Swearing alleviates pain, and it’s more fun than Advil. So why do grown adults say ‘frak’ and ‘fudge’?
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Warning: Owing to its subject matter, this article may not be suitable for those of a sensitive disposition – namely infants, Mormons and anyone else who’s liable to soil their diapers because someone said a naughty fucking word.
It’s been a year and a week since scientists revealed that the simple act of swearing can relieve pain. But have we heeded their wisdom? Have we fuck.
Even in these troubled times, when there’s so much pain to be relieved, we act as though this monumental discovery had never been made and the world was still flat. We mind our p’s and q’s as though there were some higher purpose to it and we weren’t just prisoners of polite society.
It was April 2011, at the University of Keele in England, when Dr Richard Stephens and Claudia Umland ran an experiment with 71 participants. First they assessed how much they swore in their daily life. Then they tested the participants for pain tolerance by seeing first how long they could keep their hands in icy water and secondly how much longer they could keep their hands in if they were allowed to swear.
They found that not only did swearing help everyone tolerate the pain of the water, without exception, but it made the biggest difference in people who only swore sparingly in their daily lives. As Dr. Stephens said, “while swearing as a response to pain might be beneficial, if you swear too often in everyday situations the power of swearing won’t be there when you really might need it.”
In other words, swearing is like a drug – overuse it and your tolerance will grow and a simple hit doesn’t have the same effect anymore. So use it in moderation. Be a connoisseur, not a junkie. Think of it as ibuprofanity, for pain relief. Six ‘fucks’ and a ‘jizzbucket’ every 24 hours and you’ll be fine. But draw the line. We all know how easy it is to get hooked to pain medication.
Exactly how a well placed ‘cunt’ can relieve pain is unclear, but researchers speculate that brain circuitry linked to emotion is involved. While normal language relies on the outer few millimeters in the brain’s left hemisphere, words like ‘pisshole’, ‘flangewagon’ and ‘cockmuppet’ operate from structures deep in the right half, the ancient snake brain, at least according to renowned psychologist Steven Pinker. The basal ganglia is one such structure, believed to be the root of Tourette’s. And the amygdala is another, believed to be responsible for the fight-or-flight response in which our heart rate climbs and we become less sensitive to pain.
So far so good, then. But science has only measured swearing’s effect on physical pain – the jab of needles and the sting of freezing water. What about the pain of living itself, the psychic pain that stems from the cruelty of nature and man’s inhumanity to man? As Lenny Bruce said, life is a four letter word.
There is good reason to believe that swearing helps here too. The joy in unleashing an artful string of profanity is something that great minds have always relished, none less than Mark Twain who said “If I cannot swear in heaven I shall not stay there.” Twain knew that abuse is a high art, an alchemy of timing, intonation and le mot juste.
He would have been appalled at the profanity-cleansed America of today, in which grown adults use piss-weak substitutions like ‘frak’ and ‘fudge’ as though a child were perpetually present. And so what if there were? Show the child ‘fuck’ and what music it can bring. It’s no wonder that the language of the younger generation has devolved to lols and emoticons – we’ve starved them of nourishment. ‘Frak’ is like swapping a porterhouse for a slice of tofu (in the shape of a porterhouse). It’s an imposter, it means nothing. Its only function is to enable the speaker to pretend that she’s a better person than you for neutering her vocabulary and using a sanitized Styrofoam version instead of the real fucking thing. These people should be vilified not tolerated, let alone applauded for their so-called ‘restraint’. The next time you hear the word ‘frak’ in a non-environmental context, here’s a rejoinder you might consider: “Go polish your fucking halo at home, you self-righteous sack of twat.” Or perhaps: “Off you fuck, go on. We’re not all infants you know.”
And think of the blessed children. Rather than command them not to cuss, we ought to teach the art of swearing in schools. Show them what a glorious heritage they have at their fingertips, if only they knew how to use it. Start with Shakespeare by all means (thou mammering flap-mouthed pignut!), but there’s also plenty of contemporary profanity to be enjoyed. You just need to know where to look.
The HBO series Deadwood is a term paper unto itself. Few used ‘cocksucker’ with more panache and nuance than Al Swearengen. The spit-flecked blasts of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket are worth their weight: “You had best unfuck yourself and start shitting me Tiffany cufflinks!” And no woman is quite as gifted with the invective as Susie Green on Curb Your Enthusiasm. She’s not averse to a ‘cunt’ or a ‘fuckface’, but she’s probably best known for ‘fat fuck’, which in her hands is as crisp and percussive as a slap in the face.
My personal favorite, however, is Malcolm Tucker, the splenetic spin doctor on the British comedy series The Thick Of It. It hasn’t aired in the US as yet, and some of the phrasing may be lost on American ears – the British weaponize the language differently. But for sheer venom and invention, you’d be hard pushed to find a more accomplished swearer. Show creator, Armando Iannucci – who also created Veep, starring Julia Louis Dreyfus – went so far as to hire a consultant specifically to give the swearing some extra oomph. Hence such gems as “a hurricane of piss”, “shut your fucking cave” and “come the fuck in or fuck the fuck off”.
Perhaps you have some favorites of your own? Do share….
Swearing is like a drug – overuse it and your tolerance will grow and a simple hit doesn’t have the same effect anymore.Sanjiv Bhattacharya
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