To Swear or Not to Swear: What Does Pain Have to do With it?

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My Parents (almost) Never Swear

When my six siblings and I get together during the holidays, we fall back into our childhood routines. We microwave cheese on saltine crackers for appetizers, eat mom’s chocolate chip cookies for dessert, and then talk about the three times we heard our parents swear.

There was the time dad called us jack*&#^ for being disruptive at a Cub Scout pack meeting (we probably deserved that one because we were literally bouncing balls off the walls). There was the time mom said, “Damn it!” after a speed bump caused our rear windshield to pop out and shatter on a drive back to McDonald’s because we didn’t get fries in our Happy Meals (oh the irony of crying over a Happy Meal). And there was the time the twins were fighting and scaring the little kids and our dad told the little kids to “Get their @&^* upstairs” while he disciplined the twins (I am one of the twins; I deny ever fighting).

Swearing wasn’t something our parents did, so when it did happen, we knew something was off. Something was wrong. It served as a warning to us, and probably a stress relief for them.

Swear Words and Animal Vocalizations

Animals make sounds. Vocalizations. In fact, both animals and humans make at least two distinct types of vocalizations: those expressing external emotional (think applause, warning) and those expressing internal emotional (think frustration, aggression).

Just like animals make noise to indicate anger or give a warning cry to group members, humans do the same. For example, if we see a snake suddenly slither on a hiking path, we shriek – or maybe curse in adrenaline-fueled surprise. We react and warn others. It’s natural.

But what about swear words in general? Can they serve similar purposes? Swear words don’t always warn about snakes, but like my parents illustrated at least three times in my childhood, they can warn the people around you of your internal emotional state.

Swearing vs. Cursing vs. Insulting: Context Matters

But not all swearing is created equal. Saying, “Damn it!” after hitting your thumb with a hammer is different than the 1939 quote from Gone With the Wind: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” and both of those are different than cursing at someone with an angry. It’s the same word said with a different purpose.

In his book, The Anatomy of Swearing, Ashley Montagu defines 14 different classes of cuss words, including general swearing, cursing someone, religious oaths, vulgar words, body parts, and others. And those categories don’t count euphemisms like “That was effing amazing!” or “What the heck?” Even euphemistic utterances were decried in my parents’ home (where fart was the F word we were forbidden from saying because it was “Rude, crude, and unacceptable in a mixed crowd or any crowd,” according to my dad).

Turns out, my dad was right, the appropriateness of swearing depends on the venue; taunts and aggression might be tolerated at a football game while those same vocalizations wouldn’t be at all appropriate in a kindergarten class. But when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Saint Ambrose gave us that expression in the 4th century. That advice still holds today, especially when you compare a cathedral to a cattle drive. According to the cowboys in my life, the only words cattle understand are four-letter words.

What Science Says About Swearing

Some have argued that swear words are only used by people who lack vocabulary skills, while others… um, swear such words indicate evolved thinking. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

In one study, two sets of participants placed their hands in a bucket of water and ice. The first group could only use specific swear words; the second group could use common words used to describe a table. Both groups were told to keep their hand in the ice-cold water as long as they could. Which group lasted nearly 50 percent longer? The swear word group. From this small study, the researchers found that, for some people, swearing can be a way to discharge pain.

In a follow-up study, participants experienced increased pain tolerance and heart rate when they used swear words. But the effect wasn’t lasting, and repeat usage decreased the effect. To be sure, overuse of swearing in everyday situations lessens its effectiveness as a short-term intervention to reduce pain.

Some research looks into the appropriateness of mild, moderate, and severe swearing in both casual and abusive contexts, while other research asks whether people swear more when they’re angry. Virtually all the research makes a point of asking what constitutes a swear word, and most seem to draw the proverbial line at offensive slurs and racist pejoratives. Those words don’t seem to reduce pain, only increase it (maybe physically, certainly emotionally).

Swearing Can Reveal Your Emotional State

My parents also told us that swearing was for people with a poor vocabulary (people who swear seem to have larger overall vocabularies), and that they had raised us better (they most certainly did). But what if there was more to the story than simply do or don’t? What if swear words were a way of signifying to others that you are in physical or emotional pain?

“We believe that when people use profanity they are indicating their emotional state to us, and it’s not something that people always do,” said Dr. Benjamin K. Bergen, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, for a New York Times article. “Lots of people hide their emotions for lots of reasons, and I think that we infer from someone swearing that they must not be doing that. They must be truthfully conveying their emotional stance.”

So, Should I Swear?

It seems there is definitely a time and a place for swearing. Research shows it does reduce pain for some people, and simple experience tells us it can effectively communicate someone’s emotional state. But those things can only be true when swearing is an anomaly—something out of the ordinary. If you’re constantly throwing out curse words, one more won’t effectively relieve pain – emotional or physical. Your words literally lose their power from overuse.

Talk to people in your life at work and at home. Ask them if they think you swear too much compared to other people in the same situation. The people closest to you know your specific locale well, and they’ll be able to tell you if you cuss often compared to other people. Monitor your word usage.

If you swear on a regular basis, you lose the pain-relieving effect. Your words literally lose their power. Consider drastically reducing the level at which you swear. Make swear words great again by making them special. To be sure, if you didn’t grow up casually swearing, there’s little need to start now. Unless you stub your toe. Or step on a Lego.