Swearing is good for you (unless you're like Gordon)

Study reveals that cursing can relieve pain – but only when practised in moderation

Rob Sharp@robbiesharp
Thursday 01 December 2011 01:00
Frequent swearers such as Gordon Ramsay can utter profanities without feeling an emotional response, and thus do not get the same pain-relieving effects
Frequent swearers such as Gordon Ramsay can utter profanities without feeling an emotional response, and thus do not get the same pain-relieving effects

Victims of paper cuts and stubbed toes don't need scientists to tell them about the pain-healing power of cursing but research suggests the more you swear, the harder pain becomes to bear. A study by Keele University confirms that swearing can act as a form of relief. But those who have become habituated to cursing (think Gordon Ramsay, inset, or The Thick of It's Malcolm Tucker) are less likely to feel the benefits.

Richard Stephens, of Keele's School of Psychology, said there was no "recommended daily swearing allowance", and it remains unclear whether certain swearwords are more effective analgesics than others. "We are just scratching the surface of how swearing can influence our emotions," he added.

His findings, in America's The Journal of Pain, found that those who swear just a few times a day doubled the time they could withstand the "ice-water challenge",- how long they could hold their hands in a container full of ice-water. Those who admitted to the highest level of everyday cursing – up to a chain-swearing maximum of 60 expletives a day – did not show any benefit when undertaking a similar challenge.

The mechanism, the scientists say, is simple, swearing elicits an emotional response leading to what is termed "stress-induced analgesia", also known as the "fight or flight" response, along with a surge of adrenalin.

Frequent swearers can utter profanities without feeling an emotional response,and thus do not get the same pain-relieving effects. So, it seems, swearing lightly in one's daily routine can help in the occasional, stressful situation. "It would be silly to advocate swearing on the National Health Service," Stephens said, "But swearing seems to activate parts of the brain that are more associated with emotions.

"In the context of pain, swearing appears to serve as a simple form of emotional self-management. Whether swearing has beneficial effects in other contexts is something we would like to explore further."

$%!#&!$! A history of swearing

* The original meaning of the adjective "profane" derives from the Latin meaning "in front of" and "outside the temple". It refers to items not belonging to the church. For example, "The fort is the oldest profane building in the town, but the local monastery is older".

* A 2000 report co-commissioned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the BBC ranked swearwords on their severity. The most severe words related to racial abuse. The mildest were "baby words" such as "poo, wee and bum" and rhyming slang "berk".

* Regarding broadcast swearwords, 52 per cent of respondents to the ASA survey said that the "c" word should never feature in television programmes, whereas just 7 per cent had a problem with the word "bloody".

* Every language, dialect or patois, whether living or dead, has its own share of forbidden speech. Additionally, young children will memorise the "illicit inventory" long before they can grasp its sense, be;ieves John McWhorter, a scholar of linguistics at the Manhattan Institute.

* About 80 to 90 words each day – between 0.5 per cent and 0.7 per cent of all words – are swearwords, according to analyses of recorded conversations.

* A 2006 survey found that 36 per cent of 308 British senior managers and directors accepted swearing as a part of workplace culture. "If swearing is discriminatory it is a complete no-no," said employment lawyer Brian Palmer. "Employers have a duty of care towards their employees so they have a reasonable working environment."

Rob Sharp

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