Weaving our red minivan down the highway, my mother beat on her horn and muttered strange things under her breath. My brother was too busy reverse-engineering her phone to notice but I took note of every word and repeated my collection at the dinner table. When words like “f**k” and “b**ch” came out of my mouth, my parents widened their eyes and asked where I acquired these, what I learned to be, forbidden words. My parents tucked me into bed that night with the cold threat that there would be hell to pay if I perpetuated these terms, terms whose meanings I did not even know. It is a story that took place in the households of my peers and my parents’ peers before me. But, in spite of the warnings of parents and teachers and elders across the nation, swear words are a fixture of American culture. The unique reasons for swearing, its evolving meaning, and the ever-changing rules of proper conduct elucidate why people consider such words so taboo and why their fears may not be as founded as they would have their children believe. They explain how “bad” a “bad word” is.
When my parents warned me not to curse, they never seemed to consider why they had inadvertently taught me this forbidden tongue in the first place. My mother never seemed to wonder why she felt the need to express her driving frustrations in the form of obscenity. According to Massachusetts College psychologist Timothy Jay, my mother swore because, “cursing is a coping mechanism…a way of reducing stress.” It is a means through which people “vent or express anger, joy, surprise, happiness” (Angier). NeuroReport corroborated the therapeutic nature of swearing in its study of how long college students could submerge their hands in cold water with and without swearing. 67 volunteers were able to endure an average of 40 seconds more when they cursed, even reporting less pain (Joelving). It is a phenomenon that occurs daily when people stub their toes or bite their tongues, one that shows their simian roots. Frans de Waal, professor of primate behavior at Emory University, observed chimpanzees grunting and spitting as a means of expressing rage and diffusing the urge to fight. He soon found that this response was akin to human swearing (Angier). It is, according to Harvard Psychologist Steven Pinker, “a defensive reflex in which an animal that is suddenly injured or confined erupts in…an angry vocalization, to startle and intimidate an attacker” (Joelving). When people and ape alike feel threatened, instinct overwhelms reason, adrenaline fires through the body, the threshold for pain rises in turn, and they express their emotions through nonviolent means (Joelving).
Swearing, then, is not typical language as psychologist Richard Stephens says (Joelving). It is the reason why many “aphasics [people who struggle to interpret language] can use stereotypical language more fluently – meaning they can sing songs or swear fluently” (Wen). Researchers have discovered that “unlike normal language…expletives hinge on evolutionary structures buried deep inside the right half” of the brain. Swearing activates the amygdala, a “group of neurons that can trigger a fight-or-flight response in which our heart rate climbs and we become less sensitive to pain.” This elevated heart rate was evident in the 67 volunteers of the cold water experiment (Joelving). People have but assigned words to their primal urges, complex sounds for the “verbal fighting” in which their ape counterparts participate (Olson). My parents should not have forbid this natural response. They should have accepted that swearing is a symptom of their base instincts and that I would employ this coping mechanism like so many of my kind.
People have been swearing since the beginnings of language 5,000 years ago (Angier) because it is cathartic (Olson), but also to express comfort. Cursing is a “human universal” (Angier) and when people choose to defy the deep-rooted laws of society, it is to express that one’s emotions or level of comfort are more important than expectation. Dr. Kate Burridge, Chair of Linguistics at Monash University (Allan, Burridge), explains that swearing is “a way of saying: ‘I’m so comfortable here I can let off steam. I can say whatever I like’” (Angier). The word n***er, a once “highly offensive racial insult,” took on an endearing meaning among the black community as early as 1925 even though blacks still consider its use faux pas among other communities (Hughes). The word bad, once a derogatory term for an “effeminate man,” took on an ironic use in the 1890s, often in the form of “bad n***er” (“Online Etymology Dictionary”). The use of these taboo terms in social circles redefines their meaning and binds people, a grammatical indication that they are so close that social law is irrelevant, “an undeniable part of how we create camaraderie” (Olson). As Dr. Burridge says: the closer one is with his or her friends, “the more relaxed [he or she is], the more [he or she swears]” (Angier). The profanities people look down on are more important to relationships than they give credit.
“N***er” and “bad” are not the only words whose meanings have evolved. As long as language is in use, it will change as each culture in each time period redefines its values. My parents, for example, told me there would be hell to pay if I repeated swears like “f**k” and “b***h.” Ironically, hell could be considered just as much an obscenity. It depends on who one asks. Hell was “considered so bad back in the 17th century that [it] was often spelled with dashes” (Tsai). As researchers report, “what counts as taboo language in any given culture is often a mirror into that culture’s fears and fixations” (Angier). My parent’s generation was not as afraid of Hell as their ancestors were. “Oh, golly,” something I have heard pious elders like my grandmother say all my life, was once a swear evoking the crucifixion of Jesus, a contraction for “God’s body” (Angier). These now emasculated curses have lost their meaning because people continue to reevaluate their fears and fixations. This loss in meaning is evident in swearing’s origins. According to Dr. Guy Deutscher, cursing originates “from the profound importance that ancient culture placed on swearing by the name of a god or gods.” In Babylon, swearing by a god expressed certainly against lying and, conversely, “swearing falsely by a god would bring the terrible wrath of that god.” In the Bible, one of the ten commandments of God ordains that people not “take the Lord’s name in vain” (Angier). A curse, then, was blasphemy, a defiance of the higher powers with whom people trusted to rule their lives. But, it was worse than defiance. It was an assault on their almighty rulers, one that would injure the deities themselves (Vsauce). This fear motivated people to invent contractions as substitutes. Shakespeare, for example, used “zounds” and “sblood” in place of “God’s wounds” and “God’s blood” (Angier). Cursing draws its forbidden meaning from religion, but, as cultures have redefined their values, the meanings of their curses have changed.
Hundreds of year later and the bulk of people have forgotten the origins of many of their expletives and their link to religion. Such change follows history. By 1930, for example, 140,000 Japanese immigrants had migrated to the United States and were dubbed “Jap[s],” inoffensive at the time (Hughes 261). But, once the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the term became a slur referring to “the treacherous enemy” (Hughes 261). It soon became a verb meaning “to sneak,” a nod to Japan’s surprise attack (Hughes 261). Even Hollywood films adopted the term as a slur against the United States’ Japanese enemies (Hughes 262). United States General Norman Schwarzkopf recalls that, during his World War II childhood, calling someone a Jap was “the worst thing you could call anyone.” But, by 1970, years after the war ended, interviews with students showed that the term had lost this connotation (Hughes 262). The generation following Schwarzkopf’s did not witness the bombing of Pearl Harbor and did not feel the weight of the United States’ war with Japan. It had no motivation to think anything malicious of an abbreviation of Japanese. Every culture and “every person interprets what is to be considered offensive” (Olson). It is the conclusion Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart came to when he attempted to define profanity in 1964 and it is the same conclusion to which people will continue to come as more and more generations argue the tenets of proper conduct.
However, that does not explain why terms like n***er and bad have lost their original meanings while b***h and f**k still carry the same sting. The fact is, “[t]he emotional potency of the curse is diluted as it’s used more and more” (Olson). It is all thanks to the unique way in which cursing activates the brain. Cursing originates in the amygdala, the component responsible for processing emotion and memory. Neuroscientists from Weill Medical College of Cornell University found, in 1999, that this component is “highly active when exposed to swear words” (Olson). But, as the brain hears or uses these expletives more and more, it acclimates. The terms no longer evoke the shock they once did. As Linda Lewis-White, education professor at Eastern Michigan University, says: “Once you demystify a word and bring it out in the open, it loses its power” (Llana). B***h, “from the Old English term bicche” (Hughes 23), has not yet become commonplace. It was once innocuous, meaning female dog, until people equated the term to a promiscuous woman, an extension of a “b***h in heat.” Francis Grose, in 1785, called the term “even more provoking than that of whore” (Hughes 24). Dr. Kate Burridge explains the effect: “Once a word becomes too closely associated with a specific body function, once it becomes too evocative…[;] it starts to enter the realm of taboo…” (Angier). Forbidden speech is a reflection of the subjects which make people uncomfortable and people are uncomfortable with their bodies. It is why b***h has not lost its meaning even as it adopts new uses like its verb form meaning “to complain” (Hughes 24). F**k has followed a similar course. It dates back to the “16th century Norwegian word ‘fukka’ and Swedish ‘focka,’ meaning ‘to copulate,’ or have sexual intercourse” (Olson). The term is now “in the top 3,000 most spoken” words (Hughes 194) because it has lost potency. These terms have outlasted most of their forbidden brethren because of their overuse and their, what most would call, uncomfortable subject matter.
Unfortunately, schools are struggling to understand the evolution of curses. Two schools in Hartford, Connecticut instituted, in 2005, a $103 fine for “uttering profanity on school premises” (Llana). Administrators made the controversial move because they wanted “no-swear zones” (Llana). There is some substance to these schools’ measures. Parents believe they are sending their children to a safe institution where they are only learning about history and math and writing, not about the latest profanity and not about something they fear will harm their children’s “psychological and moral development” (Pinker). Educators want to maintain a safe environment for students and parents. It is why no parents complained when 40 tickets were issued for use of profanity on school grounds in 2005 (Llana). Many students even welcome such rules like those organizing a Profanity Awareness Week in South Carolina who called the break from swearing “really pleasant” (Llana). But, with “60 percent of Americans [reporting] they swear in public,” it is difficult to shelter students. In fact, schools are seeing an increase in vulgar speech because, according to Greenville, South Carolina district spokesperson Oby Lyles, “schools mirror what happens in society” (Llana). They mirror the, “58 percent [increase in profanity] from 1997 to 2001 during television’s primetime ‘family hour,’ 8-9 p.m.” (Llana). Is it then, “fair to punish students who simply mimic the phrases they hear from their favorite sitcom stars, their parents, and sometimes, even their teachers?” (Llana). Is it fair to punish a student for adopting his or her culture?
Boca Raton high school Principal Geoff McKee believes the answer is rewriting profanity policy to reflect cultural changes (Llana). The solution is ambiguous, but he makes an important point that “Really good kids were saying stupid things…without representing a threat” (Llana). Students should not have license to curse whenever they please, but educators and the rest of society need to understand that swearing can only be judged on the basis of intention. People need to understand whether someone is attempting to alleviate their pain, express their comfort level with a friend, use the language with which they are familiar, or whether the intent is malicious, whether, as some kids worry when their parents curse, “[that] they will get divorced or hurt each other” (Snow). I remember muttering the word b***h to express my frustration at a friend. She was appalled. I had heard my father use the term as he would idiot or dummy. I learned that, to my friend, b***h was a term for someone worthless. Shakespeare, too, sees confusion. His play “Much Ado About Nothing” is a play on “Much Ado About an O Thing,” the O thing being female genitalia (Angier). He is not insulting women but making a statement about his story’s focus on relationships (“Much Ado About Nothing Plot Overview”). Schools should not penalize students because of the evolution of language or a child’s ignorance to his or her parents’ culture. People should not live at the mercy of others projecting their backgrounds because, oh, golly (excuse my tongue), people have different interpretations of the same words.
That is not to say that people should swear flippantly. They should be mindful of their audience, that a church will not respond well to “God damn it” and that a woman will not respond well to “b***h,” but not be fined for such speech. The United States Senate should not have considered a “$500,000 [fee] per crudity broadcast” (Angier) because everyone’s definition of swearing differs. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) encountered this ambiguity when a federal court challenged its policy on swearing. The Supreme Court backed the FCC’s policy (Pinker), finding that profanity, like all language, is constantly redefined by time period, culture, and the individual. Swearing’s value, then, can only be determined in context.
When my parents, like the parents of the students in Hartford, Connecticut, told me that f**k, b***h, ni**er, and a host of other swears were forbidden, I smiled and nodded. I did not stop using them as my parents instructed and, as the course of history has shown, it does not seem I was meant to do so. I was meant to exercise the full extent of my language, my culture. As much as parents, schools, the United States Senate, and federal courts would like to silence swearers, they cannot stop the use of this valuable tool. They cannot stop its cathartic use or its unique relationship to people’s instincts. They cannot stop its use to indicate a close relationship. They cannot stop its evolving meaning, one over which generations argue. They cannot stop its expression of an emotion no other word can capture. They cannot stop an element of culture that has grown up alongside humanity. Is a “bad word,” then, “bad” or a misunderstood facet of human language, one that has grown up bad?