‘When angry, count to four; when very angry, swear.’ ~Mark Twain
As a writer, I find I’m often in the position to discover things about myself as I wander about in my story worlds. One of the recent discoveries is that I cuss like a kindergartener.
Seriously, I do. Kind of embarrassing that. But given that for the first maybe forty (ack!) years of my life, I never really did it, maybe I deserve a little slack.
Why didn’t I curse? Well, any one of a good number of standard reasons I suppose. But the more important thing was why I loosened up. Simple answer: teenaged sons.
Even though the boys didn’t hear a lot of cursing at home—like none from me and little from their father—they did go to school. Apparently that’s part of a standard education these days. Granted, I wasn’t thrilled with their new vocabulary, but it made me do some thinking.
I realized that if I got bent out of shape about something like that, what were the chances that they’d want to come talk to me about something really important? And if they had to censor every word they said when with me, would they want to talk to me at all?
I decided to err on the side of caution and not get twigged at every four letter word that fell out. (Mind you, there are a few that don’t fly around me, but I reserve that for things that I find deeply offensive, and they are willing to respect that.)
While the boys have given me some useful vocabulary lessons, I discovered that they really weren’t enough for my most recent writing project. Writing a military setting, I quickly realized that there was going to be a fair amount of cursing involved because that’s just how people in that setting speak.
Not one to make things simple on myself, I had to complicate the issue. A lot. This particular story series is set in a world with several different major cultures. So of course, different characters are going to curse differently according to their particular culture.
Yeah for me.
Time to Research
With no idea of where to begin, I did what any writer worth their salt would do, I started researching and talking to people. Wow, did I learn a lot.
Not just bad words, mind you, though that has been pretty fascinating, but there is something of an art form to good cursing. And there’s no better way to get a feel for it than to learn it from someone fluent.
In one of my writers’ groups I found such a gem who was willing to share her talents with me. We have a number of long group chats teaching me how to curse, and even more fun, working out appropriate profanity for the different cultures of my fictional world. And I took dozens of pages of notes.
Ok, yeah, I know, writers are just plain weird.
Since it was such great fun—I need to get out more, I know—I want to share some of the journey with you.
First lesson: Why and when do people curse? Yes, it really does show how pathetic I am at this that I would have to figure this out. But apparently, I’m not the only one as people have actually researched this and figured it out for me. Handy that. I was already to dust of my research skills and figure it out for myself.
Why we curse
So the results are in and top five reasons we swear are:
Pain relief and stress relief. Swearing activates a surge of adrenaline and a corresponding pain relief effect. In some people in increases the ability to tolerate pain. It also increases circulation, elevates endorphins and increases our sense of calm. Go figure.
Power and control. Cursing helps us feel a greater sense of power and control in difficult situation. Probably a good explanation for why people curse in traffic. Not that I’ve ever done that mind you.
Non-violent warnings and retribution. Swearing’s like my dog growling at my cats—well, really it’s more likely to be the other way ‘round, the cats growling at the dog, but I digress. It’s growling with words, uttering a clear warning that something unpleasant is going to happen if something doesn’t change. And if that something does happen, it enables us to get back at the transgressor without resorting violence.
Peer and social bonding. The willingness to break a cultural taboo and use ‘bad language’ in front of others shows we belong to a certain groups, creates an air of informality and sense of community. Who knew? Cursing’s a great source of humor, and humor goes a long way, right?
Effective communication. Apparently swear words make effective means of conveying strong feelings and grab the attention of others.
So armed with the knowledge of when my characters (and I) should swear, next step is looking and what make bad language bad—and it’s not always what you think.
What’s your relationship with bad language like? Like it or not? Use it or not? Run screaming from the room when it happens or sit there with pen and paper and takes notes (ok, well, maybe that’s just me…)
Burton, Neel. (May 19, 2012) Hell Yes: The 7 Best Reasons for Swearing. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hide-and-seek/201205/hell-yes-the-7-best-reasons-swearing
Drews ,Michelle February 06, 2016 The Science of Swearing: A look into the human MIND and other less socially acceptable four-letter words http://harvardsciencereview.com/2014/01/23/the-science-of-swearing/
Jay, T. (2009). The utility and ubiquity of taboo words. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4(2), 153-161.http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/03/30/why-do-we-swear/
Love ,Jessica SEPTEMBER 6, 2012 Could cursing be good for us? https://theamericanscholar.org/on-the-psychology-of-swearing/#.VrYfGbIrLIV