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."

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