Consider cuss words, also known as curse words, swear words, profanity, bad language, and what not to say on television. Most psychologists use taboo words, a term so nonjudgmental that it seems to pass judgment on those who would call them anything else. But however we reference them, the fact remains that they intrigue and disgust, insult and—rather surprisingly, in some circumstances—assuage us.
Why do psychologists bother studying the language of the gutter? Well, as Timothy Jay, a professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, puts it in a 2009 review (available on his website, and very worth your time), swearing is ubiquitous: “we say taboo words as soon as we speak and we continue to swear into old age even through dementia and senile decline.” And we do so at a rate of about one taboo word per 200 words. This rate, however, differs dramatically among age groups (swearing peaks in adolescence), between genders (men swear more often and more offensively), and most importantly and perhaps obviously of all, from one individual to the next.
All taboo words are not created equal. Nor are they equal-opportunity offenders. It remains unknown precisely how children acquire the nuanced contexts for a given expletive. In a sense, this is a problem children face for every word in their vocabulary. But with taboo words the stakes seems higher—and the studies undoubtedly harder to come by. What parents are going to sign up their toddler for a study with “cussing” in the title?
In any event, we know that by the time said toddler is old enough for college, his memory for taboo words in psychology experiments is excellent. Taboo words tend to be emotional words, and emotional things attract our attention and keep it. (That is why those “where were you when” moments follow tragic or inspiring events, never mildly disappointing or merely pleasant ones.) The distinctiveness of taboo words also helps us remember them. In many contexts—church, classrooms, and dare I say psychology experiments—we simply don’t expect to encounter swearing. So when we do, it stands out. Thus, changing the context in which swearing occurs can change how we experience it. Were we to read a list chock-full of taboo words (the experimental equivalent of, say, watching Goodfellas), we’d be less likely to remember a given zinger than when reading a list full of neutral words (the experimental equivalent of watching Babe).
Some researchers have even suggested—and here things get more controversial—that taboo words have a hold on us that goes beyond their emotional impact or distinctiveness, that we evolved to use and attend to taboo words as a survival strategy. What else, Jay observes, can “intensify” communication more efficiently than a well-placed Fuck you?
Alternatively, though not incompatibly, we may swear simply because it makes us feel better. In a 2011 study led by Keele University’s Richard Stephens, researchers measured how long participants would keep a hand in a container of freezing water. On one trial, participants repeated a swear word of their choice. On another trial, the same participants immersed their hand without cursing. (Sometimes the no-cursing trial occurred first, sometimes second). When cursing, participants’ heart rates increased, as did the amount of time they were capable of withstanding the freezing water—from about a minute to a minute and a half. But the swearing-as-painkiller method, though intriguing, becomes less effective with repeated use: this “swearing benefit” is largest for those who swear least.