The Well-Timed F@%k: The Art of Swearing

You do it after a long work day; when you’re stressed; when you’re excited, or angry, or depressed; I recently did it after stubbing my toe.

Most people curse — anything from “Fiddlesticks!” to the seven words you can’t say on television (NSFW).

In fact, the concept of cursing is so engrained in our culture that “What is your favorite curse word?” is one of the ten questions on the famous “Inside the Actors Studio” questionnaire (originally by Bernard Pivot).

But where did these words originate? Who created them, and how did they become curse words? And why do we enjoy them so god– uh, gosh darned much?

A quick history

Cursing has likely been around since man first learned how to speak, but it’s generally believed that one man in particular perfected the art of the swear word.

William Shakespeare, you may or may not be surprised to learn, was a bit of a potty mouth. Most of his curses involve naughty metaphors*, but good ‘ol Bill just had to take it further.

Words like ‘zounds (“God’s wounds”) and ‘sblood (“God’s blood”) were direct references to God and Jesus, and at the time of their writing were considered blasphemous and horribly offensive.

Times have changed, however; although Shakespeare’s insults are still popular (and hysterical!), the art of cursing has long outstripped anything he ever wrote.

Some research

So why do we get so much enjoyment from cursing, anyway? Behaviorally speaking, we have to get SOME positive feelings from it, or we wouldn’t continue the behavior.

Luckily, psychologists like to study everything. In 2009, Timothy Day’s The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words came into being. Apparently, we curse for lots of reasons:

  • To achieve a specific reaction from others (through insults);
  • It’s cathartic, and can be used as a substitute for physical violence; and
  • To express thoughts in a more positive manner (humor and jokes, sex talk, storytelling, self-deprecation, and even social commentary)

The study includes all kinds of neat information, including the fact that swearing is a normal part of human speech development, and that swearing occurs in almost all societies.

(For those interested, a Google search for the author and the study title will yield a link to a PDF of the actual paper.)

I can vouch for the fact that swearing occurs normally during development, as is evidenced by the fact that at the age of 4 or 5 my answer to the question “What are you doing?” was, “Takin’ this shit to the garbage.” Ah, memories.

 

*Possibly the most well-recognized being “making the beast with two backs”.

 

So tell me this, readers: what’s your favorite curse word?

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