Why we curse

Languages all over the world contain expressions that are implicitly avoided in polite conversation, says Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. But people use them anyway, sometimes in the most unexpected situations. There they do their work, intensifying emotion and eliciting unwanted reactions beyond their listeners’ control. In his exemplary book, “The stuff of thought: Language as a window into human nature,” Pinker offers five different contexts in which people use taboo language.

The first is the descriptive use. “Sometimes for the sake of narrative vividness, sometimes out of anger, we use taboo words to convey how vile something is.” The sentence “He was pissed” communicates a displeasure that is not quite captured by the alternative “He was angry.”  One reason for this, says Pinker, is that the use of such language, “which forces a listener to think about disagreeable things, is mildly aggressive, so it fits with the other trappings that men in rough-and-tumble settings brandish to advertise that they can inflict and endure pain…”

The second is the idiomatic. This function is related to the first—we sometimes use vulgar speech to communicate informality, familiarity, or coolness. This is particularly so where the available alternatives may sound euphemistic, prim, or affected. “I wanna pee” is certainly a more direct statement of a need among friends than the decorous “I want to go to the washroom.”  Perhaps the Filipino expression “Nagkaleche-leche” for something that went very wrong might illustrate this point more clearly, though it’s not easy to see how milk can have any relation to a fouled-up situation.

The third is the emphatic use. As in the first two functions, there are expletives and taboo words that are sometimes inserted in sentences, lending color and power to the rest of the statement, to intensify feelings. If something can be described as “awesomely” or “achingly” beautiful, one can imagine how a person with a more colorful vocabulary can express the same effusiveness with words like “fuckingly brilliant.” According to Pinker, the Irish celebrity Bono promptly got into trouble after he uttered this phrase on national television at a Golden Globe Awards presentation.

The fourth is the abusive function. This is where expletives and taboo words do much of the work for which they were crafted. Says Pinker: “There are moments in everyone’s life when one feels the urge to intimidate, punish or downgrade the reputational stock of some other person.” It seems so long ago when the most common English expletive deployed to express disgust at a person was “Damn you” or its variation, “Go to hell.”  Over the years, such expressions have lost their sting. Today, they cannot possibly convey the same powerful charge that is ignited by the more contemptuous expressions “Fuck you” or “Screw you.”

Taking his cue from the work of neuroscientists, Pinker muses that verbal outbursts could be ‘the evolutionary missing link between primate calls and human languages’

The last function of profane language, says Pinker, is cathartic. Something about the way our brains are wired induces us to let out salty expressions like “Dammit” or “Oh, shit” as reflex cries of distress. One might miss an important turn in the road, and blurt out “Shit!” Or let out a loud “Yuck!” after stepping on fresh dog poo.  But these days, a younger generation might use just one word to express any form of disgust or distress: “Fuck!”

Writes Pinker: “Faced with a sudden challenge to our goals or wellbeing, we inform the world that the setback matters to us, indeed, that it matters at an emotional level that calls up our worst thoughts and is at the boundaries of voluntary control.” Taking his cue from the work of neuroscientists, Pinker muses that verbal outbursts could be “the evolutionary missing link between primate calls and human languages.”

According to neurologists, dirty words that may have been rendered dormant by the culture of correctness reside in an older and deeper part of the brain, the right hemisphere. Pinker cites research done on patients who have been reduced to inarticulateness by a condition known as “aphasia.” Even as they have lost the ability to name pictures, produce coherent statements, or understand sentences, they retain the power to curse, or to use taboo words and epithets.

Some people may have noticed this among their loved ones who are going through the terror of dementia. There are moments when they fall into a mood when nothing but foul speech comes out of their mouths—almost as if the devil has taken over. “It’s not that the right hemisphere contains a profanity module,” writes Pinker, “but that its linguistic abilities are confined to memorized formulas rather than rule-governed combinations.” The scientific explanation is indeed more complex than this. “The right hemisphere may be implicated in swearing for another reason: it is more heavily involved in emotion, especially negative emotion.” Like distress or pain.

In courteous society, the resort to expletives and profane language instantly stigmatizes the user. “They are annoying to the listener,” notes Pinker, but even more, they are “a confession by the speaker that he can think of no other way to make his words worth attending to.”  Unfortunately, “it’s a fact of life that people swear.”

In the last election, we saw how swearing, when used to full effect, could establish instant rapport between a speaker and his audiences. But, there are good reasons, other than moral, why dirty language needs to be avoided in public discourse. Some words are easily recognizable to a given speech community even when they may have no concrete meaning. They summon the deepest emotions and the most divisive resentments. They hurt.