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The Good Side of Bad Words

A psychologist on why swearing can be beneficial to your health


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In the video above, Catherine Caldwell-Harris explains why the eff those terms we all know, and most of us use, are not necessarily effing bad.

Swearing is unlikely to make the desired impression on in-laws, but it could be good for your blood pressure. That’s the suggestion of recent research revealing that the use of four-letter words can relieve stress, ease pain, and build camaraderie.

Catherine Caldwell-Harris, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of psychology, is familiar with swearing, and even has become a recognized expert.

Eager to expand our own vocabularies, BU Today caught up with her and asked a few questions about how bad words can be a good thing.

BU Today: Can you describe your research on taboo words and swearing?

Caldwell-Harris: Between 1999 and 2003, I mentored a postdoctoral student from Turkey. I saw her learn English to proficiency in my laboratory.

One day we were joking around, and at one point when no undergraduates were around, we used a double entendre or an off-color phrase and she laughed along with us. We were surprised, so we turned to her and said, “Your English must really be improving, because you clearly know what we are talking about.”

She declared, “I can tell a sex joke in English, but I cannot tell a sex joke in Turkish.”

So we were all like, “What is going on here? What is it about using taboo words or sexual references in your native language versus nonnative that makes a difference?”

It seemed obvious that when you use taboo words in a language that is not your most proficient, they might not have the same emotional impact. So we started reading the literature and found that bilingual speakers in particular were saying they did not feel as much emotion when they used swear words in their nonnative language.

The idea I put forward is that swear words in a foreign language are a little like play money. You can use them without paying the emotional price.

So the study we developed was to use skin conductance — a physiological measure of emotional response — to try and demonstrate that when you hear taboo words in your nonnative language, your skin conductance amplitude is reduced. And that’s what we found. The overall finding is that there is reduced skin conductance in your nonnative language, not just for taboo words, but a host of emotional expressions, like endearments such as “I love you.”

My other taboo word study is with monolinguals. The insight we had in this study is that there is something with swear words that grabs attention — they are almost impossible to ignore. We used a technique from cognitive psychology called depth of processing. People were asked to read a study list of normal words (not emotional words) and process them either deeply or shallowly. With normal words, you remember them better when you process them deeply. Swear words are so emotional and attention-grabbing that they force you to process them deeply.

You’ve mentioned that swear words can build camaraderie in the workplace. Why?

When you are not allowed to use swear words and cursing, it puts a damper on your ordinary social activities with your peers. You feel constrained, sort of like your parents are admonishing you to speak correctly. The ability to freely express whatever comes into your mind in normal social interaction is a way of having control over your everyday life.

What did the latest research reveal about swearing and pain reduction?

Swearing allows people to vent, to blow off steam, and it could be seen as catharsis. On the other hand, one of the criticisms I have of the study is that it could simply be distraction. There are numerous studies showing that many things improve pain tolerance, like meditation, smiling, or holding hands with your romantic partner.

What are some of the wrong reasons to swear?

I think it’s helpful to think about why we are using these taboo phrases. Is it because we are seeking to relieve tension or is it to rile other people, show off, or take a special stance of “I’m cool” or “I’m an outlaw” or “I’m rebellious”? If your use of swear words is one of the latter, you need to think about whether that is helping your relationships.

Do you swear?

Like almost anyone in North America, I routinely use the full gamut of four-letter words in everyday conversations with my spouse, my siblings, my friends. But I’m in an interesting situation, where I’ve also been heavily socialized to be a professor. And I know that even when I’ve used a word like “shit” as an expression in a classroom situation, I see looks of horror on my students’ faces. So I’ve felt to some extent that I should not be using any expressions that are even slightly off-color around students.

So a dilemma was presented when I began researching taboo words. Like all psychology professors, I work with a team of undergraduates. We needed to discuss the linguistic stimuli — the four-letter words. I was not comfortable saying them with my research assistant. So it led to a lot of laughter and humor, where I was shown to be old-fashioned and restrictive, and while we ended up using common euphemisms, I don’t even want to say them in this conversation.

Who comes up with swear words?

When researchers study language change, one idea is that young people change the language. Teens in particular are thought to be the originators of new swear words. One thing I would like to know more about is what new swear words are coming on the scene. I’d like to leave it to our readers and viewers to post some comments to see if they think that they or their friends have actually originated any new taboo words.

Edward A. Brown can be reached at ebrown@bu.edu.


14 Comments on The Good Side of Bad Words

  • Anonymous on 01.11.2010 at 11:02 am

    Any two of the following three words around teenage males:

    “Twilight.” “Edward.” “Jacob.”

  • Car 1 on 01.11.2010 at 3:07 pm

    Having a “Trucker” mouth is not acceptable!

  • Barbara Malley on 01.11.2010 at 9:39 pm

    swear words

    Caldwell-Harris notes that people are more comfortable swearing in another language. An example of a comfortable word in French is “merde,” which I learned to my surprise, decades after first seeing it in novels, is the French term for shit. I had assumed it was like saying “Murder!” It sounded harmless enough, but when I subsequently asked a French woman in our duplicate bridge group if “merde” meant “shit,” she flinched noticeably, and it wasn’t because I had used the word shit.

    There are things that happen in our lives that can have no other response, or as my sweetheart in the 70s put it, “It’s one of those things you say shit to.”

    When I recently dropped a large glass jar of dill pickles on my kitchen floor, out came that indispensable word. I’m still picking up the small remaining shards that exploded as far as my carpeted hall. However, another bridge friend, Lucille, said she would never use such an ugly word, no matter what happened in her kitchen. I asked her how she felt about “merde,” and she didn’t flinch.

  • Treevee on 01.11.2010 at 10:39 pm

    At 50 yrs. old, I unfortunately had to move back “home” with mom and have had to refrain from profanity out of respect. Funny thing, I really don’t miss it and feel no different. In fact, when I now hear my younger sister swear, it sort of makes me a bit squeamish! I guess I feel that if something really pisses you off or hurts you bad, go ahead and swear, but many people are just plain potty mouths and that’s what I just can’t see.

  • PK on 01.12.2010 at 9:27 am

    What is Nelia saying at the printer?? It sounds like “Kah-dung!”

  • Anonymous on 01.12.2010 at 12:04 pm

    Who says?

    I would like to know who deems these words unacceptable. And why is fuck ten times more likely to get you in trouble than shit or hell?

  • Danvers dame on 01.13.2010 at 11:23 am

    I remember when our 11th grade english teacher described the agricultural origins of the F-word to the class. She used it half a dozen times in its original context but we all still winced, grimaced and smirked at this authority figure saying such a meeping word.

  • Jemimah on 01.13.2010 at 1:29 pm

    it's fine...if you do it properly!

    Swearing, that is. If someone says a word they feel uncomfortable with, then it sounds bad. If their delivery is natural and without self-consciousness, however, I’m okay with it. Personally, I swear with relish unless I know it’s going to bother someone. But it’s funny, growing up we weren’t allowed to say “pee, poop, piss, butt, gut, crap or lie.” And to this day, those words bother me and I never use them.

    On a note about swearing in your nonnative tongue: I had a roommate from Italy who thought nothing about saying “shit” very heartily, but she was under the impression that if you call someone a jerk, you were saying something really, really bad! I finally set her straight on that, and we had a good laugh.

  • Gabby on 01.13.2010 at 2:47 pm

    amazing photo! hope she’s yelling at the new yearbook staff! ;)

  • Anonymous on 01.13.2010 at 10:54 pm

    Fucking awesome!

  • Prof Caldwell-Harris on 01.14.2010 at 12:28 am

    Check out Steven Pinker's book to read more about swearing

    Thanks to the commenters for sharing your interesting experiences of swearing.
    Writer "Who says" asks "why is fuck ten times more likely to get you in trouble than shit or hell"? In his book The Stuff of Thought, Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker answers this and myriad other questions about swearing. One of his points is that in prior, more religious eras, the most powerful swear words were related to religion. So "Go to hell" was wishing on someone a very feared experience. Swearing was "cursing" using language as a performative act that would have a type of magical action. As "hell" and "damnation" lost their emotional force due to social change over the 21st century, sexually-related taboo words came to be experience as more forceful.
    Pinker notes that "Damn you" actually makes grammatical and semantic sense, while "Fuck you" does not. He uses this observation to argue that "Damn you" was the original powerful curse phrase (in English), with "Fuck you" being recruited as a replacement term when damn declined in emotional power.
    Check it out:
    http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/books/stuff/index.html – Prof. Caldwell-Harris

    • Accerryedunty on 03.15.2010 at 4:23 pm

      cursing. it’s not just for sailors.

  • Cis on 01.20.2010 at 1:05 am

    brilliant clip

    Nothing punctuates like a good God Dammit or a drawn out Ceeooock Seeuucker like from Deadwood.

  • Anonymous on 01.27.2010 at 10:59 am

    Cursing, can be good just dont over use it.

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