Steven Pinker on Why We Curse

Steven Pinker, author of one my all-time favorite books The Blank Slate, wrote an enlightening article for The New Republic on why we swear. A great read for anyone interested in language.

Back in the seventh grade, I won my school public speaking contest by giving a speech about the absurdity of censoring "fuck" and not "screw," as the words mean the same thing. Because I could not say the word "fuck" in the speech, I held up a sign with the word written on it every time I wanted to swear. It was great fun.

Most businesspeople I know swear to convey emotion. There are appropriate and inappropriate times to deploy f-bombs, and since effectiveness varies there are also good swearers and bad swearers. Good swearers use them strategically and sparingly. The taboo word infuses the sentence with added emotion. Bad swearers force the curse word usually to try to feign a laid back nature. When I was living in Colorado, I remember sitting in a board meeting and hearing one of the directors embarrassingly force "shit" into his sentence ("That’s some real good shit" with awkward pause).

Regardless of what you think about swear words, it’s not enough to simply dismiss them as inappropriate or offensive, since they are very much part of our language and culture.

Here’s the last paragraph of Pinker’s article:

When used judiciously, swearing can be hilarious, poignant, and uncannily descriptive. More than any other form of language, it recruits our expressive faculties to the fullest: the combinatorial power of syntax; the evocativeness of metaphor; the pleasure of alliteration, meter, and rhyme; and the emotional charge of our attitudes, both thinkable and unthinkable. It engages the full expanse of the brain: left and right, high and low, ancient and modern. Shakespeare, no stranger to earthy language himself, had Caliban speak for the entire human race when he said, "You taught me language, and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse."

8 comments on “Steven Pinker on Why We Curse
  • “Good swearers use them strategically and sparingly. Bad swearers force the curse word usually to try to feign a laid back nature.”

    Good point.

    Technorati uses WTF ostensibly to suggest “where’s the fire” so the humour is implicit.

    The use of a swear word, when an appropriate word of greater or equal puissance exists to convey the emotion with added punch, suggests to me both an inadequate familiarity with the language one is speaking and an intellectual laziness to bother with conveying one’s actual thoughts.

    It should be possible for adults – and 7th grade kids – to express themselves without resorting to bodily functions as shorthand.

    Swearing is like salt – used sparingly, a useful condiment; used liberally, destroys the meal.

  • Ben’s argument:
    Premise – Swearing is very much a part of our language and culture.
    Conclusion – One can’t dismiss them as inappropriate or offensive.

    I agree with the conclusion, but not on that premise. There are all sorts of demeaning and/or offensive language that is “very much a part of our language,” that we should be happy to dismiss as inappropriate. (Gangsta rap comes to mind, there are others.)

  • How funny that I seriously brought this up this morning.

    It’s some kind of irony that people who try to adopt a new, unnatural laid-back attitude only painfully highlight their lack of said attitude. I can’t help but think of Michael Scott from The Office, maybe because I’m about to spend the next few hours watching it…

  • Just this morning one of our more spiteful clients crafted this little gem:

    Me: What seems to be the problem?

    Her: How do I un-select the fuck-up-every-time option?

    Me: (silence)

  • Cursing shows intellectual laziness. There are more effective ways to craft sentences than by referring to sexual intercourse completely out of context.

  • A curse has many dimensions. It’s not something to be discarded outright as cheap, obscene abuse of language.

    I remember my cousin, a Design Engineer with an Auto maker, explaining a new thermodynamic engine technology to his production team. It went something like this –

    “The rotor is rotating at one third the forward rate of the eccentric shaft that is longer than the 180 degree stroke of a conventional piston engine. Imagine the leverage in terms of compression, ignition and exhaust….”

    The guys drew a blank. But they got the picture instantly as he said “it’s easier if you think of it in terms of what you do outside your work – it does a far better job of sucking, screwing, banging and blowing.”

    That said, the recurrent use of a curse in a figurative, singular sense in an organized body of work dilutes its original context. After Bob Sutton published his *epic*, we think more of infinitely dumb yet pretentious lot when we hear the word `Asshole’ – not the orifice itself…!

  • Pinker taught a course with Dershowitz at HLS about taboo subjects, including taboo words. I was blessed to sit in on a few such lectures back when I worked for Dershowitz. Pinker said that saying dirty words were used to signal to members of a group your own interconnectedness with the group. Example: Women swear more often in the company of other women than men so as to signal that they are amongst each other.

    He also discussed how swear words evolve from dysphemisms around particularly painful or tabooized topics: s–t, c–k, etc. are all terms that relate to the scatalogical or sexual — areas that have historically been fraught with diseases. These dysphemisms remind people of the inherit dangers associated with being around feces or having sexual intercourse and act as a prophylactic.

    With death, we have a similar phenomenon, but in this case, it’s to normal death by talking about it until we reach a point of near absurdity. Think for instance, how many ways there are to describe dying — kick the bucket, visit the man upstairs, croak, etc. The sheer number and colloquialisms we use to describe death render its comprehension easier through the use of metaphor.

    Just a few thoughts. We can talk later about it.

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