What the F@%$ – Profanity in Language

By Patience Kelly

Literally, profane means outside the temple, and originally had religious connotations, involving “desecrating what is holy”, and representing blasphemy. In English, most swear words have Germanic roots, and documents of swearing in the Bible go back to as early as 1611. An average person uses profane language anywhere from 0% to 3.4% of our spoken words, outnumbering even our first person pronouns (we, us, our) which is used about 1% of the time. Swearing can help neurologists make a distinction as to whether someone has Alzheimers or frontotemporal dementia and according to some, may help anger management. But those who look at language and psychology can all agree. Cursing is a human universal.

While difficult to define, all profanity offends, with varying levels of offensiveness or severity and brings into question things like free speech and freedom of the press, that is, what exactly can be said on tv or the radio. But arguably, profanity is the most powerful words of all. They have direct lines to emotion, and allow you to express your pain or purposely offend. Perhaps most importantly of all, they prove words have power. Power to be spanked as a child, or chastised as an adult, power to be banned from tv and radio, and of course the power to offend, and be offended. Another theory also states that profanity is actually rarely meaningless

Follow just about any click bait website and you’ll see ‘studies’ that prove swearing means you’re dumber, or swearing means you’re more honest, but in one experiment, research showed that the one thing swearing probably could do was help you endure pain. Students were asked to submerge their hands in freezing water for as long as they could, one group was allowed to use profanity and the other used neutral words, one that they might use to describe something, then the groups were allowed to switch types of words. 73% of the students who swore were able to keep their hands submerged for longer. Around 31 seconds to be exact. The study speculates that swearing may produce endorphins within the body.

New questions have emerged in the digital age, such as whether one can swear through emojis, and this adds to the already somewhat tumultuous world of profanity. What is swearing’s purpose in society? Does swearing have grammar? Do men and women swear differently? And if so, how? The one thing that is definite, is that profanity will continue to be something that is debated, and questioned ad nauseam.

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