Let’s talk swearing

We detect an odd theme in some news offerings this morning: Cursing and the science surrounding it.

First, MoneyWatch at CBS News contends that cursing can get you ahead at work, providing an interview with Benjamin K. Bergen, professor of cognitive science at University of California San Diego and the author of “What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves.”

He reveals that a changing demographic is also changing what constitutes an obscenity.

People who are middle age or older generally find slurs to be offensive but not to the same degree. The strongest “f” word, according to millennials, is not a four-letter one, which actually is the 10th worst one according to them, but a three-letter one, a slur for homosexual people.

Another example is the word “retard.” Nowadays it’s in the top-10 list of most offensive for millennials. They don’t want to hear it and find it completely inappropriate.

Bergen claims you can get ahead in the workplace with a little casual obscenity.

That depends on the circumstance. Usually it takes a lot of energy to be super-creative with profanity. Unless I’m trying to impress someone, I usually don’t focus on that. In the workplace, “s***” I find a really useful word. If you ask millennials, it’s like the 50th-worst word in the language. It’s not offensive at all.

That I find is a good entry point. It’s a good first salvo — “Hey, how do you feel about us talking casually.” It gives the feeling of rolling up your sleeves. In the workplace, like most relationships, you’re in this dance trying to figure out what each of you is comfortable with.

In its essay on the subject today, The Guardian considers whether those who speak a second language are less emotional about obscenities.

It’s a research project of Wilhelmiina Toivo at the University of Glasgow, who is measuring the challenges of speaking a second language, even fluently. “While your language skills can be more than adequate, not being able to fully structure your surroundings through language might leave you feeling alienated; not a part of the society you live in. Or perhaps you are perceived as rude or socially awkward for using the wrong words in the wrong emotional context,” Toivo writes.

Toivo theorizes that it’s much easier to swear in a second language.

Many bilinguals report “feeling less” in their second language; it does not bear the same emotional weight as your native language. Feeling less emotionally connected to your second language might make it easier to use highly emotional vocabulary, which is precisely what I was experiencing with my ease of swearing and talking about sensitive topics in English. The scientific term for this is reduced emotional resonance of language. It is a fairly well-established phenomenon, but many specific questions still remain unanswered. For example, what exactly makes one’s second language less emotional? How does this affect different immigrant communities? My research project aims to address these questions by looking into the reasons and implications of reduced emotional resonance in bilinguals’ second language.

It is still unclear what exactly shapes emotional resonance of a language and in what way – results thus far have been inconclusive. In the first part of my project, we are exploring which factors in a person’s language background contribute to reduced emotional resonance. For example, is it influenced by the age at which you have learnt your second language? Does it matter how frequently and in which context you use the language? Or is your emotional experience of a language predictable from whether you dream or can do maths in it?

Toivo says she found swearing very uncomfortable when growing up, but when she moved to Scotland, she found it much easier to swear using English.

From this sort of research, we can learn more about the power of language “Language is so much more than just a communication device; it is a way to understand the world around us, defining our reality and what it actually means to be human,” Toivo says.

For her essay, Toivo was awarded the top prize in the writing competition for social research, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council last week.

Related: Three bloody good reasons to embrace swearing (ABC Online)

This Is Why People Keep Adding “Please Do Not Swear” To Their Facebook Profiles (BuzzFeed)

  • Considering I use the “F bomb” as I do a comma, this may be good news.

    • Rob

      Effin’ A right!

  • MrE85

    I make it a policy not to use swear words in comments or in social media. I find it is possible to communicate w/o them.

    • jon

      I don’t usually swear in the written word… much more fun to come up with more elaborate ways of expressing disgust and hurling insults, or just keep it all cold and logical and wait for people to see their own mistakes (which some times backfires as they continue to not realize their own mistakes… id10ts…)

      But in the spoken word, I’ve been known to curse at work, I’ve toned it down since my last boss (a conservative evangelical pastor on the side) and opted for acronyms instead… saying W.T.F. aloud is weird, and frustrating… but it beats the reactions from saying the actual words. The military offers some nice options with snafu and fubar… and the use of those with the nato alphabet* will actually garner more respect from some older people as they assume you’ve served in the military…

      *I did phone support, and a large portion of that is reading letters and numbers over a phone connection, nato alphabet comes in handy there, and occasionally changes the tone of the conversation immediately once you get past the first 3 letters…

      • It’s always fun to see who uses SNAFU and FUBAR at my workplace and learn where they picked those up. For me, it was the defense contractor I interned with while in college.

        • MrE85

          My drill sergeant worked in profanities like other artists work in oils or clay. I could never match him, and I have never tried.

          • Al
          • MrE85

            Indeed. They say the medium is the message, and we certainly got the message. That was likely the late Darren McGavin’s greatest role. I don’t know if you say your father in his character, but I sure saw my dad. Uncanny.

          • Al

            I don’t, but I think that’s a product of the times; he was a father in the ’80s. But from what I gather, neither was his own father, who was a kid magnet (elementary school custodian).

          • MrE85

            My father had, to put it mildly, “anger issues.” His brothers did as well, as did my fraternal grandfather. I have tried, with limited success, to break that cycle. It’s one of the reasons I never had any children.

          • Al

            Children are always wonderful and usually infuriating.

        • jon

          Couldn’t tell you where I picked them up… I never served in the military, but as a millennial so many of the older male generation around me did.
          My father was drafted during vietnam (deployed to panama) my uncle drafted and sent to vietnam, my grandfather was in Europe in WWII…

          So there are all good potentials for having heard the words, but none of them would have told me their meaning… maybe I looked it up later on in life… Maybe I picked it up from books at some point…

          I was certainly familiar with a fair amount of military slang that had applications in civilian life by the time I got to college and the ROTC people thought they were being clever using military slang…

      • RBHolb

        A co-worker used to use what he called “Dagwood Bumstead swearing” in e-mails. Where an offensive term would go, he typed in a few symbols (“%$#&!”). He said it was more effective, since the reader’s imagination could always fill in something worse than whatever he was thinking.

  • Sometimes perfectly benign words fall victim to our disdain for near-sounding slurs. Examples that come to mind are “niggardly”, which is definitely one to avoid given its likely connection to a racial slur, or retard as in “to avoid that misfire, you might try to retard the timing…”, or “an interest rate hike will retard growth…”. The context usually gives one cover using “retard”, but “niggardly” used to describe a penny-pincher is really treading on thin ice since the context is less clear.

    • Barton

      I recently used the word “snickered” to describe the way someone was laughing. Sadly, it was heard as the other word, and no amount of contextual explanation of what I actually said calmed the situation down, even though of the 5 people in the conversation, only one misheard/misinterpreted what I said.

      • Rob

        What other word are you talking about?

    • RBHolb

      Interestingly, “niggardly” has no etymological connection with the racial slur. It comes from a middle English word for “stingy.”

  • Al

    Millennial here. I’ve thought a lot about how I’ll address this with my kids, given that I love a good curse word now and then. And then again and again and again…

    Swearing gets a reprimand and a reminder to not use the word. (At least until they’re old enough to use it properly.)

    Slurs or racism? THAT’S when the hammer comes down. Not in my house, kiddos. HELLLLLL NO.

    • 212944

      A well-placed, well-chosen profanity is the work of a clever mind, IMO. Usually when I hear profanity, it is just sad; though there are times when it is simply brilliant. But it is usually about context as well and there are times when even brilliant use is simply poor form.

      Slurs and racism are – or attempt to be – forms of punching down, which is always far more vulgar in spirit and action.

  • Rob

    Hell of a good post, Bob C.

  • Jay Sieling

    I wonder if any of this research has uncovered a connection between dementia and swearing. My father in law turns 84 this week and has been declining quickly these last four years. He was a relatively quiet man and never swore. Ever. My wife and her brothers can not recall a moment when he ever raised his voice. Now, when he is uncomfortable or frustrated he goes through all the words George Carlin declared unspeakable on television. We’ve heard him use them all. It’s eerily amusing to hear such language from someone that had no call to use it. I’ve heard similar stories from others who have loved ones suffering from Alzheimers or other forms of dementia.

    • I’ve heard that too, that there’s a loss of “filter” ability.

    • Rob

      Maybe he was a secret George Carlin fan and memorized Carlin’s bit about the seven words you can’t say on the airwaves…