The Subtle Art of the Curse Word

photo of doorAnyone who has watched Downton Abbey will remember the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) saying, “Vulgarity is no substitute for wit.”   Don’t get me wrong.  I support the use of an occasional zinger.  In fact, I probably have a swear-word vocabulary that rivals most teenagers (or sailors).  However, I implore you to consider the difference between formal language and slang, and how good it can feel to win an argument or have a discussion on the merits of strong vocabulary, and not volume or capacity to end every sentence with an f-bomb for emphasis.   Why? Well, it’s not for the reason you might imagine.  

It’s not that swearing makes you “sound bad.”  In fact, in her book “Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing,” literature expert Melissa Mohr tells us that on average .7% of the words we use on any given day are actually swear words.  Not a big number, but we use first-person pronouns like we, our and ourselves at about the same rate.  We learn our swear words at the same time as we develop other vocabulary.  By the time we are age four, we know at least one of those “zingers.”  The emotional impact of these words, or the adrenaline quotient, changes with time. Words fall in and out of favor, and swear words can carry power.  Curse at someone and you get their attention.  You get an adrenaline response.  Curse if you hurt yourself, you mute the pain.  Curse at work with your colleagues, you may create camaraderie.  Curse at your parents, you will most likely lose the keys to the car. 

Recent research from the psychologists at Marist College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts have just published research that shows that swearing is an indicator of a high intelligence, or at least stronger language skills.  They concluded that speakers who use curse words actually understand the power of the curse word, and can use both clean and dirty vocabulary with equal nuance.

In the Victorian era, the social strivers were especially conscious of not drawing attention to themselves with vulgar speech, but instead minded their tongues in order to achieve a secure position in society. Even though research has shown no correlation between swearing and lowered intelligence, in some circles, you will be judged as being less credible if you swear excessively.  Some find swearing offensive, just as a personal ideology.  However, in business or formal situations, language choice can make or break a deal or promotion.  Ironically, in some circles, the absence of swearing is seen as prudish, and is almost a requirement for acceptance.  Rather than focus on being “one of the boys,” Doris’s guideline was to assume that everything she said would ultimately be repeated in the worst possible location, to the worst possible audience, and it would come back to bite.  So, she kept it clean and proper.  In honor of my dignified and proper grandmother, I try.  Honest, I really F*(#King TRY!!!

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