Shucking Oysters: F Bombs
By Alex Allen
Both my parents swore a lot when I grew up. In fact, my mother was more prolific than my father. This can be explained by the fact that my mother was a bit of a klutz (as I). She couldn’t open the kitchen cabinet without hitting her head. Sh*t! Trip on the carpet and drop something. Sh*t! I would hear this expletive often as my mother carried on her day. “Damn” was my father’s favourite and equally enjoyed by my mum too. My father liked to slam doors in anger as well. To say that I came from a family of emoters is putting it mildly. Naturally, swearing is one of my family heirlooms, and according to science it’s A-OK.
I swear a lot driving on the highway. It’s my primal scream therapy time. I don’t know what it is, but I seem to be flypaper to irritating, oblivious drivers. The one’s doing 60-70K in 80k zone. F*ck. The incessant braker. F*ck. The truck with trailer that pulls dangerously in front of me even though there is no one behind me for miles. Jesus. Research has proven that swearing is good for me, but not for my partner apparently. She thinks it’s childish. I’ll show her.
Used appropriately and responsibly, it turns out that my sporadic outbursts are a good way to process “the chaos of being human in a world where much isn’t under our control.” That’s it. It’s things I have no control over that get to me. “Swearing can have a truly liberating effect when we’re feeling bottled up with frustration. Saying the F-word, or similar, can have an immediate calming impact on the difficult emotions we might be experiencing,” wrote Dr. Raffaello Antonino, psychologist and clinical director and founder of Therapy Central.
A 2015 study found that well-educated people were better at coming up with curse words than those who were less verbally fluent. Participants were asked to list as many words that start with F, A or S in one minute. Another minute was devoted to coming up with curse words that start with those three letters. The study found those who came up with the most F, A and S words also produced the most swear words. People that are good at language are good at generating a swearing vocabulary.
A series of studies published in 2017 found a positive link between profanity and honesty. People who swore lied less, and had higher levels of integrity overall. While a higher rate of profanity use was associated with more honesty, the study cautioned that “the findings should not be interpreted to mean that the more a person uses profanity, the less likely he or she would engage in more serious unethical or immoral behaviours.”
Swearing is good for your endurance. People on bikes who swore while pedaling against resistance had more power and strength than people who used “neutral” words, studies have shown. Research also found that people who cursed while squeezing a vice were able to squeeze harder and longer.
Another study in 2020 found people who swore when their hand was put in a bucket of ice-cold water lasted 40 seconds longer. The S-word and F-word were used by many of the subjects to good effect. “[S]wearing helps you cope with pain,” said Dr. Richard Stephens, Psychobiology Research Laboratory, Keele University in England. “Swearing is drug-free, calorie-free, cost-free, and side effects-free, so why not try it?” he added.
Stephens says he has some as-yet unpublished research to suggest that the intensity of the swear word matters too. If you hit your finger with a hammer, you may well feel less pain if you yell “Sh*t” instead of “Shoot.” “It does seem to be that the stronger the swear word, the more effect it has.” Like some things Stephens warns, moderation is key. “We found that the people who swear the most in everyday life got the least benefit from swearing,” he said. “So, you know, don’t overdo it.”
According to Emma Byrne, author of Swearing Is Good for You, profanities are a fundamental part of our language, performing a vital role in our development. Citing several not always entirely relevant scientific studies, she makes the case that taboo words act as a kind of pressure valve, allowing us to let off steam rather than, say, punch somebody’s brains out.
Byrne’s contention is that without swearing we would have to rely on biting and gouging and throwing sh*t. Swearing allows us to express our emotions symbolically. As Byrne wrote, “Swearing is like mustard; a great ingredient but a lousy meal. We need that part of our language to keep its potency, its slightly risky nature, otherwise it wouldn’t be swearing.”