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Swearing: Says Who?

By Maryann Makosiej

Artwork by Maryann Makosiej

We’ve all been there. One second you’re walking on your jolly way and the next? Cursing like a sailor over a stubbed toe. The next day? You forgot a whole class in your schedule and remember three hours late. Your response? A slew of expletives and an apologetic, harried email to your TA. Profanity, vulgarity, you name the synonym and I’ll tell you the vice--swearing!

The origins of cursing are complex and run through a number of theories. J.J.M. Vingerhoets, author of “Swearing: A Biopsychosocial Perspective,” said that some anthropologists regard growling and grumbling as a primitive form of cursing. It was meant to reduce threats and the stress our ancestors felt in the moment. The theory is called catharsis, and while controversial, it is the idea that swearing evolved in humans as a “Plan B” to immediate attack. Its use both stymied the energy needed to meet an attack and intensified the need for further communication. A 2007 study on the neurobiology of swearing (Vingerhoets 2013) recognized the so-called “rage circuit” in the brain. It’s an area in the brain, specifically in the amygdala, adapted to handle sudden, emotional situations. Whether we use vulgarity for catharsis or not, the evidence suggests that it’s a tool literally hardwired in our brains.

Over time, as our language became more complex, so too did our ways in which to curse. Today, vulgarity can be grouped into five categories: descriptively, idiomatically, abusively, emphatically and cathartically. Swearing, as any old part of language, is highly contextual--it matters if your boss versus your friends are in the room. Generally speaking, swearing is often more tolerated in more informal settings (Vingerhoets 2013). It’s more okay to curse in front of your friends than in your professor’s office. The reason? In more formal contexts, the act of cursing may lead to a reduction in social status or rank. Curiously, the study showed that individuals tend not to curse in a professional context, in the presence of authority, or in front of someone of opposite sex.

Swearing seems to serve many individual and societal functions. On an individual level, there’s evidence to suggest that it reduces stress, inhibits aggression (remember that “catharsis” effect?), and even increases confidence. On a population level, it's all about context. In some instances, swearing is anticipated and even encouraged as a means of expression based on societal and cultural norms. For example, bad-mouthing a mindless rule or bad boss might help you get in with the regular employees. Collective swearing here is often seen as an act of solidarity and a means of which to take part in group identity. In other situations, such as in a more formal work space or in front of authority, it’s seen as an example of poor emotional regulation and even evidence of a lack of credibility (Vingerhoets 2013).

The difference between one situation and the next is often the result of who exactly is having the conversation. Where you weigh in on a scale that measures geography, age, religion, social class, sexual and gender identity, and culture makes a huge difference in how you interpret a conversation and navigate a space.

The purpose of “Swearing: A Biopsychosocial Perspective” is to examine a common but sometimes taboo part of the human condition. A lot of people curse a lot of the time and the reasons to do so are incredibly varied--express annoyance, provide a comparison, exclaim, emphasize a thought, etc. The common threads, however? Swearing is a part of our language that is used to express emotion in a highly contextualized way. We curse as a response to the world around us and within us. The next time you stub your toe, forget an assignment, or especially emphasize a thought, remember that your quick response is often a huge commentary on the ways in which you interpret the world.


Vingerhoets, A., Bylsma, L., & de Vlam, C. (2013, February 13). Swearing: A Biopsychosocial Perspective. Retrieved from

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