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The value of foul language

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Profane language has its virtues, new studies show.

Profanity has been almost universal in human cultures since time immemorial. Colourful swearing and cursing have persisted in virtually all civilizations and scientists have concluded the conspicuousness of verbal obscenities throughout history is due to outstanding health and survival benefits.

According to anthropologist Ashley Montagu, the use of derogatory, malicious, spiteful and blasphemous words and expressions is a time-honoured tradition of ancient origin. Vulgar language dates to at least the time of Ramses III (ca. 1170 BC) in ancient Egypt, the early Greeks and Romans and in early Chinese dynasties. Some individual curse words are thousands of years old.

Researcher Timothy Jay at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts has suggested profane language persists because it is passed along from generation to generation from the culture's past.

According to Jay, "dirty" language includes: swearing, obscenities, profanity, blasphemy, name-calling, verbal aggression, taboo speech, vulgarity and slang, most of which are frowned upon in polite society.

But, recent research shows that uttering profanity has huge health and other benefits.

"Cursing definitely helps alleviate pain," concluded Richard Stevens at Keele University, adding swearing makes injured people feel better. His research shows people perceive less pain while cursing.

Unsavoury language, particularly certain four-letter words, not only increase pain tolerance but also ease emotional stresses.

According to Jay, cursing is "offensive speech" that is usually controlled by the brain. But, certain emotional states impact on the brain's ability to inhibit the uttering of curse words.

Colourful epithets are often blurted out when people are confronted by rude objectionable intrusive behaviour in others: discourteous operation of a motor vehicle by another, pushy behaviour; people who muscle ahead of others in a lineup. Under such circumstances, conflicting urges are generated. Offended individuals vacillate between polite toleration or interceding with overt physical aggression (not only to end the offensive behaviour, but to punish it as well). Road rage is a typical result when drivers perceive intolerable conduct by other motorists.

According to researcher Peter Marler, when an individual is confronted with a conflict situation, in which physical attack or backing-off politely are possible alternatives, "displacement" behaviour often occurs. As an example, consider a heated conversation between two individuals; when anger is generated by displeasure, one of the two, instead of striking the other, instead slams a hand down on a nearby table. Anger is vented, not against a human, but against another object. The likelihood of overt striking of blows is thereby lowered.

So it is with profane language, researchers suggest. Emotionally powerful words or emotionally harmful expressions mitigate and alleviate the urge to strike people who are deemed to be behaviourally offensive. In that way, physical force and possible injury are averted. Anthropologists postulate that the uttering of obscenities under "fight-or-flight" circumstances avoids physical confrontation; emotionally satisfying language eases the urge to physically punish intrusive offensive conduct. This mitigating influences has survival value in human societies, researchers suggest.

People, when offended by rude intrusive behaviour in others, experience a decrease in their own self-image. Researchers explain that in order to elevate a deflated self-image it is necessary to counteract the offensive act in some way. Unsavoury language achieves restoration of the former self-image without resorting to physical force.

Researchers confirm that although the use of profanity spans most cultures, there is not a great deal of uniformity in actual curse words or expressions among different cultures.

Some researchers have suggested the topic of profanity in human cultures is not fully understood, because there is a research taboo that has precluded extensive research up until now.


Robert Alison is a Victoria-based wildlife biologist and writer with a PhD in zoology.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2011 A13

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