Watch Your Mouth!

I grew up in a household with zero tolerance for profanity. Dad may have used colorful language away from home, but it wasn’t countenanced within earshot of Mom. Of course, I still managed to add these terms to my vocabulary and have been known to use them from time to time. But I kept a lid on them in my mother’s presence to her dying day.

I just finished reading Dr. Benjamin K. Bergen’s book entitled What the F?: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves. Dr. Bergen teaches at UC San Diego and serves as the Director of its Language and Cognition Lab. He’s also the nephew of one of my brother’s closest high school friends.

watch your mouthThe book explores the cognitive and social science of swearing. Dr. Bergen tells us that profane word origins have their roots in religion (e.g., taking the Lord’s name in vain), sexual acts, other bodily functions, and insults/curses. Every culture has its own collective of taboo words that are deemed unsuited for polite company. Yet such words typically have synonyms and/or “sound alike” words which we feel free to use without reproach. Our “bad words” change over time. Some become so commonplace that they are no longer considered offensive. Erstwhile innocuous words can be transformed into something taboo. (I’ll forego the concrete examples and assume that you can use your imagination.)

Here are a few “fun facts” about the blue side of language.

Survey data suggests that Americans do not agree on what constitutes acceptable levels of swearing in common discourse, on the airwaves, or in other forms of media. We still regulate language usage via the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). Yet even these bodies do not have well-documented guidelines to govern how ratings get assigned to content.

Arguments for restrictive use of language focus on a supposed link to aggressive or violent behavior. Dr. Bergen discusses attempts at proving this thesis scientifically and notes that a definitive correlation cannot be asserted. Likewise, some argue that we encourage lazy use of language by tolerating profanity in public forums. The evidence does not support that thesis either. In fact, it would appear that masters of profanity have above average language skills across the board.

However much we disagree on the use of profanity, body scans reveal that we all seem to know which words are inbounds versus out-of-bounds. When we swear, our pores tend to open up and increase sweating. We evince an emotional response when we see a swear word. We also use extra brain cycles to self-monitor should we run the risk of blurting out some colorful tidbit when we feel it would be inappropriate. Thank you pre-frontal cortex!

Of course, if you bang your finger with a hammer, stub your toe, or watch yourself careening into another car while sitting behind the wheel, you may experience a lapse in linguistic control. Spontaneous eruptions of 4-letter words frequently occur when we are highly agitated, frustrated, angry, or in pain. Scientists deem such usage healthy in that it relieves tension and facilitates rapid recovery. Brain scans suggest that the limbic system (a.k.a., our “lizard brain”) may be a repository for foul language.

As a correlate to the excited profane utterance, persons who suffer brain damage to the primary language centers of the brain often retain use of swear words. Such words are the most difficult for persons with Tourette’s syndrome to control. And folks who suffer the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease may continue to retain access to excited utterances that are reactive, impulsive, and spontaneous.

Slurs fall into a separate category from other swear words, taking their place atop the offensiveness leaderboard. They aren’t merely crass language forms that could be represented by more genteel ones; they are built to hurt. They are used to dehumanize members of a race, ethnic group, class, gender, or sexual orientation. They’re intended to elevate the “in group” and force the defamed group out. Exposure to slurs carries adverse psychological, social, and financial consequences. They should not be used. Period.

I’ve been party to conversations where acquaintances attempt to defend their use of slurs because: (a) their intentions were honorable, (b) they didn’t realize that a word ruffled feathers, (c) the word never used to be a problem in the past, and/or (d) folks shouldn’t be so sensitive. It’s easy to espouse such claims when speaking from the dominant group. And, yes, language use changes over time, and it takes some effort to stay on top of things. My suggestion: Thank whomever brought it to your attention and update your language filter for next time. Why be defensive when you can choose to be respectful and gracious?