Dropping the Bomb: Why Your Brain Wants to Swear

Profanities are a part of everyday language. Sure, when our parents are around we tend to clean it up (and pretend like we’ve never said a foul word in our lives), but for most of us swearing is a common way of expressing ourselves. If you really think about it, it’s funny how a certain combination of letters and syllables can hold such power over us. Parents want to protect their children from these utterances which in turn can make you feel guilty for using them. If you wouldn’t say it in front of your five-year-old nephew, perhaps you shouldn’t be saying it at all, right?

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The thing is, some experts point out, when it comes to profanities, we may struggle to control them because we tend to have a more emotional relationship with them. Consider this, when you hit your thumb with a hammer, your natural reaction is probably to shout “Dammit!” – or some other swear word. You don’t think about it, you don’t ponder it, you just say it. It’s why slips of the tongue are so common and why you’ve probably had more than a few cringe-worthy moments where you accidentally swear in front of a friend’s children. Using profanities comes more naturally than a lot of other language!

So why do parents work so hard to shield their children from swear words? Surely they must understand that the child will learn that language somewhere, somehow and will still be prone to using it, right? This is indeed true, however, trying to protect children from hearing profane language has more to do with teaching them context than anything else. Most parents know their children will one day swear (heck, most parents swear themselves), but children need to learn the context behind using language like this. There’s a time and a place for profane language and instilling children with a sense of taboo can help teach them restraint so that, as adults, they don’t just spew it wherever, whenever.

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But let’s return for a moment to the question of why certain words are considered taboo in our society in the first place. I mean, words like damn, shit, and fuck do actually have dictionary definitions that, when looked at from an outside cultural perspective, aren’t particularly vulgar or off-limits. For many people, what makes a word distasteful is related to two things: religious and visceral connotations. Most religions look down on the use of certain words, and it’s not just swear words. Linguistic units related to the body such as sex, vagina, or even orgasm have long been considered nearly on par with profanities. While our modern generations are loosening the ties to organized religion, it has been such a long-standing part of our culture that some of these ties are difficult to break. These traditions could explain why people may sometimes feel just as ashamed to say Goddammit as they would penis.

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Some experts believe though that profanities are a hard-wired part of being human. Just like our ancient ancestors might grunt, growl, or yowl to show frustration or anger, we now say certain words. In fact, studies done with individuals who experienced some sort of brain damage to the left hemisphere have revealed that, even when someone forgets how to build and voice sentences, they are more likely to retain the ability to swear. This is because while certain parts of the cortex may have been damaged, the limbic system and basal ganglia are still intact and these are the parts of the brain that regulate emotion – and swear words are a natural, emotional form of expression for many people.

The brilliant thing about language, of course, is that it’s constantly changing and evolving. Just because certain words are considered profane now doesn’t mean that a couple hundred years down the line they’ll still be taboo. After all, bitch didn’t take on a vulgar connotation until the early 1800s, while shit was a relatively harmless phrase for a long time after its origin. It’s we humans who take words and mold them to help express ourselves. And it’s interesting to wonder which words will be next!

Do you think swearing should be taboo or a normal part of society? Does swearing come naturally to you? Do you feel ashamed when you swear? Share your thoughts on profanities with us!

 

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