Americans are profligate cursers. Of every 1,000 words we speak, some linguists have said, an average of five are swears. If you account for the fact that many people don’t swear in ordinary speech—one study of university students found that nearly half did not curse at all in natural conversation—swearers conceivably utter 9.43 dirty words per 1,000. Though men were responsible for 67 percent of public swearing in 1986, it was down to 55 percent by 2006—presumably not because men were cursing less in public.
And if you’re like a lot of other Americans, you’ve become a bit more of a potty mouth over the past two years. Use of the most common swear words on Facebook went up by 41 percent from 2019 to 2021; on Twitter it rose by 27 percent. Children seem to be swearing more. People are swearing more at work. People I know who never cursed before the pandemic are now using a little profanity, and my friends who were once moderate cursers have become expletive geysers.
This might seem bad on its face—like evidence of rising unhappiness, or of general cultural degradation, or of all the other things that drive us to curse. Or just maybe, dirty words are simply the way we find a little relief in hard times. That wouldn’t be so bad, after all. In truth, swearing can be bad or good for you and for society. The key is to learn how and when to curse, and when you’re better off keeping things clean.
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Cursing encompasses a lot of different words and intentions. It can be a mild modifier (“I’m tired as hell”), a joke (“My wife says I cuss too much, but I say that’s bullshit”), or an abusive obscenity that ends a career or marriage (no examples here; I want to stay employed and married). Taxonomies of bad words—such as the anthropologist Montague Francis Ashley-Montagu’s classic text The Anatomy of Swearing—distinguish among swearing (“damn it”), curses (“damn you”), and oaths (“by God”).
Swearing can be voluntary or involuntary. According to research published in 2006, more than half of the voluntary cursing that people do follows anger and frustration. Nine percent of it follows humor, and 6 percent follows pain. Truly involuntary swearing—not controllable by the swearer—is much rarer, and is associated with neurological disorders such as aphasia (in which the language center on the brain’s left side is usually damaged), Tourette’s syndrome (a dysfunction in neural circuits connecting parts of the brain, which causes involuntary motor movements and, in some cases, unintentional obscene vocalizations), and some neurodegenerative and autoimmune disorders.
According to the psychologist Timothy B. Jay, cursing out of hostility is a defining feature of people with the so-called Type-A personality, which is typically associated with being competitive and aggressive. Swearing is negatively correlated with conscientiousness and agreeableness. Researchers have found that doctors who curse in front of patients are seen as less trustworthy and less expert than those who don’t. But lest you be tempted to conclude that swearing is correlated only with unpleasant personality traits, I should mention that it is also associated with honesty. Researchers writing in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science in 2017 found, across three studies, including one that analyzed almost 74,000 social-media interactions, that “profanity was associated with less lying and deception.”
Profanity also simply feels good and provides swearers with a measure of emotional relief. In the words of the linguist John McWhorter, the author of Nine Nasty Words, “What you need is a nice, crisp eruption to allow you to blow off a certain amount of steam.” Academic literature shows, for instance, that swearing alleviates the discomfort of social distress.
It can even lessen physical pain. In 2020, British psychologists asked 92 human subjects to submerge their hands in painfully frigid water. Some were told to use profanity, others to exclaim a non-profane neutral word to describe a table, such as solid, or an invented curse word like twizpipe. The cursers tolerated more pain and found more humor in the experience than those using the invented curse, but even the invented curse gave more emotional relief than saying the neutral word. Not surprisingly, some scholars have suggested that cursing might have a place in improving patient outcomes. Perhaps at some point your doctor will tell you to drop two F-bombs and call her in the morning.
Swearing can hurt others or make them laugh. It can make you seem less knowledgeable, but it might help others think you are honest. Uncontrolled, it is evidence of a neurological problem; controlled, it can give you relief from social and physical pain. All in all, it is neither an unalloyed good nor bad, by most people’s standards. When it comes to your well-being, I offer three rules to keep in mind while honing your cursing technique.
1. Do it on purpose.
Even for those who don’t have aphasia or Tourette’s, swearing can become a habit, something like an uncontrolled verbal tic. This is an example of failing to be metacognitive, that is, failing to manage one’s feelings and reactions and instead being managed by them. Happiness is associated with self-management, which is not consistent with unthinkingly blurting out a stream of curses everywhere you go. If you need to break the habit, you can turn to one of many tried-and-true methods. For example, the “swear jar”—a jar or box that you put money into every time you cuss—has been around since at least the 16th century, as expressions from the Middle Ages such as sard and swive became naughty words.
2. Ration your curses.
When you decide to swear on purpose, make it rare. If there is one law in social science more powerful than any other, it is the law of diminishing marginal utility: Each unit of anything desirable brings less enjoyment than the last. If you choose to drop F-bombs, treat them like bowls of ice cream: Savor them once or twice a week, not all day long, and don’t go in for seconds. This will keep your expletives nice and fresh, and the benefit of each one for your mood high.
3. Don’t abuse or harass.
Scholars find that curse words are more offensive when they’re used to attack or abuse someone. That might contribute to why using social media, where people swear more than in ordinary speech, can be such an unpleasant experience. Even if you don’t mean any harm, offending others’ sensibilities and beliefs by cursing can lead to hot-mic embarrassments or even lost jobs. Think twice before you let it fly.
One last suggestion: If the temptation to curse is just too great, consider creating a swearing “safe space.” Years ago, when my oldest son was little, he came back from a sleepover at a friend’s house, full of admiration for the other boy’s father. The family had a strict rule against swearing, except in the car, where the son and his friends were allowed to curse a blue streak with total immunity. It was like a kid version of Vegas: What you say in the minivan stays in the minivan.
That seemed ridiculous until I thought about it a bit and realized it was genius. The family got the cathartic benefits of swearing while limiting its social downsides. This is what Mark Twain was talking about when he said, “There ought to be a room in every house to swear in. It’s dangerous to have to repress an emotion like that.” I don’t have a minivan, but I have taken to doing just that in my soundproof basement Zoom studio. When I am frustrated, I just shut the door and say “twizpipe”—hey, I’m still new at this—and feel better.