Spoon-fed the belief from youngest years that certain words are categorically bad, I find myself as an adult who daily plays with words wondering how this curious idea began. The taboo. The “badness” of select words can have nothing to do with the combination of sounds; one language’s swear word is another language’s polite invitation to dinner. It is the context of those sounds that constitute a swear, a cuss, a curse. Forbidden words. The sanctions against such words generally come from religious specialists who know the hidden power of human utterances. Even magic words trace their ancestry back to religious elocutions. In a report sure to be condemned by many religious groups, the journal NeuroReport has announced this week, according to the Los Angeles Times, that cussing makes you feel better.
In a controlled experiment involving ice water (shudder), participants who swore in response to the pain were found to have higher tolerance to discomfort compared to those who suffered in saintly silence. Those writing the report theorize that flight-or-fight response may be triggered by angry expostulation, giving cussing a survival advantage when used judiciously. I had previously read reports that suggested swear words, different for each language, were societally determined and were intended to freeze action (without ice water) in a similar way to a lion’s roar. Indeed, apart from those who habitually cuss, thus cheapening the effect, an inappropriate word is often enough to get the attention of a room full of people (not that I would know).
No matter what their psychological origins, taboo words exist in every culture. Whether they are intended to hurt or help is a matter of theoretical perspective. There is no question that these words possess the power to give pause. I am reminded of a former student who had gone on a missionary trip to a part of the world where Indo-European languages were not the norm. Introduced to a young Christian woman who had a name that sounded to English-speaking ears like his host (a bishop) was suggesting he commit an immoral act with himself, said student turned red with indignation. Months later, safely back in North America, he remained scandalized by the experience. In their context those sounds meant nothing inappropriate – so swearing is in the ears of the beholder. Before you decide to use this curative, however, be aware that the study reveals the best results in pain control apply to those who generally do not swear. Many of those I have worked with through the years would perhaps find a non-swear word far more helpful in stopping pain than their everyday vociferations.