THE BLOG
07/31/2013 02:59 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2013

Is There a Right 'Dose' of Swearing?

I don't think that I swear too much. When I am working at the hospital or around my grandchildren, an occasional expletive slips by my social censor. Going out to dinner in mixed company keeps me in check, but a lunch with my male friends is another story, as is playing cribbage with my wife, where my censor takes a nap and all words are fair game.

I never gave much thought to what are referred to as "taboo" words until this summer. I spend most of my time in Texas where, at both work and play, I hear and use a modest number of swear words. On the golf course in Texas, with my usual group of buddies, a bad shot on a particularly bad day will be accompanied by at least one of George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television." He created this routine in 1972, and 40 years later the words are still not heard on network television, although cable is an entirely different story. I usually only need to use three of the seven words to express my displeasure and rid myself of the golf daemon that caused the errant shot.

But Texas is only part of the story. I spend part of every summer in Idaho near Yellowstone National Park and drive down to Rexburg, Idaho, home of Brigham Young University-Idaho, to play golf. I estimate that, at least, 90 percent of the people I play golf with are Mormon, as is the town of Rexburg. My behavior changes dramatically in Rexburg, and my Idaho golf buddies utter only a smattering of euphemisms like, "oh shoot," or "dang it." Now, I grew up in a different environment, and those soft substitutions sound unnatural to my Chicago-bred and Texas-honed ear.

My golf friends in Idaho don't drink alcohol, use caffeine or swear. When I look around at the group, several are in their 80s and still walking the course. You have to ask yourself whether there is a benefit associated with their various types of abstinence. Not smoking is a given, but I know that I feel better after dropping an F-bomb at just the right time.

Taboo Words

Dr. Timothy Jay's article "The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words" provides an excellent discussion of the history and role of taboo words. "Taboo" or "swear" words assume that some sort of harm will occur if the word is spoken, but it is authority figures, religion, judges or an educational system that chooses and polices taboo words. When I was in college in Chicago, Lenny Bruce was repeatedly arrested for using language in a night club act that today is an everyday occurrence on cable television. Times change, but some cultures and religions do not.

Although it may seem like it, we are not born with the knowledge of these words -- we somehow acquire them. We know that restrictions on language have been around since Biblical times, when certain words were considered blasphemous and the punishment was severe. We learn not to use these taboo words when we are punished for trying them out, usually when we are young. Most swear words are sexual or religious references, although others refer to disgusting objects, are ethnic or racial slurs, or are terms that are a form of sexual harassment. However, not all taboo words are intended to offend someone. We use different terms with friends, family, parents, at work or in mixed company and the offensiveness of the word is judged by the context of this relationship and who we speaking to. When I am playing cribbage with my wife, and losing, I can get away with language that simply wouldn't fly at the dinner table.

Dr. Jay believes that there is an evolutionary reason for swearing, and that its primary use is for emotional purposes when we express anger, frustration, or surprise. While the "F-bomb" may have initially conveyed a degree of contempt that could not be expressed with "polite" speech, it seems that for some people, it may be part of their "normal" language. Despite my own transgressions, I am disturbed by the language of groups of people who drop the F-bomb as every fifth word in a public place. They seem oblivious to their surroundings and to the inappropriateness of their speech.

Swearing is fairly universal, persisting into old age and even as we lose the ability to remember people's names, we may still be able to swear "like a sailor." There is a peculiar phenomenon in some people who have a stroke and lose their ability to produce words and coherent language, called aphasia. Despite the inability to speak, they can still utter a list of expletives. I have a treated many a fine and proper lady who has embarrassed her family with a string of swear words in response to the innocent inquiry of, "Hi mom, how are you today?" Whoops -- time to hide the grandchildren.

How Much Do We Swear?

I started this blog by stating that I don't think I swear that much. People have actually measured the frequency of swearing in "average" people. If the average person uses 15,000 to 16,000 words each day (and I know people who use a whole lot more than that) the average person uses 80-90 swear words each day. I have a good friend's son who has to pay his children a dollar every time he swears, and these kids are getting rich. But some, like my friends in Idaho, never, I mean never, swear while the young kids sitting next to them in the restaurant or when they're on a bus may swear at a rate that is off the scale.

Do my friends who never swear and use euphemisms like "oh sugar," "fudge," or "gosh darn" experience the same emotional release and get the same satisfaction as I do when I use my taboo words? We don't know for sure. Jay points out that some Mormons "opt out" of swearing altogether and substitute euphemisms. I asked one of my Mormon friends if the actual swear words, which he knows, will "flip up" in his brain and does he have to suppress using them in favor a "gosh darn." He claims not. It makes sense, since their behavior is shaped and reinforced from a very young age and through their entire life.

Psychologists, who study the use of taboo words, believe that they exist for a reason. This takes me back to my initial question: Is swearing good for you, and is there a right "dose"? Is it like a medication where too little and the infection rages on, too much and you get side effects? The article "Swearing as a response to pain-effect of daily swearing frequency" that appeared in the medical journal Pain examines the effect of swearing on a person's ability to tolerate pain. When I slam my hand in the car door and immediately start to swear, does the swearing lessen the pain? When soldiers in the heat of combat let loose with a string of expletives, are they better able to withstand pain and fear? We have all heard of the heroic exploits of wounded soldiers, whose autonomic nervous system allowed them to perform super human feats. Would they have been able to do the same if they shouted "sugar, sugar, sugar?"

Finding the Right Dose?

These studies assume that swearing lessens pain. Swearing engages our autonomic nervous system and also an emotional response, increasing our heart rate, changing our perception of pain and our ability to tolerate pain. But, there is also something called habituation. If you take pain medication on a long term basis, you "habituate" to it and overtime it loses its effect. If the mechanism by which swearing decreases pain relies on an emotional response, then the theory is that people who swear more frequently will show a lesser benefit and pain tolerance.

Stephens and Allsop studied the pain tolerance of 71 undergraduates. (Side note: Students will do just about anything for extra money! My roommate in medical school volunteered for a liver biopsy in exchange for $150.) The students were asked to pick a swear word they would use if they hit their head and another word, like "hard" that would describe a table. They were asked to submerge their hand in room temperature water for three minutes and then in ice cold water while repeating their chosen word. Seventy-three percent of the students kept their hand in the water for much longer if they repeated the swear word. However, the more the participants reported swearing in daily life, the less extra time they were able to hold their hand in the ice water.

It would appear that there is a "dose" of swearing that works best. If you swear too much it reduces its benefit, but if you do not swear at all, you may not have as a high a pain tolerance. Swearing seems to have a protective effect -- to a point.

There was a 1965 cereal commercial for a breakfast cereal that would supply all of the necessary nutrients and vitamins for a teenage daughter who was always on a diet. This cereal's tagline: "What's a mother to do?" Swearing raises a similar question: "What's a mother to do?" Swearing can result in significant problems at home, school and work. Yet, swearing is not only an experiment in new language, it is a way of dealing with frustration and anger. Parenting experts might suggest that you work on teaching your child anger management as opposed to punishing them for swearing. Your kid may be surfing the Internet trying to figure out how to get Siri to swear -- I checked and there are almost one million listings on this subject. But in the end, it may all be about your children finding the right dose of swear words.

Personally, when I hit my third golf ball into the woods or am abruptly cut off by someone in a red sports car, "Oh sugar" is not going to work for me. I am going to try and titrate my dose of taboo words so I can find the "sweet spot" of less stress and a higher pain threshold. Wish me luck. Now, where did I leave my d**m keys?

For more by Richard C. Senelick, M.D., click here.

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