Isn’t swearing wonderful? To my mind it fucking is. The act of swearing, the summoning of words that are strangely imbued with a delicious potency, is both a force to be reckoned with and a joy to be had.
In conversation it sharpens the point and intensifies the argument. In moments of ecstasy it punctuates the climax. Swearing has physiological properties too, having the power to both generate physical energy and alleviate anguish. Easy, egalitarian, effective – what’s not to like?
In bygone years, salty language brought “forbidden” ideas to mind. Take a wank, for example, or a fuck. These are deliciously coarse words used to describe activities that, while entirely normal, we nevertheless still like to see happen behind closed doors.
The history of swearing is, of course, deeply entwined with that of the Church, where to take the Lord’s sobriquet in vain is/was a punishable taboo. Speaking as one whose mother named him after the Pope, none of this is lost on me. The original John-Paul taught me all about blasphemy, that strange concept whereby certain words are permissible unless repeated in the wrong context. I grew up knowing that to utter the words “Jesus Christ” in a fit of pique was a very bad thing, not to mention throwing the odd “fucking” in there for good measure. Which, of course, made me love it all the more.
And yet it took me almost 30 years to have affirmed what I’d known deep down all along. Namely, that profanity equals power. In his book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature, cognitive neurolinguist Steven Pinker details the five ways we curse, which any talented potty-mouth will instantly recognise. Let’s take the F-bomb. We might say that we want to fuck (descriptive swearing) and express how fucking much we want to (emphatic).
About to snap? A well-placed cuss eases the strain
Alternatively, we could attempt to identify which fucker ate the last piece of cake (abusive) and say how fucked-up it is that he left the empty plate (idiomatic) in an attempt to relieve the resulting fucking anger (catharsis). We can all identify with these examples, but it is in the last instance that swearing’s real power lies: cursing can anaesthetise pain.
When you’re pushing for one last rep or holding on for that penultimate kilometre, a full-throated roar of your favourite expletive will ease you over the line. Try it and see. “Swearing triggers a well-known stress-induced analgesia,” says Professor Richard Stephens, senior lecturer in psychology at Keele University. “It’s part of the fight or flight response. Adrenaline is released, the heart pumps faster and we become more enabled to overcome an aggressor or make a swift getaway. Swearing helps many people better tolerate pain.” So you can either use profanity to sledgehammer through the wall during a marathon, or to just help you stay in the ice bath after it.
But please allow me one small plea for temperance (it’s the Catholic guilt, you see). Much as I love that my predilection for the language of the sewer now has a bona fide health benefit, I know it is nevertheless something to be cherished, not abused. Like other habits that tax reward centres, its use brings diminishing returns. “People who swear most in everyday life get less benefit,” says Stephens. “It seems that its emotional effect wears off through overuse.”
Now, rather than directing a rainbow of colourful language at kamikaze cabs each morning from my bike saddle, I keep my quota in reserve for when I really need it. When I ran the New York marathon last year, I kept my sacred mantra until the painful last 800m. Sure, I’m not particularly proud of my mid-“fuck” photo at the finish line, but I made it and got the medal. Swearing may not be big, but it really is quite clever.