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Swearing: A Biopsychosocial Perspective


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Swearing, also known as cursing, can be best described as a form of linguistic activity utilizing taboo words to convey the expression of strong emotions. Although swearing and cursing are frequently occurring behaviors, the actual functions of swearing remain largely unknown. Since swearing typically includes taboo words, these words can be more powerful than non-swear words. Therefore, people who swear are often judged negatively, because the uttered swearwords can shock and disturb others, though the comments of others are strongly dependent on contextual factors. In this review, we provide an insight into the current state of the literature with respect to the interpersonal functions of swearing. In addition, we briefly discuss neurological, psychosocial and contextual factors that may contribute to person's swearing behavior. Swearing is hypothesized to produce a catharsis-effect, which results in a relief of stress or pain. Swearing also influences the perceived credibility, intensity, and persuasiveness of the swearer. Additionally, swearing can have a variety of interpersonal consequences, including promoting group bonding and solidarity, inhibiting aggression, eliciting humor, and causing emotional pain to others. This paper further presents a hypothetical model of swearing that draws from basic emotion research in an attempt to provide a scaffolding for future research.
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Psychological Topics 22 (2013), 2, 287-304
Original scientific paper UDC 179.5:159.9
Ad Vingerhoets, Department of Medical and Clinical Psychology, Tilburg University,
P.O. Box 90153, 5000 LE Tilburg, The Netherlands. Tel: +31-13-4662087/2175. E-
mail: 287
Swearing: A Biopsychosocial Perspective
Ad J.J.M. Vingerhoets
Department of Medical and Clinical Psychology, Tilburg University,
Tilburg The Netherlands
Lauren M. Bylsma
Department of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania USA
Cornelis de Vlam
Department of Medical and Clinical Psychology, Tilburg University,
Tilburg The Netherlands
Swearing, also known as cursing, can be best described as a form of linguistic activity
utilizing taboo words to convey the expression of strong emotions. Although swearing and cursing
are frequently occurring behaviors, the actual functions of swearing remain largely unknown.
Since swearing typically includes taboo words, these words can be more powerful than non-swear
words. Therefore, people who swear are often judged negatively, because the uttered swearwords
can shock and disturb others, though the comments of others are strongly dependent on contextual
factors. In this review, we provide an insight into the current state of the literature with respect to
the interpersonal functions of swearing. In addition, we briefly discuss neurological, psychosocial
and contextual factors that may contribute to person’s swearing behavior. Swearing is
hypothesized to produce a catharsis-effect, which results in a relief of stress or pain. Swearing also
influences the perceived credibility, intensity, and persuasiveness of the swearer. Additionally,
swearing can have a variety of interpersonal consequences, including promoting group bonding
and solidarity, inhibiting aggression, eliciting humor, and causing emotional pain to others. This
paper further presents a hypothetical model of swearing that draws from basic emotion research in
an attempt to provide a scaffolding for future research.
Keywords: swearing, cursing, taboo, emotion, emotional expression, catharsis, interpersonal
PSYCHOLOGICAL TOPICS 22 (2013), 2, 287-304
Over history, there has always been some resistance against the use of
swearing. In the 15th century cursing was punished by imprisonment, excising of
the tongue, or even the death penalty (Pinker, 2007; Stone & Hazelton, 2008).
Although these rigorous measures are no longer applicable in our current society,
there still exists notable resistance against the use of swearwords, which varies
across cultures. In some countries swearing is still prohibited by law, although the
punishments are currently not quite as severe as they used to be (Rassin & Muris,
2005). In the Netherlands there exists a "League against swearing," which opposes
profanity and swearing. Similarly, in the USA the Federal Communication
Commission tries to regulate speech that may be considered offensive on radio and
television. However, most people in Western society admit to uttering a swear
word from time to time (Rassin & Van der Heijden, 2005). According to recent
literature (e.g., Baruch & Jenkins, 2007) this has been happening more and more
regularly in our conversations with other people since the 1960’s and has therefore
almost become a new norm in our contemporary language use. At the same time,
swearing seems to have lost some of its power over time and has become more
diluted with the increased frequency of its use (Howe, 2012).
or cursing, is a linguistic activity involving the use of taboo words
(Stapleton, 2010). Humans have been using curse- and swearwords since the
emergence of language. Some scientists even propose that all modern languages
have developed from primitive linguistic utterances that were comparable with
swearing (Montagu, 1967). Andersson and Trudgill (2007) define swearing as
language use in which the expression: (i) refers to something taboo or stigmatized
in the swearer’s culture, (ii) is not intended to be interpreted literally, (iii) can be
used to express strong emotions or attitudes. The combination of these aspects
results in an expression with a greater expressive power. For this reason, swearing
can be more functional in particular circumstances (Stapleton, 2010).
Not all swearing is the same: There are many different forms and types of
swearing that have been described. Patrick (1901) distinguished between different
kinds of religious swearwords related to sacred places or sacred matters of religion,
which may be considered the origin of "cursing." Nowadays we distinguish a much
larger variety of swearwords based on numerous taboo categories. Across the
world, the most commonly used taboo categories for swearing involve bodily
functions, body parts, sex, and religion (Pinker, 2007; Stapleton, 2010). In the
1 The words swearing and cursing are used as synonyms in this text, although it may be
argued that there are subtle distinctions between them.
Vingerhoets, A.J.J.M., Bylsma, L.M., De Vlam, C.:
Swearing: A Biopsychosocial Perspective
Netherlands diseases are also used as a taboo category for swearing (Rassin &
Muris, 2005). Besides the taboo nature of swearwords, another important and
related characteristic is their connection with strong emotions, both positive and
negative. However, the expression of strong emotions (swearing, but also laughing,
yelling, and crying) is not equally appreciated in all cultures (Jay & Janschewitz,
2008; Vingerhoets, 2013).
Swearing can also be differentiated by its particular function or by its degree
of conscious controllability. Montagu (1967) separates annoyance swearing and
social swearing, with annoyance swearing serving primarily intra-individual
functions (e.g., catharsis), whereas social or conversational swearing refers to
swearing which mainly serves inter-individual functions. Jay and Janschewitz
(2008) distinguish between automatic (unconscious, reflexive) versus more
consciously controlled forms of swearing. It has been argued that swearing can be
characterized on a continuum from unconscious/automatic to fully
conscious/controlled (Jay, 2009a). Certain neurological disorders (e.g. Gilles de la
Tourette syndrome) are associated with uncontrollable swearing in more extreme
forms, but this form of swearing appears less functional (Jay, 2000). Pinker (2007)
even distinguishes at least five different ways of swearing (1) descriptively (Let’s
fuck), (2) idiomatically (It’s fucked up.), (3) abusively (Fuck you, motherfucker!!),
(4) emphatically (This is fucking amazing!), and (5) cathartically (Fuck!!!).
Swearing is a topic that can be examined from very different perspectives. For
example, Pinker (2007) provides a most interesting and amusing account on
swearing, mainly from the perspective of a psycholinguist. The current review has a
different focus in which we will integrate evolutionary, historical, social, and
psychological perspectives. Specifically, in this review, we will first briefly address
the evolution and historical context of swearing. Then an impression will be given
of the contextual and psychosocial factors that may determine whether or not a
person will swear in a given context, including what motivates people to swear and
the social factors that influence an individual’s swearing behavior. Finally, we
briefly overview individual differences in swearing, including what factors will
predict who will swear more or less. The emphasis, however, will be on the intra-
and inter-individual functions that might be served by swearing. The goal of this
review in addressing these questions is to provide a better insight into the functions
of swearing behavior and to shed light on why people keep swearing, even when
they have learned that swearing may be met with disapproval or negative
consequences. To put it differently, this review will be primarily focused on
mapping the functional aspects of swearing and its moderating factors.
PSYCHOLOGICAL TOPICS 22 (2013), 2, 287-304
The Evolution and Neurobiology of Swearing
Patrick (1901) refers to swearing out of annoyance or frustration as a primitive
act of speech, comparable to the growling of animals. The growling of an animal
communicates its emotional state, so other animals will be deterred from further
action, and the resulting growling animal’s stress level will subsequently be
reduced. Relatedly, growling will also contribute to the inhibition of physical
aggression towards other animals. In fact, growling can be regarded as an
alternative behavior to an immediate attack. While attacking costs a lot of energy
and can lead to severe physical damage, often it will be much more effective and
less costly to deploy alternative methods like growling (Montagu, 1942). Swearing
is thus thought to serve as a way to reduce an individual’s own stress level (through
the venting of strong emotions such as anger and frustration) and as a way to
intensify communication (Ginsburg, Ogletree, & Silakowski, 2003). However, the
empirical support for a catharsis effect of swearing is scant at best.
Pinker (2007) points to the possible relevance of the so-called "Rage circuit,"
which runs from a part of the amygdala down through the hypothalamus and
subsequently in the gray matter of the midbrain. According to Pinker, the sudden
activation of this system when confronted with pain or frustration may have a
cathartic effect as a by-product. Alternatively, cathartic swearing may be
considered as part of a more comprehensive linguistic phenomenon called
ejaculations or response cries (Goffman, 1978). In this notion, cathartic swearing is
regarded as an adaptation, especially meant to communicate that the situation we
are confronted with deeply affects us, as evidenced by the display of strong
Interestingly, in regards to the neurobiology of swearing, although in the great
majority of Western people the speech areas are located in the left hemisphere of
the brain, several case studies demonstrate that brain areas associated with swearing
are primarily located in the right hemisphere (Van Lancker & Cummings, 1999).
However, if swearing is used purposefully in the context of a person’s speech, the
left hemisphere will also be actively engaged (Jay, 2000). More automatic or
impulsive forms of swearing result from activity in the limbic system and basal
ganglia of the brain. When these structures are damaged, this can lead to
coprolalia, a condition in which a person frequently and uncontrollably utters
swear words. This condition is also a symptom in some patients with Tourette’s
disease, in which swearing manifests as an uncontrollable tic, along with other
sudden, repetitive, non-rhythmic movements or utterances (Van Lancker &
Cummings, 1999).
The prefrontal cortex, known for its crucial role in regulating emotions (Quirk
& Beer, 2006) has been shown to play a role in managing our "swearing etiquette",
Vingerhoets, A.J.J.M., Bylsma, L.M., De Vlam, C.:
Swearing: A Biopsychosocial Perspective
in that this region is responsible for the evaluation of social situations and the
inhibition of inappropriate behavior like swearing in certain contexts (Jay, 2000). In
addition, the basal ganglia have been attributed a similar role (Pinker, 2007).
Children develop this swearing etiquette, because swearing can trigger strong
negative reactions in others, which can have negative repercussions for the
swearing person. When this etiquette has developed sufficiently, children will learn
to use swearing (a well as other behaviors) more selectively as a way to accomplish
inter-individual goals in certain contexts. When the prefrontal cortex is damaged,
such as in the case of an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease and some other
neurological disorders, the ability to inhibit inappropriate swearing becomes
reduced (Jay, 2000).
Also potentially relevant to the development of swearing, Owren, Amoss, and
Rendall (2011) make a distinction in animals between production-first and
reception-first vocal development, each with a separate neural pathway. Emotional
expressions (crying and laughing) might be strongly under the influence of the
"production-first" pathway, whereas language is mainly connected with the
"reception-first" neural pathways. Swearing might be an interesting example of the
interaction between these two systems.
Motivational and Contextual Factors of Swearing
Andersson and Trudgill (2007) emphasized that swearing is an utterance of
strong emotions. It is therefore expected to occur in situations in which a certain
strong emotion emerges or when a person expresses a particularly strong attitude
towards another person. Indeed, in a survey of over 200 college students, Jay, King,
and Duncan (2006) found that anger and frustration were the most frequently
mentioned emotions (53%), followed by humor (9%), and pain (6%). Previous
research by Jay (2000) yielded similar results, with anger and frustration reported
as the primary triggers of swearing (64%), followed by humor (12%), and surprise
and sarcasm (5% each). Swearing can thus be regarded as an expression of both
positive and negative emotions that involve significant intensity.
Further details regarding the context of swearing were revealed by Van
Sterkenburg (2001) who asked over 600 respondents to describe the most common
places and contexts in which swearing occurred. Remarkably, three out of four
highest ranked places concerned a sports context: the soccer field, the sports
canteen, and the locker room. Research by Rainey and Granito (2010) confirms the
finding of swearing primarily occurring in a sports context, as a substantial
percentage of athletes admit the regular use of swearwords. However, there were
substantial individual differences, which will receive due attention later on.
PSYCHOLOGICAL TOPICS 22 (2013), 2, 287-304
An additional important contextual factor was examined by Daly, Holmes,
Newton, and Stubbe (2004), who demonstrated the importance of factors related to
the toleration of swearing in a particular context, namely the presence of others.
These investigators recorded mutual conversations between colleagues in a New
Zealand soap factory for 35 hours. These employees were divided into several
different work teams. It turned out that when only an individual’s own team
members were present, swearing occurred more frequently than when members of
other teams were also present. The swearing thus seemed to be connected with
feelings of in group closeness.
Generally speaking, swearing is more tolerated in informal and private or in-
group settings relative to more formal and public settings (Mercury, 1995). The
formality of the situation in which swearing occurs matters (Johnson & Lewis,
2010). For example, Jay (1992) showed that students hardly swear in official or
public contexts, such as the Dean’s office, when there is a risk of losing one’s status
and respect. Relatedly, another characteristic of the context that may influence the
reaction to swearing concerns the relationship between the swearing person and the
listener in terms of differences in status or closeness (Jay & Janschewitz, 2008). In
general, people of both genders are less likely to swear in the presence of a person
with a higher status or in the presence of someone of the other gender. Other
examples of verbally restrictive situations include the presence of new
acquaintances, someone’s own parents, or one’s physician (Mercury, 1995).
Further, swearing is typically not tolerated by others in the presence of children. On
the other hand, there is currently also evidence of increased use of aggression and
swearing in situations in which authority figures (e.g., police) or aid workers
(firemen, ambulance personnel, emergency unit workers) are operating. More
generally, health care professionals currently seem to be exposed increasingly to
swearing and verbal aggression (e.g., Stone, McMillan, & Hazelton, 2010).
To summarize, swearing primarily occurs when the swearer experiences a
strong emotion or when he or she wants to accomplish certain goals through
swearing. In such an appropriate context, the risk of being subjected to negative
reactions of others is less likely. The best suited context to swear seems to be an
informal setting with familiar people of the same status and gender, such as in a
sport club’s locker room or in a pub with friends.
The Functions of Swearing
Intra-individual Functions
The conceptualization of swearing as a way to express intense emotions (e.g.,
frustration, aggression) suggests that it also may produce a catharsis effect (Patrick,
Vingerhoets, A.J.J.M., Bylsma, L.M., De Vlam, C.:
Swearing: A Biopsychosocial Perspective
1901). In other words, expressing negative emotions may result in both tension
reduction and aggressive drive reduction. This catharsis effect turned out to be the
most frequently mentioned reason to swear in an investigation among 72 students
(Rassin & Muris, 2005). Similarly, 16% of a group of over 200 students reported
having experienced a feeling of stress relief after a swearing episode (Jay et al.,
2006). According to Montagu (1967), annoyance or frustration swearing is more
likely to occur when the swearer feels a high level of stress (Baruch & Jenkins,
2007). However, an overall lower life satisfaction and an associated state of
elevated stress were not found to be associated with a higher swearing frequency
(Rassin & Muris, 2005).
The catharsis effect may also explain why swearing might be an alternative for
physical aggression. By "letting off steam" through swearing, feelings of anger and
frustration can be reduced, resulting in a decreased probability of overt, physical
aggression. In this way, swearing serves as a tool for the inhibition of physical
aggression, which can prevent more severe consequences (Jay, 2009a; Montagu,
1942). However, Bushman and colleagues (Bushman, Baumeister, & Stack, 1999)
demonstrated that venting anger may actually reinforce engagement in future
aggression, rather than decreasing aggressive tendencies.
Although these intra-individual functions are mentioned frequently in the
literature, actual research into the catharsis effect is confined to survey studies, as
the ones mentioned earlier (Jay, 2009a; Johnson & Lewis, 2010). Experimental
studies on the catharsis effect of swearing are needed to systematically evaluate this
hypothesis and to provide insight into the underlying mechanisms of possible stress
relief. However, in a relevant experimental study, Stephens, Atkins, and Kingston
(2009) examined the effect of swearing on pain tolerance and pain perception by
exposing 67 students to the cold-pressor test. More precisely, participants had to
hold their hand in ice water as long as they can bear, and while doing this, they had
to repeat a chosen swear word or a neutral word over and over again. It was found
that participants could endure the painful stimulus longer in the swearing condition
than when uttering a neutral word, and this increased pain tolerance was
accompanied with a reduced pain perception and an elevated heart rate.
In a follow-up study, Stephens and Umland (2011) demonstrated with the use
of the cold-pressor test that the pain reducing effect of swearing might be explained
by the emotional reaction of the body to swearing. The reduced pain perception can
be attributed to the increased physical arousal, very similar to the fight-flight
response (Dong, 2010). This reaction can, however, bring about a negative effect
when it occurs on a regular basis, which may interfere with psychological
adjustment, as has been demonstrated in case of a chronic disease (Robbins et al.,
PSYCHOLOGICAL TOPICS 22 (2013), 2, 287-304
2011). Further, Stephens and Umland (2011) showed that a high swearing
frequency reduced the pain lessening effect probably through habituation.
Inter-individual Functions
Besides the intra-individual functions of swearing, numerous inter-individual
functions of swearing have been postulated, which typically refers to the
interpersonal context. That is, what the person who swears conveys is dependent on
the concerning interpersonal context of the message. One important question is
why swearing is often not appreciated by others. In certain contexts, swearing
generally elicits negative reactions in others, even though there are typically no
obvious negative effects found in terms of harm to the swearer, listener or society
(Jay, 2009a).
Since swear words are based on a culture’s taboo categories, and these words
can be judged as shocking, swearing people are often considered to be antisocial
and offensive. As a consequence, swearing can thus negatively impact the swearing
individual’s social status and how that individual is perceived by others (Stapleton,
2010). Johnson and Lewis (2010) demonstrated that the evaluation of swearers is
subject to an ‘expectancy-violations explanation,’ which implies that individuals
who swear are judged negatively in contexts where swearing is not anticipated.
Violation of the norms of the context may lead to negative judgments by others,
which will inhibit most people from swearing.
As alluded to earlier, swearing also has a communicative function. If someone
swears, the environment is warned of the emotional state of the swearing person. It
can thus serve as an alarm signal of potential threat for others, just like any other
sign of anger. Indeed, both verbal and physical aggression are often accompanied
by swearing (Rassin & Muris, 2005). Moreover, swearing may suffice to cause
others to discontinue their ongoing activities.
Related to the communicative function of swearing, this behavior can also
indicate that the swearing person has a problem managing his or her emotions. As a
consequence of the taboo character of swearing, many other people will mainly
focus on the used taboo words. Therefore, the person who swears runs the risk of
deterring other people. As a consequence, these individuals may become socially
isolated, which eventually may lead to feelings of rejection and depression
(Robbins et al., 2011). Although it is evident that someone who swears can evoke
fear and hostility in other people, possibly at the expense of his or her reputation, it
turns out that swearing can also elicit certain positive reactions in others, as detailed
A further determined inter-individual function of swearing concerns the
increase of credibility. Rassin and Van der Heijden (2005) reported on relationship
Vingerhoets, A.J.J.M., Bylsma, L.M., De Vlam, C.:
Swearing: A Biopsychosocial Perspective
between swearing and (perceived) credibility and demonstrated that when exposed
to fictitious testimonies of a suspect and a victim, people tend to judge versions
containing swearwords as more credible then statements in which swearwords are
lacking. In contrast, Scherer and Sagarin (2006) found no effects of swearing on the
perceived credibility in an investigation in which subjects had to judge a speech.
Swearing did however influence other perceived characteristics of the speech, such
that swearing at the beginning or the end of the speech resulted in a higher rated
intensity and a more positive perspective concerning the topic of the speech,
compared to the speech without swearwords. Jay (1992) earlier proposed that
swearing in an inappropriate context may lead to lower ratings of credibility and
persuasiveness of the speaker. Thus, the effects of swearing, again, turn out to be
highly dependent on its context: in an appropriate context swearing may raise a
speaker’s credibility and persuasiveness, because it is an expression of emotions
and for that reason seems more genuine and honest to other people.
The intensity of a speech, which is increased by swearing, can also enhance its
effectiveness (Howell & Giuliano, 2011). For example, criticism of a sports coach
can be judged as less effective when it contains multiple swearwords, compared to
a speech without these swearwords. On the other hand, the use of swearwords in
coaching itself can, in fact, lead to a higher rated effectiveness of the coach, though
this effect was only found for male sports teams.
A further inter-individual function of swearing depends upon the specific
interpersonal context, including the composition of the group in which swearing
occurs. As mentioned earlier, Daly et al. (2004) examined conversations of a team
of colleagues of a New Zealand soap factory and demonstrated a high frequency of
swearing within the teams. Collective swearing, mainly out of frustration or
dissatisfaction with regard to their job, boosted the social connectedness of these
group members. Non-members were only allowed to participate in the subculture
of the group if they expressed their solidarity with the group colleagues by
swearing and thereby complying with its norms (Daly et al., 2004). Because of this
positive effect of swearing on the mutual solidarity between colleagues and the
associated improvement of the work atmosphere, Baruch and Jenkins (2007)
suggest that managers should adopt a rather permissive leadership style with
respect to swearing. Similarly, among groups of adolescents, swearing is often used
as a sign of solidarity (Stapleton, 2010). In this way, swearing can be used in a
positive way to express a personal or group identity (Stapleton, 2010), whereby
people can convey that they have a certain identity and are part of a certain group
by swearing or not swearing. Another example of this is the way in which editors of
a men’s magazine, for example, can emphasize its masculine identity by using
PSYCHOLOGICAL TOPICS 22 (2013), 2, 287-304
swearwords in the text, since swearing is perceived as a symbol of masculinity
(Benwell, 2001).
Given the informal character of swearing, it can also be used to create an
informal atmosphere, such as in a stand-up comedy act, in conversations about sex,
or when telling stories (Jay, 2009b; Seizer, 2011). When used in a setting, like in a
stand-up comedy act, the use of swearwords can signal that certain usual taboos are
momentarily inapplicable. In that way, it is possible to achieve an elevated state of
hilarity in public, as the use of swearwords implies that it is permitted to lose
control and gain a sense of "letting go".
The use of swearing in humor may, however, also result in negative reactions
of others, particularly when the humor used is offensive to an individual or group.
Because of the powerful nature of swear words, they can make an utterance more
offensive relative to when no swearwords are used. Therefore, swearing is
especially functional when the purpose is to verbally "hurt" another person (Jay,
2000). Sexual intimidation, discrimination, and verbal abuse, all are often
accompanied with swearwords (Jay, 2009b). Research by Rainey and Granito
(2010) has demonstrated that the use of swearing for the purpose of insulting other
people is used by athletes in order to belittle their opponents and boost up
themselves to improve their own performance.
In conclusion, it seems that swearing serves multiple intra-individual as well
as inter-individual functions. This functionality is strongly dependent on contextual
factors. In the short-term, swearing can elicit fear and hostility in others. In the
long-term, it can even result in a loss of social status and a decrease in emotional
support. In addition, for some people, swearing may become a habit, probably no
longer serving any function at all (Rassin & Muris, 2005; Rassin & Van der
Heijden, 2005; Van Lancker & Cummings, 1999). Table 1 summarizes the primary
intra-individual and inter-individual effects of swearing.
Table 1. Possible Interpersonal Effects of Swearing
Effects of swearing
- Stress relief
- Negative affect
- Pain reduction
- Inhibition of aggression
- Confidence
- Stops unwanted behaviors
- Signaling function
- Credibility
- Persuasiveness
- Group binding
- Identity marker
- Humor elicitation
- Fear
- Hostility
- Decreased social support
- Loss of status
- Insult
Vingerhoets, A.J.J.M., Bylsma, L.M., De Vlam, C.:
Swearing: A Biopsychosocial Perspective
There are good reasons to support the idea that there are large individual
differences in swearing. Apparently, people differ in the level of development of
their swearing etiquette or in the degree to which they comply with their swearing
etiquette. Obviously, cultural and social learning factors are involved, but what
about the impact of personality factors? An individual’s personality characteristics
may also determine the ease by which a person swears or doesn’t swear. It might be
expected that highly impulsive or emotional people will swear more often, because
they will have more trouble complying with their swearing etiquette (Jay, 2000).
Connections have also been reported, among others, with hostility, sexual anxiety,
and religiosity (Jay, 2009a).
In line with these expectations, people with low scores on the personality
characteristics agreeableness and conscientiousness, or with high scores on
extraversion, are most likely to swear (Fast & Funder, 2008; Jay, 2009a). In
addition, people with a high degree of hostility, such as individuals with a Type-A
Personality and antisocial personality have been shown to swear more often than
the average individual (Jay, 2000, 2009a). On the other hand, people whose
personality is characterized by sexual anxiety and sexual repression or religiosity,
may swear less often than other people (Jay, 2009a). Because of the small amount
of research on the relationship between personality and swearing, more studies on
this topic are needed.
In addition to individual differences, there are also considerable group
differences in swearing. Patrick (1901) concluded that swearwords are primarily
used by soldiers, sailors, laborers, uneducated people, and criminals. Swearing
currently still seems to be a widespread phenomenon in mainly lower social-
economic classes of society (McEnery, 2006). Lower class individuals are
relatively resistant to negative reactions of other people, since they do not run the
risk of a diminished social status (Jay, 2000). Also students and adolescents seem to
swear a lot, since they have little power and status and therefore cannot lose them
either. In addition, policemen, soldiers, athletes, psychiatric patients and
delinquents are explicitly mentioned as groups well-known for their frequent
swearing (Jay, 2009a).
Gender effects are the most frequently investigated group difference in
swearing (Johnson & Lewis, 2010). As just shown, the occupational groups in
which swearing is common, appear to be professions that are mainly occupied by
men. According to Jay (2000), individuals having high scores on the trait of
masculinity will also swear most frequently. Thus, swearing has long been defined
as primarily a masculine behavior.
Several studies indeed confirm that men do swear more than women (Jay,
2000; Jay et al., 2006) and that boys begin to swear at earlier ages than girls
PSYCHOLOGICAL TOPICS 22 (2013), 2, 287-304
(Johnson & Lewis, 2010). Moreover, compared to women, men know more swear
words and use more swear words (Jay, 2000). Women report that they swear less
than men and regard swearing on television or in newspapers as less appropriate
(Johnson & Lewis, 2010). A possible explanation for this gender difference is that
women are better aware of social situations and the social consequences of
swearing than men are (Jay & Janschewitz, 2008). Furthermore, swearing by
women might be judged by others as a stronger violation of the norm, because
swearing is regarded as a characteristically masculine behavior, whereas women
are expected to be more affiliative and tend to cry more when experiencing
frustration or helplessness (Baruch & Jenkins, 2007; Vingerhoets, 2013). Strong
violations are often disapproved by other people (Blake, 1952), which would
explain why women have been more prone to avoid swearing.
In more recent publications, however, the presumed masculine character of
swearing is challenged. It is suggested and that there are now no gender differences
at all in swearing frequency (Jay et al., 2006; Johnson & Lewis, 2010; Stone &
Hazelton, 2008). In nursing homes, female residents swore even more than male
residents (Jay et al., 2006). Women also tend to swear more than men in gender-
mixed company (Baruch & Jenkins, 2007). Differences between men and women
in swearing behavior seem to be dependent on contextual factors. Given these
insights, one may even wonder about the presumed masculine character of
swearing, which could have been arisen because women were expected not to
swear, not because they actually swore less often (Coates, 1986).
Why some individuals swear in certain situations and not in others also
depends on how they perceive the situation. This appraisal of the objective situation
determines the kind and intensity of the emotion that is activated (Frijda, Kuipers,
& Ter Schure, 1989). When an individual experiences certain intense emotions,
they can be expressed by swearing, although this is not necessarily the case. The
expression by swearing may further be dependent on the individual’s personality
and the wider social context, whether it is felt appropriate to swear in such a
Towards a Model of Swearing
Montagu (1942) considers swearing in adults to have the same function as
crying by younger children out of frustration. Montagu further suggests that
laughing, crying, and swearing are reciprocally related, because all these primitive
outbursts of emotion may bring about a catharsis effect and can serve inter-
individual goals. The apparent correspondences with crying are remarkable and
interesting. Crying and swearing are both connected with a variety of intense
Vingerhoets, A.J.J.M., Bylsma, L.M., De Vlam, C.:
Swearing: A Biopsychosocial Perspective
(mainly negative, but also positive) emotions, and both are hypothesized to serve
intra- and inter-personal functions. And for both behaviors, biological and cultural
factors seem to be relevant. Vingerhoets, Cornelius, Van Heck, and Becht (2000)
have introduced a model illustrating the role of biological, psychosocial and
contextual factors involved in crying.
Figure 1. A Proposed Model of Swearing.
Adapted from Vingerhoets’ et al. (2000) Model of Crying
Given these remarkable similarities, we propose a model of swearing based on
Vingerhoets et al.’s (2000) crying model (see Figure 1). The core of the model is a
cognitive emotion model, with its key characteristic being appraisal of the objective
situation. Appraisal here refers to the individual’s judgment regarding whether the
situation is or is not personally relevant. When a situation is deemed personally
relevant, the appraisal process continues with the evaluation of the situation in
terms of positive or negative, threat, challenge or loss, who is responsible, etc. This
appraisal process is influenced by biological, psychosocial, and contextual factors
(Frijda et al., 1989; Vingerhoets, 2013; Vingerhoets et al., 2000). Specific appraisal
patterns subsequently result in specific emotions like anger, frustration,
disappointment or sadness.
When someone experiences a certain intense emotion, this emotion can or
cannot be expressed by swearing, dependent on several factors, which have been
reviewed here. The model further shows that swearing may serve intra-individual
PSYCHOLOGICAL TOPICS 22 (2013), 2, 287-304
and inter-individual functions. Swearing may thus influence the emotional state of
the swearing person him- or herself, as well as the emotional state of others.
Reactions of those other people in their turn may also influence the emotional state
of the swearing person, as well as his appraisal of the objective situation itself.
As shown above, swearing can also bring about positive reactions in others,
for example when swearing out of dissatisfaction leads to more group binding. This
group binding in its turn can positively influence the emotional state of the person
who swears. Also this group binding may lead to support by others, which may
change the appraisal by the swearing person as well as the objective situation. In
addition, swearing can evoke negative reactions in others. For example, an
aggressive reaction by another person may lead to fear instead of the previously felt
frustration, which may cause a threatening situation. When swearing drives away
other people, the emotion-provoking factor may sometimes also disappear. This all
may result in an emotional state of the swearer person that has turned back to a
baseline level.
This review addresses several important questions regarding swearing. What
motivates people to swear? Which social factors are of influence for an individual’s
swearing behavior? What intra- and inter-individual functions are served by
swearing? What kinds of individuals will swear more or less? The presented model,
based on Vingerhoets et al.’s (2000) crying model may be helpful in unraveling
various key factors relevant for crying.
One of the most notable characteristics of swearing is its involvement in the
expression of strong emotions, either positive or negative, such as anger, frustration
or joy. As made clear by the model, the appraisal of the objective situation by the
individual is of extreme importance. Additional contextual and personal factors will
determine whether this emotion is expressed by means of swearing. The
relationship between the swearer and others in the social context, the formality of
the situation, and the public or private nature of the situation are examples of such
contextual factors that can influence the functionality of swearing.
By its strong expressive power, swearing may provide a sense of stress relief
and can function as a replacement behavior for physical aggression. There is also
some evidence to suggest that swearing may provide a higher pain tolerance for the
person who swears, though the precise mechanisms for this remain unclear.
In addition to these intra-individual functions, swearing also serves several
important inter-individual functions. For example, swearing may inhibit unwanted
Vingerhoets, A.J.J.M., Bylsma, L.M., De Vlam, C.:
Swearing: A Biopsychosocial Perspective
behaviors of others, or may influence how positively a speaker’s persuasiveness
and credibility is perceived. Swearing can further convey a sense of solidarity and
stimulate group binding, or it can be used as a clarification of a certain group
identity. In addition, swearing can elicit humor, create an informal atmosphere, or
make people feel better by belittling or verbally "hurting" other people. However,
because of its powerful nature, swearing may also cause negative effects for the
swearing person. For example, frequent swearing may lead to a loss of image of the
person who swears and even may lessen the swearer’s social support.
Demographic factors, such as gender or age can influence a person’s swearing
behavior. Although swearing was long considered a predominantly masculine
activity, women now tend to swear as much, or even more often, than men. People
of lower socio-economic status also appear to swear more often. Swearing or not
swearing in a certain situation is also dependent on a person’s education and the
toleration of swearing by that person’s parents. Furthermore, personality is a
determinant-people with an antisocial personality swear more often than others,
whereas people who would have high scores on religiosity, sexual anxiety, or
repression seem to swear less frequently. Certain neurological diseases, like
Alzheimer’s disease or Gilles de la Tourette’s syndrome, also increase an
individual’s swearing behavior.
The model presented here thus might be helpful in formulating hypotheses and
designing studies to investigate the proposed connections and to reveal new
relationships. Future studies should pay more systematic attention to the possible
harmful effects and aversive reactions of others for the swearing person, which
have not yet been examined by the current literature. Indeed, Jay (2009b) suggests
that swear words can "hurt" other people, although this is highly dependent on
contextual factors and the intentions of the swearer. Findings regarding the possible
harmful effects of swearing could then be integrated in our model of swearing.
Whereas there is ample research on other forms of emotional expression, it is
surprising that this specific frequent emotional expression has received so little
attention from the scientific community.
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Received: February 13, 2013
... Payne et al. (2017) suggest that implicit bias can emerge as individuals aggregate in crowds. With the greater intensity of interactions, as relational familiarity between individuals increases, they feel more comfortable using offensive language (Vingerhoets et al. 2013), and implicit biases are more reflected in their language. Clinicians are not immune to this pattern. ...
... Specifically, we apply social network analysis to investigate if the degree centrality of clinicians in their collaborative network affects their use of SL and the subsequent impact on AI performance. Our focus on centrality is motivated by prior research in social psychology, which suggests that social familiarity plays a significant role in shaping individual behavior and communication patterns (Vingerhoets et al. 2013, Sparrowe et al. 2001). In the in-patient healthcare context, as discussed in Section 2.3, teamwork is an integral part of the care-delivery process, with clinicians frequently collaborating and communicating with one another to provide optimal patient care. ...
... In the in-patient healthcare context, as discussed in Section 2.3, teamwork is an integral part of the care-delivery process, with clinicians frequently collaborating and communicating with one another to provide optimal patient care. However, previous research suggests that while teamwork increases familiarity among clinicians, the familiarity can also make them feel more comfortable exhibiting implicit biases and using offensive language (Centola et al. 2021, Vingerhoets et al. 2013. Therefore, we expect that the extent to which a focal clinician is familiar with others in the team is positively associated with their SL usage in EHR notes. ...
Electronic health records (EHRs) serve as an essential data source for the envisioned artificial intelligence (AI)-driven transformation in healthcare. However, clinician biases reflected in EHR notes can lead to AI models inheriting and amplifying these biases, perpetuating health disparities. This study investigates the impact of stigmatizing language (SL) in EHR notes on mortality prediction using a Transformer-based deep learning model and explainable AI (XAI) techniques. Our findings demonstrate that SL written by clinicians adversely affects AI performance, particularly so for black patients, highlighting SL as a source of racial disparity in AI model development. To explore an operationally efficient way to mitigate SL's impact, we investigate patterns in the generation of SL through a clinicians' collaborative network, identifying central clinicians as having a stronger impact on racial disparity in the AI model. We find that removing SL written by central clinicians is a more efficient bias reduction strategy than eliminating all SL in the entire corpus of data. This study provides actionable insights for responsible AI development and contributes to understanding clinician behavior and EHR note writing in healthcare.
... Profanity. Profanity refers to offensive [61] and aggressive [62,63] taboo words [64] related to body parts, bodily functions, sex, religion [65], and language based on positive or negative emotions [61,66] and is subject to the subjective interpretation of the receiver [67] and the context in which profane language is used [68]. Profanity can be an unfiltered and abrupt expression of emotions [69] and a planned insult of an object, place, or a person [70]. ...
... Profane language, in the current times, has been losing its power [81] and has becoming more com-mon [82]. Profanity is more tolerable in private gatherings as compared to formal meetings [64,83] and within the same gender groups as compared with groups involving mixed genders [61]. The objectives of using profane language include social bonding, handling emotional and physical pain, emotional catharsis, expressing power and control, establishing dominant-submissive relationships, confronting authorities, labeling others, conveying aggression, and humiliating others [64,66,67,[84][85][86][87][88][89][90]. ...
... Profanity is more tolerable in private gatherings as compared to formal meetings [64,83] and within the same gender groups as compared with groups involving mixed genders [61]. The objectives of using profane language include social bonding, handling emotional and physical pain, emotional catharsis, expressing power and control, establishing dominant-submissive relationships, confronting authorities, labeling others, conveying aggression, and humiliating others [64,66,67,[84][85][86][87][88][89][90]. Profanity is also used for humor and comedy [91][92][93] and to stimulate sexual excitement (Teresa E. [80]). ...
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.
... Garrett TRUMMER, DPT, SCS, CSCS, CISSN 1 , Richard STEPHENS, PhD 2 and Nicholas B. WASHMUTH, DPT, DMT, OCS 3 From the 1 Godspeed, Hoover, AL, United States, 2 School of Psychology, Keele University, Keele, Staffordshire, United Kingdom and 3 Department of Physical Therapy, Samford University, Birmingham, AL, United States JRM-CC distance between the healthcare provider and the patient that interferes with their relationship (6). Swearing within the context-specific relationship between a PT and a patient may actually enhance their professional relationship (7,8), since language is the basis of the therapeutic relationship (9). Therefore, PTs need guidance regarding the use of swearing within the context of a therapeutic relationship. ...
... It is poorly understood when, how and if PTs should swear with patients. However, humans have been swearing since the emergence of language (7), and it is quite common, with evidence suggesting 58% of the population swear "sometimes" or "often" and less than 10% of the population report "never" or "rarely" swearing (3). Since swearing produces a range of distinct positive psychological, physiological, and social outcomes and generates effects that are not observed with other forms of language (12), it would seem like the ideal language for building and maintaining positive therapeutic relationships between PTs and their patients (13). ...
... Communication styles that help clinicians engage with patients have been shown to correlate with therapeutic alliance (17). Swearing can lead to tighter human bonds and create informal environments where people are more likely to be themselves (7), which may enhance the therapeutic alliance. Swearing has been shown to help build rapport (8) and can be used to manifest solidarity (18). ...
Full-text available
Objective: Swearing deserves attention in the physical therapy setting due to its potential positive psychological, physiological, and social effects. The purpose of this case series is to describe 2 cases in which a physical therapist swears in the clinical setting and its effect on therapeutic alliance. Patients: Case 1 is a 19-year-old male treated for a hamstring strain, and case 2 is a 23-year-old male treated post-operatively for anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction. The physical therapist utilized social swearing in the clinic with the goal of motivating the patient and enhancing the social connection with the patient, to improve therapeutic alliance. Results: The patient in case 1 reported a decrease in therapeutic alliance after the physical therapist began swearing during physical therapy treatments, whereas the patient in case 2 reported an increase in therapeutic alliance. Both patients disagreed that physical therapist swearing is unprofessional and disagreed that swearing is offensive, and both patients agreed physical therapists should be able to swear around their patients. Conclusion: Physical therapist swearing may have positive and negative influences in the clinic setting and may not be considered unprofessional. These are, to our knowledge, the first published cases of a physical therapist swearing in the clinical setting.
... Scholars such as Jay and Jay [19] and Vingerhoets et al. [20] conducted research study on Polish students; and Dewaele [21] and Gawinkowska et al. [22] conducted a similar research study on Asian and Arab students. The students were tested by translating an English text into Polish, Asian and Arab, the second language (L2), which contained taboo words. ...
... Finn ([23], p. 18) advises that translators should 'comprehend that there are possible benefits one can garner by being knowledgeable about this often-offensive part of the lexicon' . Vingerhoets et al. [20], Jay [24] and Jay and Jay [19] observed that people who express themselves through this often-offensive part of the lexicon are frequently seen as low class, unintelligent and emotionally or mentally unsuitable. Mercury ([25], p. 29) notes that 'much is lost in the translation, and most of what is lost is largely related to the connotative meanings in the taboo words speakers choose to use' . ...
Full-text available
Translators draw from their mental lexicons to make conscious efforts to arrive at quality translation products. However, it is easy to reproduce and reinforce the translator’s cultural and religious beliefs in their translation products. The chapter conceptualises the stigma of the so-called ‘deviant’ terms and critiques the influence of a Xitsonga translator’s religious beliefs stance that may exert on medical terminology development processes. Mistranslation or untranslatability has been a topic of much research, usually with a focus on linguistic and external cultural features in isolation. A descriptive translation studies approach is applied to investigate the complex relationship between the translator’s religious beliefs and the quality of a translation product by examining the semantics of the corpus of culture-bound words purposely selected for this study. The study is anchored on a functionalist theory of translation to promote empirical comparison and analysis of a source term and a target term. It is hoped that the study will increase the Xitsonga translators’ awareness of the impact that issues such as religious beliefs may have on their translation products, and consequently overcome potential translation problems. The results indicate that dealing with cultural items in translation requires a sociolinguistic vision for a better understanding of the nature of words in African languages and improving the target readers’ academic proficiency.
... The study revealed that swearing in the presence of others, but not when alone, was related to decreases in reported emotional support and increases in depressive symptoms over time. Swearing's potential to produce a catharsis-effect, relieving stress or pain, and its interpersonal consequences, including emotional pain to others, were discussed by Vingerhoets [19]. Swearing's impact on people's emotional state after experiencing negative emotions has been examined by several psychologists. ...
Full-text available
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.
... It functions only as a noun or interjection. It is noteworthy that all three instances of the word hell seem to be motivated by a strong emotion of anger and/or frustration, which supports the claim that swearing is often used to express an emotion (Foote and Woodward 1973;Hirsch 1985;Jay and Janschewitz 2008;Rassin and Muris 2005;Vingerhoets et al. 2013): ...
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.
... Furthermore, "a character's speech is an important part of [their] personality" (Tveit, 2004, p. 16). Swearing can be an indication of aspects such as age, social class, level of education (McEnery & Xiao, 2004), emotional state, or the relationship among interlocutors (Vingerhoets et al., 2013). Nonetheless, attempting to impose the value system of a culture onto another is "dangerous ground" (Bassnett, 2013, p. 33), and the target culture's moral patterns may differ from the source culture's. ...
Full-text available
Audiovisual translation into English is recently gaining importance as the material produced in other languages is now increasingly crossing borders thanks to the internet. This article explores foul language, deemed one of the most problematic aspects of subtitling. The aim is to elucidate how this is normally subtitled into English. Drawing on a corpus of swearwords from Netflix Spanish comedy series El Vecino (Vigalondo, 2019-2021), this paper examines the frequency of use of different translation techniques and the reasons behind the omission of certain instances of foul language. Results show that, while omitting swearwords is the second most common scenario, the most frequent one is transferring the offensive load of the original expression, with roughly 70 % of instances making it into the target product. As for factors influencing this decision, it was observed that overall swearwords are omitted not because they are offensive, but primarily because of their low narrative value, the subtitling's vulnerability, and the interaction between swearwords and non-verbal elements. Time and space constraints of subtitling appear to have little impact. These results suggest that the potential influence of censorship and cultural differences on foul language omissions in English subtitles is presented as a possible research avenue.
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Jurons sacres: Indicateurs ou tabous culturels? Questions et acte de traduction des sacres québécois dans IncendiesNotre recherche porte sur la traduction du discours transculturel au théâtre. Ce discours, tel défini tant par Ortiz (1995 [1940]) que par Welsch (1999) soutient que, sous les effets de la mondialisation et de l’hybridité des populations, les cultures actuelles s’enchevêtrent les unes dans les autres en transgressant des frontières entre les nations et les cultures. Ce métissage culturel impose la redéfinition de la notion de « littérature nationale ». Parallèlement, la traduction, comme espace de rencontre et d’interaction des cultures, ne saurait négliger cette nouvelle réalité transculturelle. De cette hybridité culturelle résulte la littérature migrante qui, dans le domaine de la dramaturgie, pose au traducteur de nombreuses questions de nature interlinguistique, intersémiotique et transculturelle.Dans le cadre de l’hybridité, ce qui nous intéresse c’est d’examiner comment les sacres québécois –un phénomène culturel qui révèle des aspects importants de la dimension socioculturelle des Québécois (Légaré & Bougaïeff, 1984, p. 22)–, sont traduits et récontextualisés dans la culture grecque qui, quoique abondante de jurons, a tout de même développé d’importants tabous à l’égard des jurons blasphématoires qui seraient tournés directement vers Dieu ou la religion. Notre étude porte sur les sacres québécois que l’on trouve dans Incendies de Wajdi Mouawad. Appartenant à l’écriture migrante du Québec, Incendies est représentative d’une écriture transculturelle. Notre premier objectif est d’examiner le fonctionnement des sacres dans Incendies, puis entreprendre une traduction en se basant sur des procédés de traduction que nous analyserons par la suite. Notre essai de traduction est destiné à la lecture aussi bien qu’au spectacle. Il vise révéler l’oralité et la gestualité intrinsèque du genre théâtral (Déprats, 1987) et renforcer sa potentialité de représentation.
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The conventional understanding of the church’s prophetic witness is that it is founded on the prophets portrayed in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. They communicated God’s message in relation to various issues such as religious practices and loyalty to God, but also, importantly, criticism and denunciation of political and social injustice. Satirical shows, in this study, refer to the satirical news components of TV late-night talk shows, as well as internet based satirical socio-political shows, where satirical commentary forms the common thread with prophetic witness, namely the indictment of political and social wrongdoing. Specific shows referred to in this study are The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Honest Government Ad, and Jonathan Pie. The angle of this paper differs from other studies in that it does not look at Christian/religious themes specifically, rather any issue warranting a prophetic voice, but which is often absent. The challenge addressed in this article is to see if a link between contemporary political satire and prophetic witness can be justified theologically. A cursory overview on satire in the book of Jonah as the most comprehensive representation of the genre within the prophets is done, as well as a discussion on possible prophetic themes and examples in a selection of political satire programmes. The study concludes that, while political satirists are not prophets, when interpreted in the context of God’s kingdom, they do at times speak prophetically.
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Does media endorsement for catharsis produce a self-fulfilling or a self-defeating prophecy? In Study 1, participants who read a procatharsis message (claiming that aggressive action is a good way to relax and reduce anger) subsequently expressed a greater desire to hit a punching bag than did participants who read an anticatharsis message. In Study 2, participants read the same messages and then actually did hit a punching bag. This exercise was followed by an opportunity to engage in laboratory aggression. Contrary to the catharsis hypothesis and to the self-fulfilling prophecy prediction, people who read the procatharsis message and then hit the punching bag were subsequently more aggressive than were people who read the anticatharsis message.
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The goal of this study was to explore the intra- and interpersonal consequences of swearing. Specifically, it investigated what implications swearing has for coping with and adjustment to illness. Methods: The present project combined data from two pilot studies of 13 women with rheumatoid arthritis and 21 women with breast cancer. Participants wore the Electronically Activated Recorder, an unobtrusive observation sampling method that periodically records snippets of ambient sounds, on weekends to track spontaneous swearing in their daily interactions, and completed self-reported measures of depressive symptoms and emotional support. Results: Naturalistically observed swearing in the presence of others, but not alone, was related to decreases in reported emotional support and increases in depressive symptoms over the study period. Further, decreases in emotional support mediated the effect of swearing on disease-severity adjusted changes in depressive symptoms. Conclusion: These exploratory results are consistent with the notion that swearing can sometimes repel emotional support at the expense of psychological adjustment. This is one of the first studies to examine the role of swearing, a ubiquitous but understudied psychological phenomenon, in a medical context.
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This experiment examined the effects of judicious swearing on persuasion in a pro‐attitudinal speech. Participants listened to one of three versions of a speech about lowering tuition that manipulated where the word “damn” appeared (beginning, end, or nowhere). The results showed that obscenity at the beginning or end of the speech significantly increased the persuasiveness of the speech and the perceived intensity of the speaker. Obscenity had no effect on speaker credibility.
As a taboo activity, swearing is “forbidden�? and hence carries the risk of censure. However, many people regularly use “swear-words�? (expletives) in their everyday lives. Hence, it must be assumed that swearing fulfils particular communicative functions which are not easily accomplished through other linguistic means. Like other forms of speech activity, the functions of swearing are highly dependent on context, which includes social norms, formality, status differentials and social expectations related to speaker categories; in particular, gender and socioeconomic class. In light of these considerations, this chapter discusses the interpersonal functions of swearing under four main headings: Expressing emotion; humour and verbal emphasis; social bonding and solidarity; and constructing and displaying identity. Throughout, the discussion emphasises the nuanced and context-specific nature of swearing as an interpersonal activity.
This article proposes that class treatment of taboo language can be beneficial for language learning students. This is not to say that all groups of ESL learners would benefit, nor that instructors should teach their students how to swear in English. However, I suggest that learners need to understand what constitutes "obscene" language in North American contexts, why native speakers choose to use it, and what it signifies sociolinguistically. Arguments are made as to why an ESL classroom may be one of the better places (i.e., a more responsible, mature environment) where L2 speakers can receive explanations about the usage and paradoxes involved in swearing. The author's experience related to the use of taboo language by L2 speakers in a non-English speaking environment is described. In addition, some non-linguistic variables relevant to cursing are also discussed. As a means to open this topic for discussion, this article suggests that there is, in terms of sociolinguistics, study value in the nature and use of obscene language for language learners.
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. © 2009 Association for Psychological Science.
The main purpose of swearing is to express emotions, especially anger and frustration. Swear words are well suited to express emotion as their primary meanings are connotative. The emotional impact of swearing depends on one's experience with a culture and its language conventions. A cognitive psychological framework is used to account for swearing in a variety of contexts and provide a link to impoliteness research. In support of this framework, native and non-native English-speaking college students rated the offensiveness and likelihood of hypothetical scenarios involving taboo words. The ratings demonstrated that appropriateness of swearing is highly contextually variable, dependent on speaker-listener relationship, socialphysical context, and particular word used. Additionally, offensiveness ratings were shown to depend on gender (for native speakers) and English experience (for non-native speakers). Collectively these data support the idea that it takes time for speakers to learn where, when, and with whom swearing is appropriate.