The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words

An article which I’d love to get my hands on with the above title has it’s abstract here:

ABSTRACT—Taboo words are defined and sanctioned by institutions of power (e.g., religion, media), and prohibitions are reiterated in child-rearing practices. Native speakers acquire folk knowledge of taboo words, but it lacks the complexity that psychological science requires for an understanding of swearing. Misperceptions persist in psychological science and in society at large about how frequently people swear or what it means when they do. Public recordings of taboo words establish the commonplace occurrence of swearing (ubiquity), although frequency data are not always appreciated in laboratory research. A set of 10 words that has remained stable over the past 20 years accounts for 80% of public swearing. Swearing is positively correlated with extraversion and Type A hostility but negatively correlated with agreeableness, conscientiousness, religiosity, and sexual anxiety. The uniquely human facility for swearing evolved and persists because taboo words can communicate emotion information (anger, frustration) more readily than nontaboo words, allowing speakers to achieve a variety of personal and social goals with them (utility). A neuro-psycho-social framework is offered to unify taboo word research. Suggestions for future research are offered.

Commentary from John Grohol at PsychCentral (yeah, I don’t like the site in general, but I like this article!!)

How do we choose what word to use and when? We make choices about which word to use depending upon the company we’re in, and what our relationship is to that company, as well as the social setting. We’re more apt to use less offensive terms in mixed company or in settings where more offensive swear words might result in recrimination (such as work). For instance, people are more comfortable and are more likely to use technical terms for sexual references in mixed crowds, and to reserve the taboo words for same sex crowds or with their sexual partner. Most people feel uncomfortable saying, “Fuck” in a business or public crowd, instead falling back on less offensive words like, “Damnit.”…

….Swearing is beneficial in ways that people may underestimate or take for granted. Swearing is often cathartic — it often frees us of the feelings of anger or frustration we hold and allows expression for them. It can also be a useful substitute to physical violence (who would rather be punched out than to withstand being sworn at?).

Swear words can also be used in a more positive manner, in the form of jokes and humor, sex talk, storytelling, self-deprecation or even social commentary. Imagine when you want to emphasize how great you feel something is, a swear words emphasizes the positive feelings you have for that object, situation, person or event (”This concert is fucking awesome!”). Sure, we could just say “This concert is awesome,” but the addition of the swear word emphasizes the emotional reaction we have toward it — and easily conveys that emotional reaction to others. (emphasis mine)

I have some readers who don’t like my swearing. I frankly LOVE to swear when it’s appropriate (by my standards) And since, in part, this blog is a therapeutic process I do use the cathartic means of using expletives with some frequency.

Just for the record—I HAVE NEVER used swear words directed at people in my life with whom I’m communicating. That, I believe, is abusive.

6 thoughts on “The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words

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  1. I don’t think you are a prude and your feelings are completely legitimate…

    so are mine.

    I said I find using such language therapeutic and would appreciate that being respected.

    I found it insulting that you would suggest a lack of creativity and/or intelligence should people use such language especially when it’s being brought up by it’s use on this blog in particular.

    This blog is my work…it is my creation.

    There is certainly no evidence of stupidity or lack of creativity being valid on this blog, though it may be true for people who riddle their spoken language with expletives. That is not the case here…I think the content of my thoughts are evidence of that.

  2. Gianna,

    I know it’s your blog ….

    I posted because I felt that my silence wasn’t right. I do have feelings.

    I know it is your blog…..and I would have quit reading long ago if I had been offended by you. I did read the whole article a couple days ago.

    I just thought you would want someone like me ” a prude” to say how they feel. Not many others even commented.

  3. I don’t subject anyone either….anyone can walk away if they don’t like it…the wonders of the web! I don’t bring it to anyone else’s blog, unless of course, they’ve set the tone, and it’s perfectly acceptable.

    if you read the whole article it speaks about how people change their language for the appropriate context…

    I also end this post saying clearly…DIRECTING SUCH LANGUAGE TO PEOPLE YOU ARE COMMUNICATING WITH is abusive and I have never in my life done such thing NEVER.

    Also, you’ve seen me moderate a group, for example…no “taboo” words there, huh? taboo is silly to me …. these words are hardly taboo…they are ubiquitous as the title of the posts says explicitly…that by it’s very fact means they are NOT taboo anymore…

    I have also been published a number of times and will be included in a book soon…those publications also do not contain “language.”

    This is my space and I will do what I need to make it feel like home.

    Most posts don’t have swear words…but I won’t make apology for them when I do use them

  4. I am one of Gianna’s readers who does not care for swear words. I believe that swearing, when done in moderation, can be therapeutic. But I find the daily use of taboo words waters the effect of them down. I say it waters the effect, but in a way it doesn’t because hearing these words really affects me… they do bother me. It makes me uncomfortable and I truly think that it take more intelligence to think up something creative.

    I think the use of taboo words takes away from credibility. Swear words are powerful…at least for me. I don’t like insults either. If someone swears or uses belittling words too much, I just quit hanging around with them. I don’t need it.

    Of course it is your blog and you can say and write anything you want. If I come across a blog with too many taboo words I just quit reading it. I don’t want to subject myself to that kind of language.

    Bonnie’s example above of saying swear words as a cathartic release is a good example of how speaking taboo words can help. ( But on the other hand she wasn’t subjecting anyone else to hearing them….she was doing what normal teenagers and kids need to do…defy their parents

  5. I find swearing to be so very therapeutic. Yes, it has to be used responsibly and one needs to be aware of their audience (like not dropping the F-bomb at work, for example) but there I feel so much better after swearing at times.

    Obviously, some people have a problem with swearing – no matter the context – but hey… they can deal with it. My mother used to have a problem with me swearing, still think she does, but she has come to understand how it actually helps me at times.

  6. When I was in high school, I would stand outside the front door at home and spew every expletive in my vocabulary, since they were “forbidden” by my parents and quite contrary to the Southern Baptist training they were attempting to instill in me, before I would go inside. At the time it was a great stress reliever and avoided unnecessary confrontations during a time when there was far too much to confront and little of it done in a positive or productive manner. In Sandra Ingerman’s book “Medicine for the Earth”, she discusses the Aramaic origin of the phrase “abra cadabra” and it’s translated meaning, “I create as I speak”. She also discusses the power of words and the energy we put out into the universe by way of the words choose. I’m fairly certain I’ve seen reference to the works of Emoto and his photographs of water crystals on your blog. Oh, I still swear, haven’t lost the habit. I don’t seem to get as much pleasure out of it though as I used to and I’m finding other ways to relieve stress and express. I may just be getting older. I find many words just don’t roll out of my mouth without a second thought as they once did because I catch myself thinking things like, where did I just send that? The way I’ve heard Pema Chodron talk about habituation gives me pause as well when she so beautifully explains how the more we do something the more we reinforce the habit. It’s been an interesting excercise in observation and listening to my own self-talk. I’ve discovered it’s not a bad thing for me to be aware of what I am creating with the words I choose.
    May your day be filled with unexpected blessings lovely surprises.

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