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Do offensive words harm people?

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The harm thesis-the assumption that words harm people-is a defining feature of sexual harassment, hate speech, verbal abuse, and obscene telephone call (OTC) offenses. This thesis ignores the possibility that swearing can be advantageous, cathartic, or ail acceptable substitute for physical aggression. Observational data, courtroom evidence and verbal abuse research reviewed here produce conflicting conclusions oil the question of harm. The best evidence of harm resides in harassment and OTC studies, but verbal abuse research is indeterminate because of flawed research methodology. Public swearing research reveals that swearing is a cornmon conversational practice resulting in no obvious harm. "Common sense" (folk psychology) views of swearing are mistaken and inadequate for some decisions regarding harm. Meanwhile, efforts to restrict speech in media and instructional settings continue, despite the lack of a convincing need to do so. Harm from offensive speech is contextually determined; therefore attempts to restrict speech on a universal basis are misguided. Psychologists' research needs to be informed by public policy and courtroom practices, and public policy and litigation need to be better informed by psychologists' research.
Timothy Jay
Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
The harm thesis—the assumption that words harm people—is a defining feature of
sexual harassment, hate speech, verbal abuse, and obscene telephone call (OTC)
offenses. This thesis ignores the possibility that swearing can be advantageous,
cathartic, or an acceptable substitute for physical aggression. Observational data,
courtroom evidence and verbal abuse research reviewed here produce conflicting
conclusions on the question of harm. The best evidence of harm resides in harass-
ment and OTC studies, but verbal abuse research is indeterminate because of flawed
research methodology. Public swearing research reveals that swearing is a common
conversational practice resulting in no obvious harm. “Common sense” (folk psy-
chology) views of swearing are mistaken and inadequate for some decisions re-
garding harm. Meanwhile, efforts to restrict speech in media and instructional
settings continue, despite the lack of a convincing need to do so. Harm from
offensive speech is contextually determined; therefore attempts to restrict speech on
a universal basis are misguided. Psychologists’ research needs to be informed by
public policy and courtroom practices, and public policy and litigation need to be
better informed by psychologists’ research.
Keywords: verbal abuse, swearing, indecent speech, hate speech, sexual harassment
Legal scholars advance a harm thesis, that offensive utterances harm people
the same way that physical blows do (Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, & Crenshaw,
1993). Offensive words comprise, but are not limited to, categories of obscenity,
indecency, profanity, racial insults, taboos, and scatology (see Jay, 1992). My
focus on harm from offensive words is based on their problematic emotive and
aversive properties associated with psychological reactance and memorability
(Jay, Caldwell-Harris, & King, 2008; Jay, King, & Duncan, 2006). These are the
types of words that should cause harm. In contrast, civil libertarians argue that
words do not cause harm because speech is abstract or symbolic, not at all like
physical blows (Heins, 2007; Strossen, 1995; Wolfson, 1997). These opposing
views raise the question: When do offensive words harm people? This is a review
of legal and psychological perspectives on harm covering research that supports
the harm thesis (e.g., sexual harassment, hate speech, obscene telephone calls
[OTCs]) and research that is indeterminate (verbal abuse). Harm research is then
contrasted with research that provides no evidence of harm (e.g., conversational
swearing, sexuality education, broadcast indecency, humor). Inoffensive words
associated with harm, such as defamation (including both libel and slander), fraud,
and perjury are not reviewed. Recommendations to improve public policy and
litigation regarding offensive speech and suggestions to improve research meth-
ods are offered.
I thank April Tovani and Brendan Gaesser for their library research and contributions to an
earlier version of this article.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Timothy Jay, Department of
Psychology, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, 375 Church Street, North Adams, MA 01247.
Psychology, Public Policy, and Law
2009, Vol. 15, No. 2, 81–101 © 2009 American Psychological Association
1076-8971/09/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0015646
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
... Attempts to establish more general or representative frequencies of swearing require a broad contextual spectrum, which has largely been achieved by empirical investigations of spontaneous speech, such as observation or corpus analysis. Reviewing a series of naturalistic observations and corpus studies (including Jay 1992Jay , 1999McEnery 2006;Mehl & Pennebaker 2003;Mehl et al. 2007), Jay (2009a calculated that speakers use approximately 60-90 offensive words per day, corresponding to 0.3% to 0.7% of the 15,000-16,000 words speakers produce daily in total. Based on his corpus analysis of UK and US MySpace-profiles, Thelwall (2008) found that swear word usage averaged between 0.2%-0.3% of individual platform users' total word count. ...
... In general, swearing research is not unfairly characterised by a pre-occupation with frequency measurements. The main line of inquiry has established an average swear word usage of 0.5% across study populations, corresponding to 80-90 swear words daily (Jay 2009a;Mehl & Pennebaker 2003;Senberg et al. 2021). However, such calculations are a function of swear word definitions that may be subject to inter-researcher variation, and it must be remembered that averages can obscure both very low and very high frequencies. ...
Interpersonal Pragmatics of Swearing: definitions, criteria, methods of investigation, positive and negative interpersonal functions
... They were the utterancerestricted words within societal uses under the assumption that they absolutely could cause harms in some ways. They came to be noticeably labeled as "taboo" by aversively classic conditions since childhood when parents and other authoritative people blamed children for using them; otherwise, they would be punished (Jay, 2009b). He also penned that positive meanings in swearing could be found but the two-thirds were negative ones which could hurt others or partners; even though taboo words were used in certain contexts, they could and did cause harms to the involved people (Jay, 2009a). ...
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The unpleasant expressions (offensiveness) always emotionally affect to the human psyches, and exists in all languages in less or strong degrees and directly or indirectly. Therefore, this study aimed to investigate over the changes of them by corporally-derived data and their registers, times and genders were the pilot targets. BNC and COCA Corpora were put for data collections while the list of previous insulting words was selected to reuse, especially the ones with highest frequencies. The results suggested 4 words damn, shit, fuck and dick had the highest degrees of uses but those from BNC were comparatively fewer than the rest. Moreover, the top four were emerged up to the different periods of times and contexts while men used them considerably more often than the women did.
... The purpose of counterspeech Hateful language online can serve to reinforce prejudice (Citron and Norton, 2011), encourage further division, promote power of the ingroup, sway political votes, provoke or justify offline violence, and psychologically damage targets of hate (Jay, 2009). Just as the effects of hate are wide-ranging, counterspeech may be used to fulfil a variety of purposes. ...
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Counterspeech offers direct rebuttals to hateful speech by challenging perpetrators of hate and showing support to targets of abuse. It provides a promising alternative to more contentious measures, such as content moderation and deplatforming, by contributing a greater amount of positive online speech rather than attempting to mitigate harmful content through removal. Advances in the development of large language models mean that the process of producing counterspeech could be made more efficient by automating its generation, which would enable large-scale online campaigns. However, we currently lack a systematic understanding of several important factors relating to the efficacy of counterspeech for hate mitigation, such as which types of counterspeech are most effective, what are the optimal conditions for implementation, and which specific effects of hate it can best ameliorate. This paper aims to fill this gap by systematically reviewing counterspeech research in the social sciences and comparing methodologies and findings with computer science efforts in automatic counterspeech generation. By taking this multi-disciplinary view, we identify promising future directions in both fields.
... Some studies, on the other hand, investigated the impact of swearing on the recipient. Hinduja and Patchin (2008) and Jay (2009) found that swearing can lead recipients to have lowered self-confidence and, in some severe cases, even self-harm. Verbal abuse is recognized as a form of bullying behavior, which in turn, can even lead the recipient to suicide ideation (Mossige et al. 2016). ...
This study discusses how profanity is used online and whether it records any gender-related differences. It explores how often and why certain swear words are used on Jordan’s Twitter. The data are harvested by a computer specialist and consist of 5,000 English tweets—2,500 by females and 2,500 by males. The tweets were posted from Jordan within the period 2015-2020 and were randomly selected from 500 different accounts. The study concluded that the most common swear words on Jordan’s Twitter were fuck, shit, damn and hell, and that there is statistical evidence that women swear more than men, contrary to several previous studies. Women also tend to use a greater variety of swear words, often mitigating their effect through abbreviated forms. The study also attributed the high frequency of the swear words found in the data to their syntactic flexibility, mother-tongue interference, and the fact that most of these words are closed monosyllables.
... F. [77]). People with lesser agreeableness, lesser conscientiousness, higher extraversion, higher hostility, and antisocial personality traits swear more than their counterparts [78,79]. People with sexual anxiety and sexual repression swear less [70]. ...
Full-text available Background. Swearing is an increasing trend among men and women worldwide. Earlier studies on the positive aspects of profanity mostly relate to pain management and the release of negative emotions. The uniqueness of the current study is its analysis for a possible constructive role of profanity in stress, anxiety, and depression. Method. The current survey involved 253 conveniently selected participants from Pakistan. The study analyzed the role of profanity in connection to stress, anxiety, and depression. Profanity Scale and the Urdu version of Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Scale were used along with a structured interview schedule. Descriptive statistics, Pearson’s correlation coefficient, and -test were implied to obtain results. Results. The study revealed that the usage of profane language had significantly inverse correlations with stress (; ), anxiety (; ), and depression (; ). Higher profaners also revealed significantly lower levels of depression (, vs. , ; ; Cohen’s ) and stress (, vs. , ; ; Cohen’s ) as compared to lower profaners. Profanity had no significant correlations with age (; ) and education (; ). Men projected significantly higher levels of profanity as compared to women. Conclusion. The current study viewed profanity similar to the self-defense mechanisms and emphasized on its cathartic role in stress, anxiety, and depression.
... Swearing is frequently used in stand-up comedy, conversations about sex or when telling stories (T. Jay, 2009a;Seizer, 2011). People also experience a greater expectation violation for workplace swearing compared to social settings (Johnson & Lewis, 2010). ...
This thesis is about linguistic variation in swearing and its consequences for how speakers are socially evaluated. Abundant research has established that, beyond its perception as rude or impolite, swearing is hugely socially meaningful in a variety of ways (Stapleton, 2010; Beers Fägersten, 2012). Swearing has been shown to index solidarity (Daly et al., 2004), intimacy (Stapleton, 2003), differing forms of masculinity (De Klerk, 1997) and femininity (S. E. Hughes, 1992), honesty (Feldman et al., 2017), believability (Rassin & Heijden, 2005) and lack of intelligence (DeFrank & Kahlbaugh, 2019), among other traits. The activation of these social meanings also depends on language-external factors such as speaker gender (Howell & Giuliano, 2011), ethnicity (Jacobi, 2014) and social status (T. Jay & Janschewitz, 2008). What has not been established is whether this also depends on language-internal factors such as pronunciation, word formation or sentence structure. This thesis investigates the effect of variation from three different domains of language - phonetics, morphology and semantics/pragmatics - on social evaluation of a speaker. To do so, the thesis takes an experimental approach using the variationist sociolinguistic framework. For variation in each domain, two experiments were used to test for different levels of awareness, following Squires’s (2016) approach for grammatical variation (see also Schmidt, 1990). One experiment tested whether people perceived the variation, while a second tested whether people noticed the variation in the process of social evaluation; the concepts of perceiving and noticing roughly map to the Labovian concepts of the sociolinguistic indicator and marker respectively (Labov, 1972). At the level of phonetics, variation in the realisation of variable (ING) in swearwords (e.g., fucking vs fuckin) was first tested using a variant categorization task, revealing that listeners have an implicit bias towards the velar [IN] variant when hearing swearwords, compared to neutral words and non-words. An auditory matched-guise task then revealed that this same bias affects how listeners extract social information from (ING) tokens attached to swearwords in relation to social meanings typically associated with the variable (Schleef et al., 2017). This result suggests that, rather than pronunciation affecting how swearwords are socially evaluated, swearwords can affect how other phonetic sources of social meaning are evaluated.
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This paper presents the effects' analysis produced by the frequent use of swearing from the perspective of irritability. The analysis was carried out with the help of two psychological questionnaires that were completed by the volunteers before and after the inducement of the negative emotions and automatic recognition functions implemented by Convolutional Neural Networks (CNN), applied for the speech signals of two volunteer groups for whom negative emotions were induced. The CNN architecture uses Mel-frequency cepstral coefficients (MFCCs), obtained from the speech signal, and has 87,944 trainable parameters , the outputs of the network being the 8 main classes of emotion detected by the algorithm (1 neutral, 3 positive, and 4 negative). The CNN also gives information about the negative emotion and irritability level. For the volunteers who swore during the experiment, there is an increase of 14% in negative emotion intensity and of 21% for the irritability level than for the volunteers who didn't swear during the trials. The use of this current research is the understanding that cursing causes a higher level of irritability.
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This study examines the pragmatic functions of fuck among British English teenagers in casual conversation in two youth language corpora from the 1990s and 2010s. It applies a corpus-pragmatics approach to explore how the ongoing weakening of the taboo strength of fuck in the perception of young speakers is realised in usage data. The major functions observed involve a predominance of idiomatic, emphatic and emotionally expressive functions. Conversely, usage associated with potentially abusive functions, including literal reference to sexual intercourse, is infrequent. Our observations are interpreted in the context of delexicalization and related long-term diachronic processes, whereby contemporary usage of fuck among teenagers is characterised in terms of semi-delexicalized, pragmatically strengthened usage with weakened taboo status. The article also evaluates the interpretation of idiomatic usage from a functional perspective, and contributes to methodological considerations of the use of spoken corpora for pragmatic research.
In this paper we look at the role that macrostructures in discourse have to play in the study of swearing. While studied in isolation, such macrostructures have not yet been studied comprehensively and the range of macrostructures studied has been small. By contrast, work on microstructures is much better developed. In response to this, using spoken corpus data from the BNC2014, we take two approaches to studying discourse in this paper. In the first approach, we explore spoken data which has been annotated with a functional discourse coding scheme that shows, across the corpus, the distribution of a set of macrostructures, discourse units, that generally characterise conversation. Our goal is to see how swearing distributes according to discourse unit function and to account for any observations made. Following from that, we explore a single macrostructure of discourse-narrative, including its sub-elements-to see whether swearing interacts with this macrostructure and its component parts. We conclude by arguing that discourse is an important dimension along which the use of swearing may vary, that such variation is likely to relate to emotion, and that the different perspectives on macrostructure taken in the paper are complementary.
The desire for university education after years of dictatorship reached unprecedented heights in Spain as education appeared to ensure a secure future, especially for the generation born after the dictator years. As a member of the European Union, Spain experienced rapid infrastructural development and economic growth which necessitated the employment of qualified graduate labour. However, the economic collapse of 2014 made the labour force trained during the period of economic boom overqualified for the few, menial jobs available. As a result, there emerged economic and social conditions in Spain which made this affected group appear to have been ‘prepared’ for unemployment. In the course of time the expressions, (Pre)parados, mileurista, ni-ni used to describe this group found their way into everyday Spanish lexicon. This paper adopts two methods in the examination of these coinages. The first is a morpho-semantic analysis, while in the second, the theory of labelling and stigma is applied to highlight the psychological state of the young unemployed Spaniard. The findings reveal that labelling and stigmatisation of a group may come from the stigmatised group itself and may not necessarily be perceived as discriminatory when it also finds a general acceptance in society. The paper suggests that vocational education should be a substantial part of university education in a world of unpredictable economic dynamics.
Objective: Childhood maltreatment is an important psychiatric risk factor. Research has focused primarily on the effects of physical abuse, sexual abuse, or witnessing domestic violence. Parental verbal aggression has received little attention as a specific form of abuse. This study was designed to delineate the impact of parental verbal aggression, witnessing domestic violence, physical abuse, and sexual abuse, by themselves and in combination, on psychiatric symptoms. Method: Symptoms and exposure ratings were collected from 554 subjects 18-22 years of age (68% female) who responded to advertisements. The Verbal Abuse Questionnaire was used to assess exposure to parental verbal aggression. Outcome measures included dissociation and symptoms of "limbic irritability," depression, anxiety, and anger-hostility. Comparisons were made by using effect sizes. Results: Verbal aggression was associated with moderate to large effects, comparable to those associated with witnessing domestic violence or nonfamilial sexual abuse and larger than those associated with familial physical abuse. Exposure to multiple forms of maltreatment had an effect size that was often greater than the component sum. Combined exposure to verbal abuse and witnessing domestic violence had a greater negative effect on some measures than exposure to familial sexual abuse. Conclusions: Parental verbal aggression was a potent form of maltreatment. Exposure to multiple forms of abuse was associated with very large effect sizes. Most maltreated children had been exposed to multiple types of abuse, and the number of different types is a critically important factor.
Cognitive scientists who conduct research on analogical reasoning often claim that precedent in law is an application of reasoning by analogy. In fact, however, law's principle of precedent, as well as the use of precedent in ordinary argument, is quite different. The typical use of analogy in law, including analogies to earlier decisions, involves retrieval of a source analog (or exemplar) from multiple candidates in order to help make the best decision now. But the legal principle of precedent requires that a prior decision be treated as binding even if the current decision maker disagrees with that decision. When the identity between a prior decision and the current question is obvious and inescapable, precedent thus imposes a constraint different from the effect of a typical argument by analogy. The importance of distinguishing analogy from precedent is not so much in showing that a common claim in the psychological literature is mistaken, but that making decisions under the constraints of binding precedent is an important form of decision deserving to be researched in its own right and that it has been ignored because of the erroneous conflation of constraint by precedent with reasoning by analogy. © 2008, Association for Psychological Science. All rights reserved.
The schoolyard wisdom about "sticks and stones" does not take one very far: insults do not take the form only of words, in truth even words have effects, and in the end the popular as well as the standard legal distinctions between speech and conduct are at least as problematic as they are helpful. To think clearly about how much we should put up with those who would put us down, it is necessary to explore the nature and place of insult in our lives. What kind of injury is an insult? Is its infliction determined by the insulter or the insulted? What does it reveal of the character of each and of the character of society and its conventions? What is its role in social and legal life (from play to jokes to ritual to war and from blasphemy to defamation to hate speech)? Philosophical, anthropological, psychoanalytic, and legal approaches to the questions are emphasized. Whether intentional or unintentional, the assertions and assumptions of dominance in insults make them a serious and essential form of power play. Is to understand all to forgive all?
The preference of African American parents for physical discipline is noted frequently in the literature, and it is suggested that this preference is responsible for the over representation of black children in foster care. Our research has found that African American parents in a socialservice intervention program clearly express this preference to their social workers, thereby further jeopardizing their chances of being judged fit parents. Studies of African American parenting styles show that there is a preference for physical discipline in combination with loving verbal reinforcement. This preference seems to represent a deep-seated set of cultural beliefs that cross many generations in the African American community. In spite of the importance of these claims, however, and the apparent cultural character of the preferences, there are relatively few studies of the African. American use of physical discipline and none that report on the preference in any detail. This paper examines extended narrative accounts- of why physical punishment is a preferred form of discipline in the African American community I and how it is ideally to be used. Because the preference for physical discipline is thought to be a deep seated cultural form, and culture is often conveyed through narrative, we have paid careful attention to narrative in examining this preference.
From Huckleberry Finn to Harry Potter, from Internet filters to the v-chip, censorship exercised on behalf of children and adolescents is often based on the assumption that they must be protected from "indecent" information that might harm their development-whether in art, in literature, or on a Web site. But where does this assumption come from, and is it true? In Not in Front of the Children, Marjorie Heins explores the fascinating history of "indecency" laws and other restrictions aimed at protecting youth. From Plato's argument for rigid censorship, through Victorian laws aimed at repressing libidinous thoughts, to contemporary battles over sex education in public schools and violence in the media, Heins guides us through what became, and remains, an ideological minefield. With fascinating examples drawn from around the globe, she suggests that the "harm to minors" argument rests on shaky foundations. There is an urgent need for informed, dispassionate debate about the perceived conflict between the free-expression rights of young people and the widespread urge to shield them from expression that is considered harmful. Not in Front of the Children spurs this long-needed conversation.