By Emma Byrne
January 23, 2018

Scientifically speaking, swearing is good for you. It deadens pain and enlivens our emotional discourse. We know that its effects are physiological as well as psychological; it raises our heart rates and releases adrenaline whether we use it. And taboo language is so fundamental to the way we communicate that even potty-trained chimps can invent their own swearing.

With so many advantages, it’s not surprising that people often ask me what the most effective swear word is, and I know my answer usually disappoints them. As with so many things in science, the answer is “it depends.”

For swearing to work, there has to be a frisson of taboo about it. This isn’t just a value judgment; experiments prove that minced oaths — the “sugars” and “fudges” — just don’t work as pain relief, nor do they offer the same catharsis to people suffering from Tourette syndrome. What’s more, we have a limited window in which to learn what constitutes “real” swearing. In languages we learn before adolescence, the swear words carve deep emotional paths. Experiments show that swear words learned early are pulse quickeners, memory sharpeners and pain killers. But no matter how diligently you study a language after adolescence, you’ll never feel the same way about its strongest components.

For the same reason, the past is indeed a different country when it comes to swearing. As social mores change, taboos shift. Words that would have caused our grandparents to have conniptions now pass without remark. In my native British English, the blasphemies barely cause a twitch of the emotional needle. Conversely, racial slurs frequently appeared in my grandparents’ nursery rhymes and books, but for my generation and beyond, the emotional payload of those terms can be devastating.

All this makes it damnably difficult to pin down the power of a particular profanity. For decades, scientists have looked for something auditory or physical in the act of swearing that explains the catharsis it creates. There has been conjecture that short words, words with powerful fricatives (“F”) and voiceless velar stops (“K”), just feel better. Sadly, the research doesn’t bear this out. We can’t design a more cathartic swear word based on its sound or spelling. Strong language earns its place though use and custom. As we grow up, we note its impact on those around us, and that gives us both the yardstick and the visceral training required to truly internalize the power of those words.

The most cathartic swear word is never going to be a universal. It’s always going to be a product of the values of the people who surrounded you growing up. In particular, it depends on the emotional responses of the people whose opinions mattered most to you when you first tried out those words. For me, it was the clip around the ear I got for calling my little brother a tw-t. For you, there will be some other emotive moment that unveiled power. Without knowing it, the laughter of a friend, the disappointment of a parent, the fury of an enemy taught you how to swear.

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