Sunday, July 06, 2008


Without meaning to pass any moral judgement on fellow bloggers, I have often wondered, why so many of them feel the need to use ‘f’ and other ‘swear’ words routinely. In fact, some of these swear words are used as mere fillers, often out of context. As many of these said bloggers are excellent writers, this cannot be due to inadequate vocabulary. There must be a deeper reason.

But, why do we need to curse, at all? And why do most curse words invariably contain reference to a sexual act, some bodily functions or excreta?

Steven Pinker dwelt on this theme in his book, “The Stuff of thought”. ( I have not read the book, just a review). Pinker believes cursing is rooted in a primordial part of our brains and swearing was actually the first form of language. He points to the fact that brain-damaged patients who lose the power of articulate speech often retain the ability to curse like a sailor. "Since swearing involves clearly more ancient parts of the brain," Pinker says, "it could be a missing link between animal vocalization and human language." So, cursing is ‘animal behaviour’. The same parts of the brain are involved when you bump your head and yell, ‘Oh f#@&!' as when you step on a dog's tail and get a very sudden howl."

An article in New York Times, titled. “Almost before we spoke, we swore” explored the same subject. Cursing, it said, is a human universal. Every language, dialect or patois ever studied, living or dead, spoken by millions or by a small tribe, turns out to have its share of forbidden speech.

‘The very concept of a swear word or an oath originates from the profound importance that ancient cultures placed on swearing by the name of a god or gods. At the same time, there was a commandment that the “Lord’s name cannot be used in vain”. So, an ever-fresh selection of euphemisms about dirty subjects has long served as an impressive engine of linguistic invention.’

‘Using PET scans of the brain, investigators have examined the physiology of cursing, how our senses and reflexes react to the sound or sight of an obscene word, and how complex an act the urge to speak the unspeakable may be. Participants show signs of instant arousal. Their skin conductance patterns spike, the hairs on their arms rise, their pulse quickens, and their breathing becomes shallow. The person is gripped by a desire to curse, to voice something wildly inappropriate. Higher-order linguistic circuits are tapped, to contrive the content of the curse. The brain's impulse control center struggles to short-circuit the collusion between limbic system urge and neocortical craft, and it may succeed for a time. Yet the urge mounts, until at last the speech pathways fire, the verboten is spoken, and archaic and refined brains alike must shoulder the blame.’

Or, perhaps cursing is a coping mechanism, a form of anger management that is often underappreciated.

A chimpanzee who is really gearing up for a fight doesn't waste time with gestures, but just goes ahead and attacks. By the same token, nothing is more deadly than a person who is too enraged for expletives - who cleanly and quietly picks up a gun and starts shooting.

So, rather let him curse and let off steam, than pick up a gun to shoot you.


Anonymous said...

that would of course lead to the question as to why exactly is fuck, asshole, shit etc.. are swear words at all.. though motherfucker, bastard etc.. might indeed insult a person's beliefs.
also, i think you have seriously misjudged the intent of the writers here.. interjecting such words does not mean they wish to insult anyone in anyway.. it merely is a token that they use to fit in with today's society and to show they are "hip with the latest lingo". it also declares their intent to pass off as a rebel in a society which shuns these words.. for example, if we lived in a society where using expletives was the order of the day , then the rebels might be the ones refusing to use any..
as far as the reasons for swearing goes, it is obviously to cause mental harm where afflicting physical harm is either undesirable or impossible. and if you want to insult someone, it is less relevant what you say.. even if you were to call a person a fool with full hatred in your voice, it would be a grave insult to him.. and the origins lie in a desire to cause mental harm.. and it cannot be differentiated from raw emotions like anger, arrogance, jealousy etc.. though a more evolved reason could be nakkal.. basically, to suggest that this is one of our more animal emotions while the majority of our emotions are more evolved, is not a v.good idea.. in fact, the majority of emotions we feel animals can prolly feel also..
i have pets and have seen them show sadness, happiness, ectasy, love, desire (esp. sexual), rage etc..

Raj said...

chokkathangam, an interesting theory. I was just quoting some authorities on the subject. Quite possible there are better explanations.