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An Evolutionary Analysis of the Curse Word

From a young age we have been taught that certain words have extremely negative connotations behind them, and that if we are to use them, we will be scolded without a second thought. Naturally, such prohibition leads to adrenalized temptation. But over time, we as a culture have become desensitized to these words; you are unlikely to walk around in this world a full 24 hours without hearing someone use some “colorful” language. This poses the question: where did swearing come from, and what is its role in our society?

Swearing has been a part of civilization dating all the way back to ancient Rome. We can see two different types of swearing that remain prevalent even today. There was cursing based around taking the Lord’s name in vain, and also sexual profanities.1 Further along in history, during the medieval era, what became modern swear words actually have some classist ties. The Germanic peasants, who spoke Old English, were looked over by nobles who spoke Old French. The word “vulgar” comes from the Latin word “vulgus” which means common people. The French were offended by the speech of the peasants due to an innate feeling of superiority based on socio-economic status. A blog from the Oxford Dictionary’s website about the progression of the English language describes this phenomenon: “Those words that we now call swear words have acquired their power to offend, at least in part, because a long term cultural prejudice has taught people to view the French vocabulary of the conquerors as elevated and cultured and the Germanic vocabulary of the conquered as distasteful and crass.”2 Can this be a parallel to modern day “elitists” looking down on those who use language of the “common” folk?

A common argument against cursing is that there is often a more appropriate, or imaginative, word that can be used in substitute for a curse word. Using vulgar language to express an idea or emotion can project that one has a limited vocabulary and is uncreative with language. Having a vast vocabulary can be a way to show off one’s education and distinguish oneself as a thoughtful, intelligent individual. Here at Friends Academy, cursing is rarely heard in the classroom, where students want to present themselves in a more esteemed and intellectual manner. Unless, of course, a teacher has no qualms with using more explicit language in the classroom. But even then, most students are uneasy with throwing out curse words. However, if you were to traverse the halls, wander the lunchroom, or mosey through the quad, chances are that you would hear someone liberally spouting a curse word. This says something about how we speak when we are around different people. We certainly learn how to posture ourselves well during these transitory years of our lives.

Swearing in the English language has come a long way from its root, and while some may be uncomfortable using explicit language, nearly all of us have become desensitized. Swearing even has its own practical uses. Nothing helps soothe pain of stubbing your toe like letting out an F-bomb. This myth was confirmed by MythBusters episode 142, and also in a study conducted by scientists at Keele University.4 In both experiments, subjects put their hands in cold ice-water and on average they were able to hold their hands under water for an additional 30 seconds when allowed to exclaim with curse words. Swearing can also be practical for when you are trying to insult someone. Not that insulting someone should be condoned or encouraged, but when someone has done something with malicious intent, it’s way more effective to deliver a curse word than to give some feeble insult. This provides for something of a shock factor and lets them know that they have done something significantly bad.

Cursing throughout our recent history has been banned in public schools to try and enforce a sense of formality in school. This stems from schools valuing and wanting to uphold mutual respect, the line between formal and casual language, and a culture free from negativity. A blog from the “National Education Association” has quotes from many teachers explaining how they keep their school “clean.”5 All of them include some notion that school is a place to prepare us students for the future work force, where cursing will not be tolerated. Beverly Kinnischtze posted a response as follows:

I teach at-risk high school students the difference between formal language and casual language. I explain that formal language is the language of the work world. I explain that I expect them to practice formal language in my class. All this is taken from Ruby Payne's program. When they slip, I simply ask them to find a better way to express their thought. They have no trouble following this practice most of the time.6

There is another argument to this notion that cursing is completely unacceptable in theclassroom. This absolutely depends on the teacher; Doc Garrett described using cursing in the classroom as “arbitrary," as it fully depends on the teacher’s preference and the way they teach. Furthermore, she argues that language is ultimately contextual, arbitrary, and resistant to boundaries imposed from without. But when explicit language has become so prevalent in our vernacular, ideas can be better expressed by using such language. When used in an appropriate and mature manner, cursing has the ability to enrich language and to communicate an idea in a colloquial manner. Everyone knows what it means when something is shitty, or when it sucks. Of course, deliberate interruptions or unjustified attacks using curse words in the classroom can be hurtful, and should not be condoned.

Sources

1. Steinmetz, Katy. "Nine Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Swear Words" | TIME.com."NewsFeed Nine Things You Probably Didnt Know About Swear Words Comments. TIME, 10 Apr. 2013. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.

2. Omissi, Adrastos. "Swear Words, Etymology, and the History of English | OxfordWords Blog." OxfordWords Blog. Oxford Dictionaries, 17 June 2015. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.

3 Rees, Peter. "No Pain, No Gain." MythBusters. Discovery Channel. 28 Apr. 2010. Television.

4 Stephens, Richard. "Swearing Reduces Pain – but Not If You Do It Every Day." Keele University, 1 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2016.

5 "Swearing at School." Rss. National Education Association, n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.

6 Ibid.

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