, “Lean In,” she said, “It’s not always enough to lean in because that s**t doesn’t work all the time.”

Apologizing for her faux pas, she explained, “I thought we were at home, y’all. I was gettin’ real comfortable up in here.”

Her vernacular speech supported her explanation and strengthened the bonding the profanity started. It was regarded as evidence of her authenticity and her empathy. She’s not known to cuss, or to speak in the vernacular, which made her profanity shocking and effective.

A little goes a long way.


James O’Connor of the Cuss Control Academy says profanity makes others uncomfortable. Plester, Byrne, and Feldman say it promotes bonding. Both sides are right.

In a follow-up article, Richard Stephens discussed additional findings that habitual cursing diminishes profanity’s ability to reduce the pain of ice-cold water. It works the same way in human interaction — an excess of swearing dilutes profanity’s power. Cursing has to remain taboo to preserve its impact.

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Your Guide to Swearing at Work: Four Things to Consider


The audience:
There's a video camera in every pocket. Assume the audience will be much larger than the folks in front of you.

What you say and how you say it:
Uttering sh*t when you get a paper cut is one thing. That report you bled on? Referring to it, or the person who submitted it, as a piece of sh*t is another thing entirely.

Cussing costs:
Swearing can leave people feeling put off, put down, or left out, and reluctant to let you know.

At the same time, swearing can make you seem honest and authentic to some, burnishing their image of you. Others may see that honesty and authenticity as showing your true colors, proving that you don’t belong.

Less is more:
Respect its impact.