What Do Your Swearing Habits Say About You?

“Swearing” is the use of taboo language. The paradox is that while swearing is the use of words that are unacceptable, it is also ubiquitous. It is also not new; humans have probably been swearing as long as there has been language to swear with. These days surveys tell us that approximately 58 per cent of people swear “sometimes” or “often” and only less than 10 per cent swear “never” or “rarely”. Usually, it is the word itself that is the taboo and not the thing it is referring to. It is fine, for instance, to talk about sexual intercourse but the word “f–––” is considered severe swearing by 71 per cent of people. Of course, like all of language, swearing has evolved over the centuries and the path of that evolution is damn interesting.

Bloody common language

Swearing is a very ancient human practice. There is evidence that the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all cursed, with a popular Roman curse being “By Hercules!” Dr Amanda Laugesen is the author of Rooted: An Australian History of Bad Language, and in the book she notes, “What is considered most potent changes across time, although taboo has often focused on the religious (hell), the sexual (f—), and the excretory (sh––). More recently racial, sexist, and other discriminatory epithets have become our most taboo and controversial terms.”

Historically, we know that swearing was done just as much by the nobility as by commoners. For instance, Queen Elizabeth I was a famous swearer who apparently favoured the colourful curse for the time, “God’s wounds!” which, in later centuries transformed into “Zounds!”.

Australians have perpetuated a notion of themselves as having a special relationship with swearing, but Laugesen suggests that this is a myth. What she does acknowledge, however, is that “We [Australians] are certainly renowned for our creativity with words and idioms, and this extends into the realms of the offensive.” This is supported by a list of The 100 Rudest F–––ing Things Australians Say compiled by the website Buzzfeed in 2016, which included obscenities like “cunning as a sh––house rat”, “hair like a bushpig’s arse” and “not here to f––– spiders”.

So, swearing has been around forever, has evolved in form and performs many social functions, but are we now at a time when swearing is more widespread than ever before?

Signs of the times

Anecdotally, swearing is becoming more prevalent in society. People feel that we are swearing more, but that may relate more to the fact that swearing is more commonplace now in our popular media. A more generalised measure of this is the use of profanity in popular media. In 1939 the producers of the immortal film classic Gone With The Wind were fined $5000 for Clark Gable’s confronting blue language in the line, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!” What made the line so shocking and profound in 1939 was that “damn” was taboo because of its religious connotations. In the decades since 1939 our perception of what makes a word too profane for broadcast has changed.

In 1970 the film M*A*S*H became the first American film released by a major studio to use the word “f–––” and from there, with the mirror broken, things evolved rapidly. By 2013 the film The Wolf of Wall Street, which has taken more than US$400 million, contained more than 500 uses of the f-bomb. Television has taken a while to follow suit, after all it is a part of the family home, but it is wasting no time in catching up to its big brother, the movies. There is a three-minute scene in the first series of the show The Wire where “f–––” is the only word uttered, and it is uttered 38 times. In fact, “f–––” is such a common word in entertainment these days that writers and directors have had to push the envelope further for effect, and our screens now frequently feature use of the previously unused “c–––”. In the charmingly innocuous comedy series Episodes featuring no less a pop-culture icon than Matt LeBlanc and stiffly British upper lip stars Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig, the main characters use the c-word glibly and for comic effect.

While swearing in media may be creating the impression that swearing is proliferating, Laugesen believes that swearing in general is not becoming more common; it is just changing. As we have seen, swearing has always been part of communication; what is changing is the words that we use to swear. According to Melissa Mohr, author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, in the Middle Ages, “The c-word, for example, was found in medical texts, in literature, in the names of common plants and animals, in the names of streets and even in surnames.” Mohr also reports that although in medieval England the real obscenities (such as “by God’s nails”) had a religious flavour there were also words that meant the same thing as “f–––” for instance, but which have fallen out of favour. “Sard and swive were the medieval equivalents of the f-word,” wrote Mohr.

Timothy Jay, professor of psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, has observed that all competent English speakers learn to swear and that swearing makes up about 0.5 per cent of their daily word output. Research done by Jay has shown that children start swearing at about age two and have adult-like swearing by age 11 or 12. Whatever you may think of swearing, it is incredibly common and embedded in our history and psychology.
It also has some very real effects.

Swearing and your body

Richard Stephens of Keele University in the UK has done lots of research in the swearing space. In one piece of research published in the journal NeuroReport, Stephens and colleagues found that people could keep their hand in ice water longer when they used swear words compared to bland adjectives, indicating that swearing has the capacity to increase pain tolerance.

In another study, Stephens had people complete a short but intense session on an exercise bike after either swearing or not swearing. A follow-up was to get people to do an isometric handgrip strength test again after swearing or not swearing. The findings were that swearing led to increased power on the bike in the first test and increased strength in the second.

Stephens’ work shows us that swearing has real physical effects, and recent work of his goes a step further in looking at which swear words are more powerful. In a study from 2020 that was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Stephens asked subjects to use either the word “f–––” or the made-up words “fouch” or “twizpipe” to moderate how they could deal with a cold-water bath. The results showed that people who used the word “f–––” had a 32 per cent increase in pain threshold and a 33 per cent increase in pain tolerance. Both “fouch” and “twizpipe” yielded no benefit at all, which was twizpiping disappointing for those participants.

The fundamentally utilitarian effect of swearing is probably why it has persisted for millennia and, fascinatingly, on top of these physical effects swearing also reveals quite a lot about the person who swears.

Swearing and personality

According to Jay, extroverts are more likely to swear as are Type A personalities (those who are competitive, time urgent, stressed and more disposed to aggression). Research has also shown that people who are conscientious, agreeable, sexually anxious and religious are less likely to swear. This all fits with what common sense might tell you, but there are also some surprising findings that have come from the research.

A perception has been that swearing is more common among people of limited intelligence and that it is used to mask a restricted vocabulary. Jay has conducted research refuting this, where he asked people to come up with as many taboo words as they could in 60 seconds. He also had the subjects do some verbal fluency tests and found that those who were the most proficient at swearing were also the most generally verbally fluent.

Swearing was also the topic of a study in the journal Archives of Physiotherapy in 2022. The main purpose of the article was to point out that the pain-relieving effects of swearing can be used in the clinical physiotherapy setting. In their discussion of the scientific literature around swearing however, the authors (Nicholas Washmuth and our friend Richard Stephens again) noted that, “Swearing may also be a sign of intelligence, is associated with less lying and deception at the individual level and higher integrity at the society level and may be a sign of creativity.”

The link between swearing and honesty was highlighted in a study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. The study was based on more than 75,000 Facebook users and found that people who used more swear words were also more likely to use language patterns that have been shown to correlate with honesty. A possible explanation for this is that swearing is often used to express unfiltered and sincerely held feelings.

In the end, swearing seems to be part of human nature, has real effects and reveals a lot about us as individuals. Some of those effects are physical but others are psychological. It might just be that the major benefit of swearing lies in it being an act of rebellion, throwing off thought shackles and saying “F––– you!” to the controlling corrals of convention.

Article Featured in WellBeing #204


Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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