Linguistic myth #2 Swearing shows a lack of intelligence, morals and a limited vocabulary

Warning: if you object to swearing and ‘foul’ language you should probably stop reading now. On second thoughts, -read it. It might do you some good.

According to the website “cuss control” Swearing is bad for the following reasons:

Swearing Imposes a Personal Penalty 
It gives a bad impression
It makes you unpleasant to be with
It endangers your relationships
It’s a tool for whiners and complainers
It reduces respect people have for you
It shows you don’t have control
It’s a sign of a bad attitude
It discloses a lack of character
It’s immature
It reflects ignorance
It sets a bad example

Swearing is Bad for Society
It contributes to the decline of civility
It represents the dumbing down of America
It offends more people than you think
It makes others uncomfortable
It is disrespectful of others
It turns discussions into arguments
It can be a sign of hostility
It can lead to violence

Swearing corrupts the English language
It’s abrasive, lazy language
It doesn’t communicate clearly
It neglects more meaningful words
It lacks imagination
It has lost its effectiveness

Now I can’t be entirely sure that this website isn’t a Poe, (can swearing really have ‘lost it’s effectiveness’ while also possibly leading to violence?) but there are certainly people with a strong dislike of what is often called “bad language”. It’s a real shame in a way that some bad language has such a ‘bad rap’ since as Melissa Mohr’s  new book “Holy Sh*t” illustrates swearing is one of the most fascinating parts of language. The book details the rich history of swearwords, and the title is a clever nod to the (up to now) two most popular topics for taboo language, namely the sacred (holy) and the profane (shit).

Mohr’s book begins with Roman swearing and she shows, through the types of insults people used, what a profoundly different view of sexuality the Romans had to us. She notes that sexually ‘passive’ people (female or male) were considered worthy of ridicule and adds that accusing some of performing (but not receiving) fellatio or cunnilingus would have been “the worst of the worst, the most obscene most offensive things you could say in Latin”(2013:37) Yet these words have somehow become our most polite words for the act. This is perhaps a testament to the prestige that Latin has among English speakers. 

She goes on to detail how, the notion of ‘worst’ has historically swung between the religious and the physical. It is interesting to see how bad language can act as a barometer of morality. In the religious middle ages, swearing an oath on some part of God’s body, such as God’s bones was the most taboo thing you could say since it was believed that god actually suffered an injury when His name was taken in vain. Ironically (from our perspective) at the same time words like piss, shit and cunt were perfectly acceptable, -and in fact where we get street names like Sherborne Lane (Shite-burn-lane) and Gropecunt lane, a name which was at one time as apt, for it’s purpose presumably, as ‘church street’.

Swear words are in fact one of the most fascinating parts of language, a point testified by so many people’s desire to learn the ‘bad words’ of a foreign language first. profanity has power, as Mohr notes  “swearwords are the closest thing we have to violence without actual physical contact” (2013:225). But their power doesn’t stop there. Scientists have recently shown that swearing can actually reduce pain (except among those who swear frequently). Swear words are also stored on a different side of the brain to the rest of language and subsequently people with aphasia despite not being to speak can still swear. As Mohr notes, those with dementia will often lose the ability to speak, but retain the ability to swear.

As to the idea that swearing shows a lack of intelligence and a limited vocabulary well, as Mohr notes “It is probably true in some cases that people who swear frequently are uneducated and with impoverished vocabularies and imaginations…but it is important to remember that these attitudes were brought to us by the same people who declared that it was a sin to boldly split an English infinitive“(1013:209) what we’re probably seeing is a correlation, not a causation:

But perhaps the greatest mystery is why politicians, editors, and much of the public care so much. Clearly, the fear and loathing are not triggered by the concepts themselves, because the organs and activities they name have hundreds of polite synonyms. Nor are they triggered by the words’ sounds, since many of them have respectable homonyms in names for animals, actions, and even people. Many people feel that profanity is self-evidently corrupting, especially to the young. This claim is made despite the fact that everyone is familiar with the words, including most children, and that no one has ever spelled out how the mere hearing of a word could corrupt one’s morals (Pinker -‘What the fuck, why we curse)

One interesting point that Mohr brings up is that the most taboo language in society is not longer the religious or even the physical. The F-word and even the C-word have been superseded by the N-word. I found it rather reassuring that the society I live in considers racial insults to be the worst expletives. 
So swearing relieves pain, is among our most descriptive language, builds social bonds, creates humour and expresses emotion. It’s also incredibly versatile and can perform most grammatical functions.  Dismissing swearing, or even worse trying to get rid of it is to ignore the vast depth of cultural significance hidden by the grawlix (@#$%&!).

You can listen to an interview with the author on the excellent lexicon valley podcast.