Why should we give a bleep about profanity?

Researchers are finding that those with an extensive potty mouth are also more fluent and adept at other forms of speech. So why don't we give in to our inner barbarian and let the curses flow, Neil Macdonald asks.

Reader warning: Neil discusses some bad words in this column

Curse words, alongside their more physical embodiments, are often ways to communicate with those in authority. (Dominic Ebenbichler/Reuters)

Neuroscientist Michael Persinger is no longer allowed to teach his class at Laurentian University exploring the impact of profane language on human brains because he uses profane language in teaching the class and insisted students sign a waiver accepting that.

The waiver itself contained profane language and of course someone was offended.

That tautological reasoning seems foolish on the face of it. (At a university in a mining town like Sudbury, no less.)

How is it possible to seriously examine profanities without actually using the words?

And yet, what happened to Persinger is perfectly consistent with the logic of our society.

Profanity spices private discussions, appears everywhere in cable shows and movies, books and song. Yet we still insist it has no place in decent, intelligent discourse.

There's no point in looking for consistency or common sense in this. There is none.

Take, for example, the single most incendiary and suppressed word in North American society: the slang for female genitalia that is off-limits around women, and even treated gingerly among men.

In Scotland and Australia, where people also speak English, that word doesn't enjoy the type of power it has here, at least in my experience. It is merely another curse word, used as routinely as its four-letter siblings.

And in French, the most common usage of the word is just a vulgarity. "Con" is a flexible term; it can mean a range of things, from the literal translation to "bullshit" or, depending on the context, "stupid."

"C'est con" is as common as dirt in French conversation. Mothers tell their kids: "Arrete tes conneries" (Cut the crap).

But spoken here, in English, as Larry David brilliantly showed in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the word provokes incomprehensible discomfort and disgust, even when uttered among liberals who like to assert their authenticity by salting dinner-table conversation with the occasional profanity.

Such is the force of the word, you can't even resort to the "f---" gimmick so coyly and commonly used in the media.

When was the last time you saw the letter "c" followed by three dashes in a daily newspaper?

A sign of intelligence?

In Quebec, where I grew up, just about all swearing relates to Catholicism.

Translated into English, Quebec swearing sounds silly: "Host, chalice, ciborium, tabernacle, simony, sacrament, Calvary."

People in Quebec, it appears, don't share our obsession with sex and body functions.

The French are said to have a very extensive array of curses, but here, French art workers in Paris resort to English to get their message across. (Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)

In France, though, the swearing is closer to English, but has a poetic fluency lacking in the profanity of other languages.

The "Merovingian" character in the Matrix film trilogy, played by the terminally cool French actor Lambert Wilson, puts it perfectly:

"I have sampled every language, French is my favourite. Fantastic language. Especially to curse with. Nom de dieu de putain de bordel de merde de saloperie ..."

He went on a bit longer, then smiled: "It's like wiping your arse with silk. I love it."

So do I, to tell the truth. When I'm not on television or in print speaking expletive-free English, I curse often and as inventively as I can.

Unlike my schoolteacher father, who regarded swearing as the refuge of a weak mind, and who strapped me for cursing in school, I did nothing to discourage my children from profanity, and was actually heartened to see them develop into expert cursers.

I think it's a sign of intelligence, and two American neuroscientists, Kristin Jay and Timothy Jay of Marist College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, believe they've proven that.

Comic liberators

The two academics set out to challenge the folk assumption that people resort to swearing because they have otherwise limited vocabularies.

So they asked sizeable groups of subjects to utter as many curse words as they could in 60 seconds. The cursers were then given another minute to reel off as many examples of a neutral item, like children's food.

Unsurprisingly, the good cursers also turned out to be more fluent, and more adept at nuance, in other types of speech.

Further, wrote the researchers in another paper, the basic rationale for banning profanity — that it can deprave or corrupt children — is false: "There is little (if any) social-science data demonstrating that a word in and of itself causes harm."

And yet, we clearly collectively believe it does.

Again, take the media. Like most mainstream outlets, CBC has no hard-and-fast rules on profanity.

Instead, there's a mist of constantly evolving aversions and prohibitions; generally, a profanity must be highly relevant to be permitted, except for those profanities that are totally banned.

A journalist may report a profanity in a written news account, but can never utter one, even a mild one, on the air. Talking is apparently different from writing.

Entertainment is a bit different. On stage, as my comedian brother says, you can say just about anything you want.

Comedians are the ultimate speech libertarians, and work hard to come up with the most extreme language possible. Google the movie The Aristocrats and you'll see what I mean.

Curse words are special

My theory is that people on stage or on screen are fictional personas; I remember my Calvinist father, who forbade any cursing at home, laughing hard in the audience as my brother used his considerable talent for profanity at the microphone.

But imagine if he'd come to our table and used the same language? That would have made it real, and real swearing is different.

In fact, write Timothy and Kristin Jay, the average "swearing generally draws from a pool of 10 expressions and occurs at a rate of about 0.5 per cent of one's daily word output."

The late comedian George Carlin used to say that curse words are special. Of all the words that start with f, there is only one known as the f-word. (Canadian Press)

George Carlin, who nailed our fear and hypocrisy about profanity better than anyone, praised swearing. Curse words, he said, are special — a privileged few among the English language's 400,000 or so.

Many words start with "f," he noted, but only one is known as the f-word.

What's more, it can be used as a noun, transitive verb, intransitive verb, adjective, adverb, adverb modifying an adjective, and even dropped between the syllables of other words.

Carlin called it the best word, and predicted it will outlast every other word in English.

And yet I wrote this column without using it, or any other serious curse word, for that matter; and Prof. Persinger can no longer teach it in Sudbury.

Because, it seems, we need the moral reassurance of being offended.

To paraphrase Lenny Bruce, if everyone used those words all the time, they'd be useless.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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