Expression in Expletives – Are They Useful?

  • Some folks find it deeply satisfying when they use expletives.
  • Can swearing always mean throwing an insult or could it just be cathartic?
  • Profanity seems the in-thing.

Mark Twain wrote, “There ought to be a room in every house to swear in,” because “it is dangerous to have to repress an emotion like that.” We learn early in life that profanity is to strong feelings what blaring horns are to a tornado– the body becomes conditioned to physically respond to it. “Your pores open and you start sweating. Your heart rate increases. Your pupils dilate,” says Benjamin Bergen, who teaches classes about profanity at the University of California, San Diego.

Profanity is socially offensive language, which may also be called curse words or swearing (British English), cuss words (American English and Canada), swear words, bad words, crude language, coarse language, oaths, blasphemous language, vulgar language, lewd language, choice words, or expletives.

The swear words addiction starts early:

Parent: “Why didn’t you attend school today?”

Child: “I hate f***ing school. I hate my f***ing teacher.”

Parent: “Don’t talk like that.”

Child: “Why not? You swear, too.”

Notice the child doesn’t even know what those words imply; they are just ‘aping’ their parent. Swearing is a child’s immature and ineffective way of dealing with frustration. They are ‘cursing in general, not on a personal level. Emma Byrne reveals in her book Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language, that even people with neurological conditions that cause them to lose the ability to speak regular words are still able to swear. Swearing can offer emotional catharsis and improve productivity. Her hope, she writes, is that we “might give it the respect it f***ing deserves.”

Art and Literature portray the rude language of everyday life. For instance, Philip Larkin says in This Be the Verse:

They f..k you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do

They fill you with the faults they had

Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls is a very R rated book but Hemingway had censored himself. He substitutes the words “obscenity” or “unprintable” in ways that leaves the intended word clear. Or he uses a word that rhymes with the intended word. In a moment of frustration, a character rants beautifully for most of a page with a “oh, muck my grandfather and muck this whole treacherous muck-faced mucking country and every mucking Spaniard in it on either side and to hell forever. Muck them to hell together…” and there is plenty more where that came from. A passage makes one read it for a second time, substituting the intended words this time for full effect.

Used in this sense, profanity is language that is generally considered by certain parts of a culture to be strongly impolite, rude or offensive. It can show a debasement of someone or something, or be considered as an expression of strong feeling towards something.

Hank Green of Vlogbrothers says, “You can think of swear words as being stored in our brains as units of emotional expression. Almost like a laugh or a scream or crying. It blurs the line between linguistics and emotion.” It is never the words, actions or judgments that causes the greatest harm. It is the motive of the behavior that welds the greatest weapon, be it jealousy, anger, love, joy. Most of the public doesn’t use taboo words in anger. They are innocuous or produce positive consequences ( e.g. humor elicitation). It is said people who swear are more honest– if you don’t shy away from profanity, then you don’t shy away from much else, including being straight with people.

In anger or in pain, the usage of four-letter words can be more involuntary. Ever notice when you stub your toe and involuntarily utter an expletive in pain? In joy it can be softly indulgent and sometimes humorous or loving (“F***, you are ravishing!”) It can be used to intimidate others as well as to stress points and be persuasive (“sh** man, I’ve worked so hard on this, please just follow up”). Throwing a gross insult designed to humiliate is actually likely to escalate anger and lead to violent or other disruptive behavior as the insulted person tries to repair his/her feelings-often by “getting even.”

A study published in 2011 found that swearing can increase your ability to withstand pain. Researchers hypothesized that cursing can activate your body’s release of natural, pain-relieving chemicals that have a similar soothing effect to drugs like morphine.

Singers like Kanye West, LiWayne, and A$AP Rocky are praised for singing songs that contain extremely offensive and unnecessary language. Profanity seems the in-thing in sports such as tennis; Andre Aggasi, John McEnroe, Serena Williams amongst others have been reprimanded for their foul mouths. Is it the passion and intensity of these games that ensures that expletives fly in disappointment, rage or frustration?

The other day I was watching standup comedy on TV. The audience were laughing uncontrollably as the comedian kept using the choicest of colorful cuss words. That intrigued me. Does comedy rely on profanity? According to one observer, “since humor is defined as a veiled attack or disguised hostility, then vulgar language can be a device to communicate genuine feelings.”

Seinfeld, one of the greatest sitcoms, revolves round Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer, who never grow, never change, never adapt. They merely are and their lives are less the stuff of art than accretions of the sort of niggling details art traditionally avoids– the petty annoyances, minor scuffles, and bits of personal housekeeping that form the barely audible background hum of mundane existence. “A long boring story with no point to it,” at least as we generally understand “points.” Its plots don’t arc; its characters don’t develop. The show’s unofficial mantra was “no hugging, no learning.” The comedy was sex and swear-free and it stuck to it assiduously for its nine seasons. Seinfeld’s material is never edgy or obscene; this gives it staying power.

At a charity boxing event, Justin Trudeau said “your name, your fortune, your intelligence, your beauty – none of that f***king matters,” and it went viral instantly. On the other hand, though the f-word may offend, it no longer shocks anyone who hasn’t been hermetically sealed in a room without TV or Wi-Fi for the last 25 years.

The four letter swear word “f***” is used and deployed differently. During the past it hung out with assorted ne’er-do-wells, who delivered it for shock value or emphasis. Today, it doesn’t pack the same punch, the piquancy is somewhat lost. But this word will never waft into oblivion. It has spread among demographics. Is this security blanket that says, “I have to use something different and explosive to get people’s attention” really doing its job?

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Madhavi Vudayagiri

Writing and reading has always been my hobby. I would never buy a greeting card to wish a family member or a close friend, instead I would compose a poem highlighting their qualities and greet them. Having been in the field of teaching, studying people is what I do best. Creative writing is my forte, in order to hone my creative gene, I acquired a diploma in creative writing. I love to probe people's minds and try and understand their thought process. This website seems to be just what I am looking for!


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