What Makes a Word Profane?

George-CarlinLife is demanding, it may not always be but it has its moments, and from time to time that demand builds up and makes us feel stressed. This can because of too many things on the go or just something that needs to get done but you have been leaving on the backburner. There are many pervasive things that cause stress and then there are other things that are more individual, for some that is meeting the in-laws while for others it is doing a speech in front of a crowded room.

Generally speaking stress is exertion, mental or physical, that is overly demanding and if exposed to it for long periods of time can cause major health issues. HelpGuide.com says:

“Long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, contribute to infertility, and speed up the aging process.”

Now all of this may sound stressful in of itself and albeit it somewhat is, but did you know that swearing can relieve stress and pain?

In a study performed by researchers at Researchers at Keele University, in Staffordshire, England it was shown that swearing or using offensive phrases while under painful or stressful situations reduced the pain or stress the individual was feeling. This is because, the researchers hypothesised, swearing sets in a type of flight or flight response within the brain reducing the effect that the pain or stress has and allowing people to increase their tolerance level.

One researcher, Dr. Richard Stephens, described the study’s results and its connection to human language thusly: ”Swearing has been around for centuries and is an almost universal human linguistic phenomenon. It taps into emotional brain centres and appears to arise in the right brain, whereas most language production occurs in the left cerebral hemisphere of the brain. Our research shows one potential reason why swearing developed and why it persists.”

The relief one gets when using bad words is called Lalochezia and it comes from cathartic swearing. Cathartic swearing is the use of bad words for an emotional release of some kind and it is one of the five forms of swearing that were outlined by Stephen Pinker when discussing the topic of cursing in language in his book “The Stuff of Thought”.

Five Forms of Swearing:

  1. Abusive swearing – for abuse or intimidation or insulting of others. This is the usage that swearing is normally associated.
  2. Cathartic swearing – when something bad happens like coffee spilling, people curse. One evolutionary theory asserts it is meant to tell the audience that you’re undergoing a negative emotion.
  3. Dysphemistic swearing – Exact opposite of euphemism. Forces listener to think about negative or provocative matter. Using the wrong euphemism has a dysphemistic effect.
  4. Idiomatic swearing – swearing without really referring to the matter.. just using the words to arouse interest, to show off, and express to peers that the setting is informal.
  5. Emphatic swearing – to emphasize something with swearing.

Each type of swearing has its own purpose and is utilized to convey a specific meaning although some are more relevant and useful than others. Just like any other element of language it has its place within the language itself and is a recognized part of that language even if it is obscene and frowned upon.

It is because of this lack of social acceptance that swear words gain their power and their meaning. Every bad word has its socially accepted counterpart and yet we still need those words to convey a specific meaning which cannot be found in its counterpart.

How then does a word go from being a regular word that is used every day to something known as profanity?

This answer is different for every language as it is based in its history. For English it comes down to the original speakers of the language. During the infancy of the English language there were two major groups who were broken into classes. There was the Saxons who were in the lower class and talked with a Germanic language and then there was the upper class which was made up of Normans who spoke a Latin based language.

These two groups built the English language through their interactions and over time the two separate languages amalgamating into one. But while this was happening the two languages were still very much separate and because the lower class’ language was more Germanic in roots it gave birth to English words which were not as sophisticated and more guttural in nature. While on the other hand the words that came from the Latin roots, which were spoken by the ruling class, developed into more refined words which were treated as proper forms of their Germanic equivalents.

Both sides could develop a word that was defined in the very same way but because of its roots its connotation was established and denoted. Many if not all of the swear words we use today are the consequence of the separation of classes and come from the Germanic side of the fence while the words that represent the same thing but are socially acceptable are Latin in roots.

George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” is probably one of the most famous examples of swearing as it brings together seven of the most socially unacceptable words, but that was back in 1972 when you could be arrested for saying such words, which Carlin was when he performed the bit at Summerfest in Milwaukee. Today, most of those seven words can now be heard across all forms of media. On twitter alone, every second 22 of the words Carlin said could not be said on television are tweeted out into the world to frolic in all their glory.

Swearing is changing and evolving which makes logical sense as the English language itself evolves over time. The words we use today for swearing will more than likely change and we will more than likely see the rise of new swear words which do not exist in today’s language. We cannot say for certain whether or not a word will be viewed as profane in the future or what words will arise as profanities but one thing that is for certain is that swear words will always play an integral part in language.

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