with taboos, social mores, but it’s not doing
work to cause harm, unlike the slurs.
Let’s talk about the neuroscience of
profanity. You’ve noted that in some
people who’ve had half their brains
removed, most language is wiped out
but swearing stays.
One of the most amazing things is that
people can incur massive trauma to the
parts of the brain that are responsible for
producing and understanding language
but can nevertheless still spontaneously
swear. So a person who looks at a picture
of a cat and can’t say “cat” can still swear
out of frustration. It appears that spontaneous, automatic, reflexive swearing is
actually driven by a different system of the
brain than the rest of language. This is a
part of the brain that’s housed deep below
the cerebral cortex, that’s evolutionarily
old and that we share with other primates
and actually other vertebrates. Other
animals use it for producing vocalizations
that signal others about their emotional
state—cries of fear or anger, for example.
So is swearing universal in every
Just about, but not all. You almost always
find that there are some taboos that
cultures hold about particular words.
But in some languages, there doesn’t
appear to be anything quite like the idea
that this particular word is a bad word
that needs to be bleeped. The best studied
example of that is in Japanese. There are
certainly ways to insult people in Japanese,
but you would be using run-of-the-mill
words like “fool,” “grandfather,” “pig,” and
so on—words that you could use in any
context. So it doesn’t seem to be a cultural
universal that there are certain words that
are intrinsically bad themselves.
Is swearing good in any way?
I think of it like this: Swearing is a powerful
tool. Like all powerful tools, you can use it
for positive or negative goals. On the positive
side, we know that producing profanity is a
way to decrease the experience of pain.
There are experiments showing that when
people are asked to submerge an open palm
into nearly freezing water, they can hold
their hand in longer when they’re swearing
than when they’re not—almost twice as
long, in fact. They report that it hurts less.
There’s also evidence that people are
largely using profanity for positive social
functions. The biggest study to date has
found that the majority of the time
swearing is used to be funny, to increase
informality of an interaction and to
Has studying profanity changed how you
swear? Are there any words left that
There is literally no word that shocks me
anymore. There are still words that I prefer
not to say, and lots of contexts that I don’t
swear in. I’m not a proselytizer for
swearing. If anything, my research has
made me more cautious.
Well, you’ve made it this far without
actually swearing, so when you’re utterly
relaxed and around people who won’t be
offended, do you have a favorite word?
Yes. Motherfuckr. .
For the uncensored, extended interview,