Why are we Potty Mouths?

Mel Brooks Bullshit

*Disclaimer: if curse words offend you, please do not read this blog. In fact you should shut your eyes right now and back slowly off the page.  This goes for you if you’re under 18.  Back away slowly, and then run.  Of course if you’re 18, you could probably out curse me 6 ways to Sunday.  That just might be the topic of a later blog.

Profanity: n. The condition or quality of being profane; irreverence.

  1. Vulgar, irreverent, or blasphemous speech
  2. The use of bad, strong, foul language
  3. Swearing or Cursing

The purpose of cursing:

I am not sure exactly how these thoughts pop into my mind, let alone anyone else’s mind, but I was driving along yesterday and started wondering why I curse sometime?  And, why I enjoy it so much.  In fact, why do any of us curse?  I have my own personal theory about this, but I decided to do a little research, because cursing is a technique that we find all over the world.  While some languages apparently don’t have swear words per se, they all certainly have ways of being rude.  I’d say one of the great gifts of the English and Germanic Languages are that they have exported all sorts of curse words, near and far.  Who hasn’t met some nice person from some foreign land, and then pumped them dry for the “bad words” in their language?  I have been known to pump that well a few times myself.  My dictionary of Spanish insults is impressive.

Apparently swearing performs several social and psychological functions.  It’s sort of interesting that there has been research on this issue, and the research found that chimpanzees have similar behavior to human in this regard.[1]  I am going past the scientific research and possibly over a cliff, to say that my dog has been known to throw down a curse or two.  If you surprise him, he jumps up, saying “ruff %#!*!&#$!!!” which loosely translates into “What the Fuck!” in dog language.  I have witnessed this same behavior in other dogs, cats, and pretty much almost every animal video on YouTube.  Plus, if you have ever listened to Crows and Seagulls, I am pretty sure they are saying some shit that would curl your hair.  They’re the potty mouths of the avian world.

I think at this point it’s within believability to imagine that cursing has been around as long as people have had the ability to make any sort of vocalizations; that first finger smashed by that first rock probably elicited the caveman equivalent to “Fuck!.”  So, what’s the purpose of all this cursing?  Clearly there has to be a purpose if we’re all doing it and we have been doing it so damn long.

Well, going back to the whole finger smashing incident hypothesized above; apparently swearing can help with pain… who knew that?  Well, these guys, Richard Stephens, John Atkins and Andrew Kingston knew.[2] In fact they advise that you should swear in response to pain if you hurt yourself.  The funny thing here is this doesn’t just give you license to be a potty mouth forever when you’re in pain, because if you overuse the swearing, you get a diminishing return on the pain relief, and no one will continue to feel sorry for you, because they will bored with your strategy.  But, seriously, these guys caught themselves a Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 for their research.  So, swear some when you smash that finger or stub that toe.

To add to this cool science, a group of neurologist and psychologists at the UCLA Center for Alzheimer’s disease research have suggested that cursing may help in differentiating Alzheimer’s disease.[3]  If grandpa curses, it can tell the doctors just what sort of Alzheimer’s you’re dealing with.  That’s sort of cool, because it’s a pretty simple test, except you’re still left with grandpa and his cursing.  Which can get tiring.

Then there is the wonderful psychological aspect of cursing.  It can make us feel so good!  We need to say something harsh in response to surprise or any strong emotional response to events.  We want to feel stronger rather than weaker.  We want to be a badass in that moment.  I think cursing can give us that.   We also use cursing to push people away, or to fit in.  It can easily work on both those levels.  We are quite capable of choosing the when’s and where’s of social cursing.  What may be appropriate with a group of friends, might work out poorly for you in your grandma’s house.  And, it’s important (i.e. intellectually entertaining)  to look at because cursing it is a normal part of human communication.  It happens and we all do it.

Which leads to the next Blog about the Impact of Cursing.  See you soon! Damn it!


[1] Angier, Natalie (2005-09-25), “Cursing is a normal function of human language, experts say”, New York Times, retrieved 2012-11-19

[2] Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston (2009). “Swearing as a Response to Pain”. Neuroreport  20 (12): 1056–60.

[3] Ringman JM, Kwon E, Flores DL, Rotko C, Mendez MF, Lu P. (2010). “The use of profanity during letter fluency tasks in frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer disease.” Cogn Behav Neurol. 2010 Sep;23(3):159-64


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