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What do you think about the idea that swear words have power, even if they are no longer generally very shocking?

A guest essayist writes about the reasons people swear and the power behind cursing. Is profanity part of your vocabulary?
An illustration of a bouquet. The flowers are replaced by symbols, including @ ? $ * % ! and #.
Related Book ReviewCredit...Tamara Shopsin
Do you use curse words? If you use them, do you ever think about why? Does it feel good to unleash some foul language? Does it get attention? Does it help you bond with others or fit into a group?
And if you don’t, why do you avoid it?
In the Opinion essay “The Secret Power of Swearing,” Rebecca Roache writes about how certain words have become off-limits in polite company:
Swearing can be so satisfying that it can help us withstand pain. It can shock, offend and entertain. It can release tension or increase it. It can foster intimacy. What’s swearing’s secret? How do four-letter words move us in all the ways they do?
All languages have taboos, things that nice people don’t mention in polite company, and these taboos tend to cluster around themes like religion, defecation, disease and sex — in other words, things that can harm us physically or spiritually. As the linguists Keith Allan and Kate Burridge put it, the harmfulness of taboos “contaminates” certain words that refer to them, making those related words taboo, too. This is usually how a word becomes a swearword. Which taboos are strongest tracks societal values. Something previously acceptable can become a taboo, or vice versa. In prudish Victorian Britain, extremely lewd street names that existed unproblematically throughout the country in the Middle Ages were bowdlerized. And in increasingly secular cultures the taboo around religious-themed words has waned. Take “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” Rhett Butler’s famous line in the film “Gone With the Wind”: It is far less shocking to modern ears than it was to the film’s audience in 1939.
But ghosts of once powerful taboos can continue to haunt us. Consider, as Professors Allan and Burridge do, spilling salt, which was once both expensive and spiritually significant. Throwing a pinch of spilled salt over one’s left shoulder, into the eyes of the devil that resided there, was supposed to ward off bad fortune. Lots of people still do this, but not, I suspect, to blind the devil. In a similar way, swear words, once contaminated with the disgust or power associated with a strong taboo, retain their power even as the shock value of those origins wanes.
These days we mostly cause offense by swearing because swearing is a behavior that causes offense. When we swear in a context in which we can assume those around us would prefer we didn’t, that choice is a sign of our disrespect.
Situating the capacity to offend in the swearer’s intent helps some puzzling things about swearing make sense, like why it’s somehow less offensive to replace a letter with an asterisk, despite the fact that everyone still knows what it means. The choice sends a message to the reader: I recognize that this word might offend you, and I care about your feelings. Because intent matters, a few asterisks can rob the word of its potency.
But swearing, even without censorship or euphemism, can also be affectionately benign. To be understood this way, a listener needs to trust that the speaker is not verbally attacking but letting his or her guard down and signaling that the setting is informal and the relationship is friendly. Swearing in these contexts can even foster intimacy between recent acquaintances. Between people who already trust each other, it’s an excellent way to communicate affection. My students, read the entire essay and then tell me:
When it comes to foul language, do you use it? If so, how often, and for what reasons? If not, why not? Do you have any “rules,” conscious or not, about swearing? For example, if you use curse words, are there certain situations and places in which you avoid them? Are there people around whom you know better than to use objectionable language? Are you someone around whom others tend to watch their language and use proper language? What do you think about the idea that swear words have power, even if they are no longer generally very shocking? Do you agree or disagree? Why?
A review of a book by Benjamin K. Bergen about profanity addresses the potential harm that swear words may cause:
Doing parents everywhere a favor, he points out that despite what the American Academy of Pediatrics has said, there is no evidence that exposure to profanity harms children. And he argues strenuously “that there are better ways to deal with profanity than to suppress it,” even though he acknowledges evidence that one type of profanity — slurs directed at people because of their racial, ethnic and sexual identities — are measurably harmful. What have you learned from your parents or other adults in your life about swearing, whether via direct conversations or your observations of their behavior? What have they communicated about what is appropriate to say and what is not? If you have children one day, what do you think you would teach them? As Ms. Roache notes in her essay, The New York Times has “a steep threshold for vulgar words,” rarely publishing obscenities. You’ll notice also that the site, including The Learning Network, does not allow profanity in the comments section. Why do you think The Times has made this choice? What tone does it set? Do you think it is a wise policy? Why or why not?

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