The real reason why swearing is offensive

Posted on 11 August 2011

Taboo words activate an ancient part of your brain. And strangely, profanities are also defiantly difficult to categorise.

By Belmont Lay

Every time you hear a swear word, a very old part of your mammalian brain that responds to threats is activated whether you like it or not.

And this could be the real reason why swearing upsets people who are in earshot of taboo language.

But let’s backtrack a little regarding this issue: Recently, a lot of ink has been spilled and digital ones-and-noughts rendered after NTU valedictorian Trinetta Chong uttered the F-word during her commencement speech and every article that subsequently appeared tried dissecting the issue in terms of context.

The usual hackneyed argument? It’s ok to use profanities in front of peers or informally, but not at a high-and-mighty grandiose setting like a graduation ceremony.

However, to buy this line is to accept naive, half-baked reasoning.

One aspect rarely or never mentioned is that your psychology and biology are also involved (if you REALLY want to talk about the full context) but I guess these aren’t the easiest subjects to write about to fill newspapers to satisfy the appetites of the moral majority.

So when The New Paper would have you believe that the F-word is becoming more acceptable in the West because people’s values and tolerance change over time and it has a bearing on us here in Singapore, they are most likely just conveying only half the truth.

And conveying it rather conveniently and narrowly, I must add.

Seriously, it’s not as if I sit around making these kind of stuff up.

You can check this out for yourself. Pick up a copy of “The Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television” by Steven Pinker (which is actually just a teeny-weeny chapter reproduced from a much thicker book) and you’ll find the frontrunner in explaining taboo language.

Pinker, an experimental psychologist says hearing taboo words activates evolutionary ancient parts of the brain associated with negative emotion.

This “evolutionary ancient” part refers to the amygdala, an almond-shaped organ buried in each side of your brain that helps invest memories with emotion.

This almond-shaped mass of nuclei also responds with negative vibes to angry faces or threatening behaviour, such as a hairless, wildly gesticulating ape threatening to kick your ass when you inadvertently cut its queue.

Swear words, hence, can force an unwanted, emotionally charged or negative thought on listeners because the amygdala gets titillated.

The physiological response is even measurable. Recipients of a jolt to the amygdala will experience a wave of sweat over the skin. They will also be more alert to any threats.

One impressive aspect about swearing?

It is so intuitive that Pinker is convinced that anyone who claims that they don’t swear on a test question placed inside a survey form will have their responses thrown out of the sample.

Why? Because people who claim that they don’t swear are hypocritical and not open enough to be trusted to give an honest answer, which would result in a less-than-trustworthy overall survey response.

And this idea is simple enough to demonstrate: If a dog yelps when its tail gets stepped on, it is intuitive.

Just like how you’ll yelp when you stub your toe.

Only that language can give yelping a more nuanced vibe. It can actually be expressed in words, profane ones in fact, more often than not.

Swearing, at least in this form, is considered cathartic.

And the best part yet? Swearing poses paradoxes to language that cannot be easily solved.

You see, swearing produces sentences that defy attempts to categorise what these swear words should be but people persist in using it and modifying it in numerous ways such that whatever clear-cut reason there is for swearing is obscured.

Take for example, when a swear word such as “bloody” is used as an adverb as in: “Wow! That’s bloody brilliant!”

“Bloody” in this case would translate to “very”, “truly” or “really”, which are all adverbs.

Likewise, you can say, “That’s no bloody good”, but strangely, the converse wouldn’t hold true.

You wouldn’t hear someone say, “That’s no really good”. (The correct form should be “That’s really no good”.)

And to show you that taboo expletives (such as “bloody” or “fucking”) fail the test as genuine adverbs, consider this case where “bloody” ceases to be an adverb.

You would hear someone exclaim: “Wow! How brilliant is that? Very!”

But never: “Wow! How brilliant is that? Bloody!”

Then again, it can be argued that swearing is an economical process that serves to condense quite a lot of emotion and words into punchy, attention-grabbing outbursts.

But one thing is for sure: It is not unreasonable for people to feel concerned about swearing.

This is because no one likes to be forced to think about body parts, excrement, effluvia or sex against their will.

Which is why saying “Funk this sheet” annoys you more than me being delinquent about things.

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