Why do we swear?
‘Rude awakenings’ – the NewScientist Christmas article – tells of a man who has spent 20 years trying to answer that question.
Keele researcher Richard Stephens has shown that shouting expletives whilst in pain allows people to tolerate more. Subjects put their hands in an ice bath and their pain was rated when they swore or didn’t swear in response. Interestingly the generally less avid swearers got most pain relief from swearing, whilst bilingual subjects got more relief from swearing in their mother tongue. Stephens offers the explanation that the use of strong language may be associated with adrenaline release as the body deals with or prepares itself for pain.
It’s an interesting thought. I often swear when I’m in pain, but till now I’d never really questioned why. Mentioning this to my hospital pharmacist mother, she told me the two places famous for swearing where she works are labour and cardiovascular emergency wards. Going into labour a woman knows she’s in for a lot of pain, as will most patients having a heart attack (if they’re not in it already). Having volunteered on a maternity ward, I’ve heard my fair share of colourful language from soon-to-be mothers and fathers.
It turns out swearing is linked to more primal brain parts such as the amygdala and the basal ganglia, whereas politer speech is linked to the cortex; a more developed area.