By Lynne Xe
I’m thinking of a word. It has four letters, begins with f and ends with k. Some people say this word many times throughout the day; others say it once or not at all. Can you guess the word I’m thinking about? I’m assuming many of you didn’t guess fork.
In recent years, curse words have become increasingly prevalent. Although how often a person curses will vary—depending on factors like environment, age, or gender—the average person devotes about 0.7% of all their words in a day to curses. That percentage may seem insignificant except that average person also devotes about 0.7% of their total words in a day to plural pronouns such as we, our, and ourselves.
People have not, however, welcomed this influx of cursing. Indeed, society often associates those who frequently curse with a low education level and limited vocabulary. In addition, individuals who curse are often regarded as being rude and immature. Thus, when Timothy Jay, one of the leading scholars on cursing in the United States, claims that the average adolescent uses 80 to 90 curse words a day, people rally for change. Yet from a psychological perspective, there are many benefits to cursing: it assists us in persevering through hard tasks, expressing emotional moments, and forming relationships with others.
Cursing can be beneficial as it has been found to help people achieve their goals by alleviating both stress and pain. In a 2011 study led by Richard Stephens, a senior lecturer in psychology at Keele University, participants were asked to keep their hands in a container of freezing water for as long as possible. Two trials were performed: participants were able to freely curse in one but asked to stay silent in the other. Stephens found that in the trial that allowed cursing, the average time the hand remained submerged increased from around a minute to a minute and a half. Thus, he concluded that cursing can alleviate stress and pain.
In fact, curse words have commonly become a key accessory to situations of pain and stress. When athletes get injured, their first reaction is often a curse word. When students stare at an impossible test, their first thought is often a curse word. While Stephens did note that their effect in situations lessens with too much use, I believe curse words should be embraced when they are truly needed. Purposeful usage of curse words may just help that student concentrate on the impossible test or that athlete finish the painful race.
Cursing can also be helpful in effectively communicating our emotions because of the shocking nature of curse words. Jessica Love, who has a doctorate of cognitive psychology and is editor of Kellogg Insight at Northwestern University, believes that curse words are simply emotional words. Curse words carry emotional depth; people are often at their highest or lowest moments when these words escape from their mouths. Curse words frequently appear after a student has finished presenting his or her thesis, a mother has finished giving birth, or a musician has finished playing his or her senior performance. Such emotional depth cannot be so clearly articulated with any other words in our moments of pure joy, relief, sadness, or anger. In fact, studies have shown that euphemisms don’t produce the same sweat-shaking, heart-pounding reactions as the actual curse words. Perhaps this is due to the jolting connotation behind curse words. Because society places such gravity on curse words, we are forced to pay attention to them when they are verbalized. Some researchers even believe that curse words can be perceived as a survival function for communication; only curse words can effectively convey all the intense emotions an individual feels at a particular moment.
Finally, cursing can be rewarding as it helps people establish relationships with others through a common bond. In Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, author Melissa Mohr claims that cursing can become a common link between people. For instance, blue-collar workers used curse words to build in-group solidarity against management types. Like an inside joke, curse words represent an understanding between two or more people. Only those special people will understand the reason or event causing the person to curse, thereby forming a stronger connection. Despite simply unifying others, curse words can also signify the strength of a relationship. Thus, when people curse freely with others, there is an understanding of trust between the individuals. The person cursing has established a relationship intimate enough to not fear the judgment of others. While people should not go around expressing curse words with anyone they want to be close with—for instance, at a job interview or on a first date—occasionally using curse words with close friends or family is not to be looked down upon. These curse words have become a common bond representing the trust, time, and effort behind relationships.
Ultimately, the negative social stigma with curse words should not be completely erased. There are situations when curse words are simply inappropriate. However, purposeful curse word usage has its benefits such as alleviating hardships, exhibiting emotions, and defining relationships. Who knew a simple four letter word, beginning with f and ending with k, could carry so much behind it? Don’t worry, the word I’m thinking of isn’t fork.