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Monday, 12 November 2012
Reasons Why We Curse

A few years back, the universality of swearing and curse words in all human languages attracted the attention of Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. In his book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, Pinker theorizes that the purpose of using swear words is to impose negative emotions on the people to whom we are talking, while stimulating primitive parts of their brain unbeknownst to them. Curse words appear to activate the brain’s right hemisphere more than the left, the basal ganglia (for generating them) and the amygdala (for perceiving them).

Of course, the words used to trigger negative emotions vary from culture to culture, but the most effective curses are associated with religion, excrement, or sexuality, or with ethnic minority groups. Pinker also believes that people use curses for not just one but many reasons: for example, to deliberately shock by avoiding euphemisms (he says that English has 34 euphemisms for the word “shit”), to intimidate or humiliate, to draw attention to something, or to express the informality of a situation.

We also curse when something unpleasant happens to us, and Pinker cites three possible explanations for this behaviour. Cursing may be a way of “blowing off steam”, or the human way of expressing the “rage circuit“ (like a wounded animal that roars to scare off its attacker), or, since swearing has a highly cultural content, simply a way of effectively signalling to the people around us the negative emotion that we are experiencing.

But in light of a recent study at Keele University, in the United Kingdom, we may have to add a fourth possible reason for swearing: to increase tolerance for pain. In this study, subjects were able to keep their hands submerged in ice-cold water longer if they cursed repeatedly at the same time. And the subjects who did not normally use foul language were much more likely to experience this painkilling effect!

The team that did this study believes that swearing triggers the “fight-or-flight” response, accelerating the heart rate, for example, and possibly promoting the secretion of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers.

d_lien Swearing can help relieve pain, study claims
i_lien Video: Steven Pinker – The Language of Swearing
i_lien WHY WE CURSE. What the F***?
i_lien The way we swear says a lot
a_lien Swearing as a response to pain

From Thought to Language | 1 comment

One comment at; “Reasons Why We Curse”

  1. […] Nature, whose explanations about the origins of swearing and curse words have been summarized in another post in this blog. In this RSA Animate lecture, Pinker draws our attention to the fact that language always does two […]