Questioner: You say that most swear words are found in the following categories: sex, religion, excretion, death, infirmity, or disfavored groups. Can you give us an indication of why we find these particular things worthy of swearing about?
Steven Pinker: Each one of the categories from which we draw our taboo words involves negative emotion. In the case of sexual swearing, it’s the revulsion at sexual depravity, and just in general the high emotion that surrounds sexuality, even in the most liberated cultures. In the case of disfavored groups, say taboo terms for ethnic and racial minorities, it’s hatred and contempt for other peoples. In the case of religious swearing, it’s awe of the power of the divine. In the case of death and disease, it’s dread of infirmity and death.
So in each case, there’s a strong negative emotion. And I think the essence of swearing is the power to trigger a negative thought in the mind of your listener through the use of words. Now why would we want to do it?
There are a number of different ways in which people swear. Sometimes we do it in order to remind people how awful the objects or activities are. If we want people to not think about how terrible feces are, we use the word “feces.” If we want to remind them of how disgusting it all is, we use the word “shit.”
Likewise, if you’re talking about sex in a positive context, you’d be likely to use the phrase “make love,” but if you talk about someone who’s exploiting someone else, you might say, “Oh he’s fucking his secretary.” And the word is deliberately used to highlight that which is most offensive about the activity.
But we also use curse words cathartically. You hit your thumb with a hammer, and you start blurting out words having to do with theology (“damn”) or excretion (“shit”) or sexuality (“fuck”).
If you stub your toe and you yell out “oh shit!” it has nothing to do with feces, other than the fact that feces are unpleasant and stubbing your toe is unpleasant. […]
The swear words that you speak advertise to a real or sometimes virtual audience that you are currently in the throes of some extremely unpleasant emotion. And in that regard, swearing overlaps with other exclamations in the language, like “burrrr” if you’re cold, or “ah ha” or “mhmm” or “yuck”, which also have no syntax – you just blurt them out as individual words – but they still convey a particular emotion.
And in addition, as we’ve mentioned before, many sexual idioms have a rather unflattering image of sex as an act which damages or exploits a woman. Not only “we got screwed,” but “oh my printer is fucked up” – meaning broken, damaged.
So certainly over-use of sexual swearing can feel offensive to women. For that reason and many others, I avoid it. And as with any other aspect of language use, it’d be common sense and common courtesy to anticipate how the language will affect your audience, depending on whether it’s male or female, younger or older, in a formal setting or more casual setting. And whether it’s used with a straight face or ironically, swearing can be more or less offensive, and any careful speaker ought to anticipate these effects.
From one of the best living communicators of science, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, interviewed by The Guardian about his book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature.
More from the mind of Pinker:
- on feminism
- on whether the mind’s system reflects Biblical morality
- on the curious case of Sarah Palin, grizzly bears, and fruit flies
- on the f-word
- on Marxism and Nazism – how they’re the same
- on the Boston bombing and the psychology of terrorism