NY Times, September 20, 2005=20
Almost Before We Spoke, We Swore=20
By NATALIE ANGIER=20
Incensed by what it sees as a virtual pandemic of verbal vulgarity
issuing from the diverse likes of Howard Stern, Bono of U2 and Robert
Novak, the United States Senate is poised to consider a bill that
would sharply increase the penalty for obscenity on the air.
By raising the fines that would be levied against offending
broadcasters some fifteenfold, to a fee of about $500,000 per crudity
broadcast, and by threatening to revoke the licenses of repeat
polluters, the Senate seeks to return to the public square the gentler
tenor of yesteryear, when seldom were heard any scurrilous words, and
famous guys were not foul mouthed all day.
Yet researchers who study the evolution of language and the psychology
of swearing say that they have no idea what mystic model of linguistic
gentility the critics might have in mind. Cursing, they say, is a
human universal. Every language, dialect or patois ever studied,
living or dead, spoken by millions or by a small tribe, turns out to
have its share of forbidden speech, some variant on comedian George
Carlin's famous list of the seven dirty words that are not supposed to
be uttered on radio or television.
Young children will memorize the illicit inventory long before they
can grasp its sense, said John McWhorter, a scholar of linguistics at
the Manhattan Institute and the author of "The Power of Babel," and
literary giants have always constructed their art on its spine.
"The Jacobean dramatist Ben Jonson peppered his plays with fackings
and "peremptorie Asses," and Shakespeare could hardly quill a stanza
without inserting profanities of the day like "zounds" or "sblood" -
offensive contractions of "God's wounds" and "God's blood" - or some
wondrous sexual pun.
The title "Much Ado About Nothing," Dr. McWhorter said, is a word play
on "Much Ado About an O Thing," the O thing being a reference to
Even the quintessential Good Book abounds in naughty passages like the
men in II Kings 18:27 who, as the comparatively tame King James
translation puts it, "eat their own dung, and drink their own piss."
In fact, said Guy Deutscher, a linguist at the University of Leiden in
the Netherlands and the author of "The Unfolding of Language: An
Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention," the earliest
writings, which date from 5,000 years ago, include their share of
off-color descriptions of the human form and its ever-colorful
functions. And the written record is merely a reflection of an oral
tradition that Dr. Deutscher and many other psychologists and
evolutionary linguists suspect dates from the rise of the human
larynx, if not before.
Some researchers are so impressed by the depth and power of strong
language that they are using it as a peephole into the architecture of
the brain, as a means of probing the tangled, cryptic bonds between
the newer, "higher" regions of the brain in charge of intellect,
reason and planning, and the older, more "bestial" neural
neighborhoods that give birth to our emotions.
Researchers point out that cursing is often an amalgam of raw,
spontaneous feeling and targeted, gimlet-eyed cunning. When one person
curses at another, they say, the curser rarely spews obscenities and
insults at random, but rather will assess the object of his wrath, and
adjust the content of the "uncontrollable" outburst accordingly.
Because cursing calls on the thinking and feeling pathways of the
brain in roughly equal measure and with handily assessable fervor,
scientists say that by studying the neural circuitry behind it they
are gaining new insights into how the different domains of the brain
communicate - and all for the sake of a well-venomed retort.
Other investigators have examined the physiology of cursing, how our
senses and reflexes react to the sound or sight of an obscene word.
They have determined that hearing a curse elicits a literal rise out
of people. When electrodermal wires are placed on people's arms and
fingertips to study their skin conductance patterns and the subjects
then hear a few obscenities spoken clearly and firmly, participants
show signs of instant arousal.
Their skin conductance patterns spike, the hairs on their arms rise,
their pulse quickens, and their breathing becomes shallow.
Interestingly, said Kate Burridge, a professor of linguistics at
Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, a similar reaction occurs
among university students and others who pride themselves on being
educated when they listen to bad grammar or slang expressions that
they regard as irritating, illiterate or d=E9class=E9.
"People can feel very passionate about language," she said, "as though
it were a cherished artifact that must be protected at all cost
against the depravities of barbarians and lexical aliens."
Dr. Burridge and a colleague at Monash, Keith Allan, are the authors
of "Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language," which will
be published early next year by the Cambridge University Press.
Researchers have also found that obscenities can get under one's
goosebumped skin and then refuse to budge. In one study, scientists
started with the familiar Stroop test, in which subjects are flashed a
series of words written in different colors and are asked to react by
calling out the colors of the words rather than the words themselves.
If the subjects see the word "chair" written in yellow letters, they
are supposed to say "yellow."
The researchers then inserted a number of obscenities and vulgarities
in the standard lineup. Charting participants' immediate and delayed
responses, the researchers found that, first of all, people needed
significantly more time to trill out the colors of the curse words
than they did for neutral terms like chair.
The experience of seeing titillating text obviously distracted the
participants from the color-coding task at hand. Yet those risqu=E9
interpolations left their mark. In subsequent memory quizzes, not only
were participants much better at recalling the naughty words than they
were the neutrals, but that superior recall also applied to the tints
of the tainted words, as well as to their sense.
Yes, it is tough to toil in the shadow of trash. When researchers in
another study asked participants to quickly scan lists of words that
included obscenities and then to recall as many of the words as
possible, the subjects were, once again, best at rehashing the curses
- and worst at summoning up whatever unobjectionable entries happened
to precede or follow the bad bits.
Yet as much as bad language can deliver a jolt, it can help wash away
stress and anger. In some settings, the free flow of foul language may
signal not hostility or social pathology, but harmony and
"Studies show that if you're with a group of close friends, the more
relaxed you are, the more you swear," Dr. Burridge said. "It's a way
of saying: 'I'm so comfortable here I can let off steam. I can say
whatever I like.' "
Evidence also suggests that cursing can be an effective means of
venting aggression and thereby forestalling physical violence.
With the help of a small army of students and volunteers, Timothy B.
Jay, a professor of psychology at Massachusetts College of Liberal
Arts in North Adams and the author of "Cursing in America" and "Why We
Curse," has explored the dynamics of cursing in great detail.
The investigators have found, among other things, that men generally
curse more than women, unless said women are in a sorority, and that
university provosts swear more than librarians or the staff members of
the university day care center.
Regardless of who is cursing or what the provocation may be, Dr. Jay
said, the rationale for the eruption is often the same.
"Time and again, people have told me that cursing is a coping
mechanism for them, a way of reducing stress," he said in a telephone
interview. "It's a form of anger management that is often
Indeed, chimpanzees engage in what appears to be a kind of cursing
match as a means of venting aggression and avoiding a potentially
dangerous physical clash.
Frans de Waal, a professor of primate behavior at Emory University in
Atlanta, said that when chimpanzees were angry "they will grunt or
spit or make an abrupt, upsweeping gesture that, if a human were to do
it, you'd recognize it as aggressive."
Such behaviors are threat gestures, Professor de Waal said, and they
are all a good sign.
"A chimpanzee who is really gearing up for a fight doesn't waste time
with gestures, but just goes ahead and attacks," he added.
By the same token, he said, nothing is more deadly than a person who
is too enraged for expletives - who cleanly and quietly picks up a gun
and starts shooting.
Researchers have also examined how words attain the status of
forbidden speech and how the evolution of coarse language affects the
smoother sheets of civil discourse stacked above it. They have found
that what counts as taboo language in a given culture is often a
mirror into that culture's fears and fixations.
"In some cultures, swear words are drawn mainly from sex and bodily
functions, whereas in others, they're drawn mainly from the domain of
religion," Dr. Deutscher said.
In societies where the purity and honor of women is of paramount
importance, he said, "it's not surprising that many swear words are
variations on the 'son of a whore' theme or refer graphically to the
genitalia of the person's mother or sisters."
The very concept of a swear word or an oath originates from the
profound importance that ancient cultures placed on swearing by the
name of a god or gods. In ancient Babylon, swearing by the name of a
god was meant to give absolute certainty against lying, Dr. Deutscher
said, "and people believed that swearing falsely by a god would bring
the terrible wrath of that god upon them." A warning against any abuse
of the sacred oath is reflected in the biblical commandment that one
must not "take the Lord's name in vain," and even today courtroom
witnesses swear on the Bible that they are telling the whole truth and
Among Christians, the stricture against taking the Lord's name in vain
extended to casual allusions to God's son or the son's corporeal
sufferings - no mention of the blood or the wounds or the body, and
that goes for clever contractions, too. Nowadays, the phrase, "Oh,
golly!" may be considered almost comically wholesome, but it was not
always so. "Golly" is a compaction of "God's body" and, thus, was once
Yet neither biblical commandment nor the most zealous Victorian censor
can elide from the human mind its hand-wringing over the unruly human
body, its chronic, embarrassing demands and its sad decay. Discomfort
over body functions never sleeps, Dr. Burridge said, and the need for
an ever-fresh selection of euphemisms about dirty subjects has long
served as an impressive engine of linguistic invention.
Once a word becomes too closely associated with a specific body
function, she said, once it becomes too evocative of what should not
be evoked, it starts to enter the realm of the taboo and must be
replaced by a new, gauzier euphemism.
For example, the word "toilet" stems from the French word for "little
towel" and was originally a pleasantly indirect way of referring to
the place where the chamber pot or its equivalent resides. But toilet
has since come to mean the porcelain fixture itself, and so sounds too
blunt to use in polite company. Instead, you ask your tuxedoed waiter
for directions to the ladies' room or the restroom or, if you must,
Similarly, the word "coffin" originally meant an ordinary box, but
once it became associated with death, that was it for a "shoe coffin"
or "thinking outside the coffin." The taboo sense of a word, Dr.
Burridge said, "always drives out any other senses it might have had."
Scientists have lately sought to map the neural topography of
forbidden speech by studying Tourette's patients who suffer from
coprolalia, the pathological and uncontrollable urge to curse.
Tourette's syndrome is a neurological disorder of unknown origin
characterized predominantly by chronic motor and vocal tics, a
constant grimacing or pushing of one's glasses up the bridge of one's
nose or emitting a stream of small yips or grunts.
Just a small percentage of Tourette's patients have coprolalia -
estimates range from 8 to 30 percent - and patient advocates are
dismayed by popular portrayals of Tourette's as a humorous and
invariably scatological condition. But for those who do have
coprolalia, said Dr. Carlos Singer, director of the division of
movement disorders at the University of Miami School of Medicine, the
symptom is often the most devastating and humiliating aspect of their
Not only can it be shocking to people to hear a loud volley of
expletives erupt for no apparent reason, sometimes from the mouth of a
child or young teenager, but the curses can also be provocative and
personal, florid slurs against the race, sexual identity or body size
of a passer-by, for example, or deliberate and repeated lewd
references to an old lover's name while in the arms of a current
partner or spouse.
Reporting in The Archives of General Psychiatry, Dr. David A.
Silbersweig, a director of neuropsychiatry and neuroimaging at the
Weill Medical College of Cornell University, and his colleagues
described their use of PET scans to measure cerebral blood flow and
identify which regions of the brain are galvanized in Tourette's
patients during episodes of tics and coprolalia.
They found strong activation of the basal ganglia, a quartet of neuron
clusters deep in the forebrain at roughly the level of the
mid-forehead, that are known to help coordinate body movement along
with activation of crucial regions of the left rear forebrain that
participate in comprehending and generating speech, most notably
The researchers also saw arousal of neural circuits that interact with
the limbic system, the wishbone-shape throne of human emotions, and,
significantly, of the "executive" realms of the brain, where decisions
to act or desist from acting may be carried out: the neural source,
scientists said, of whatever conscience, civility or free will humans
That the brain's executive overseer is ablaze in an outburst of
coprolalia, Dr. Silbersweig said, demonstrates how complex an act the
urge to speak the unspeakable may be, and not only in the case of
Tourette's. The person is gripped by a desire to curse, to voice
something wildly inappropriate. Higher-order linguistic circuits are
tapped, to contrive the content of the curse. The brain's impulse
control center struggles to short-circuit the collusion between limbic
system urge and neocortical craft, and it may succeed for a time.
Yet the urge mounts, until at last the speech pathways fire, the
verboten is spoken, and archaic and refined brains alike must shoulder