This time out I won’t be able to use the very words I’m writing about. That’s because this week’s subject is swear words.

I can, however, tell you what they’re called. Words including obscenity, profanity, billingsgate, scatology, ribaldry, scurrility and invective have been used to describe the words I can’t put in front of you readers — readers who’ve certainly never felt the need to say such vulgarities out loud.

Or have you? If you ever felt it necessary to utter a naughty phrase or even drop an occasional F-bomb (confession: I may have dropped a few myself when things weren’t going as I thought they should), it’s worth a look into why we feel the need to do so.

Most people put the blame squarely on society itself. It’s convenient to blame all forms of social media and cable television, and a lot of people do. Sophia McClennen, a professor of comparative literature at Penn State, notes that “a culture of uncivil discourse — what might be called s**t talking — is becoming more common.” She attributes the change to the “casual forms of communication that take place on social media.”

Which is likely true. But even before everybody began to walk around staring at their phones, the use of profanity was used and had a powerful effect on people. How so? “Profanity is powerful because we make it powerful,” say Dr. Benjamin K. Bergen, author of “What the F: What Swearing Reveals about Our Language, Our Brains and Ourselves.” According to Bergen, we tell our children that the F-word is a bad word, “so profanity is a cultural construct that perpetuates itself through time.”

OK, so we swear and it seems to be everywhere, but do people in some places do more of it than others? It appears so. One study asked 1,500 people in 30 cities how much they swore and found the stated average to be 21 times a day, an estimate that many consider to be on the low side.


As for states where swearing is used the most, the expressive folks in Georgia, Maryland and New Mexico are most likely to let some colorful language fly, according to the study, while people living in Minnesota were found to be the least likely to resort to using profanity (which may account for the anagram “Minnesota” “is not mean”).

Surprisingly, swearing can make us appear honest and authentic to others who feel that they’re receiving an unfiltered response. That’s because a few colorful words tend to increase the perceived informality of language and improve peoples’ impressions of the source. For example, emphatic swearing is meant to highlight a point while dysphemic swearing is meant to make a point provocatively.

And then there’s lalochezia (lah-low-KEE-zee-uh), which comes from the Greek “lalos” (speak) and “khezo” (to relieve oneself), and refers to the use of foul language to relieve stress or pain. Also called an “analgesic response,” lalochezia is what makes us feel better right after we’ve hit our thumb with a hammer.

And it really works. People who had an arm submerged in ice water were able to keep it there a lot longer if they dropped actual F-bombs during the process rather than yelling made-up curse words such as “twizpipe!”

And if you think that the use of profanity is more prevalent among the less educated, you couldn’t be more wrong. According to Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts professor Timothy Jay, “People with a rich vocabulary, educated people, treat language like owning a lot of different styles of clothing. You change for whatever the context is.”

“We’re the only animal that evolved to do this,” says Jay. “If it wasn’t useful, it would become obsolete.”

So it doesn’t look like our need for swearing is going away any time soon.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: