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Let's Reminisce: Words to swear by
By Jerry Lincecum
Nov 5, 2018
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According to the Herald Democrat, a Denison husband and wife couple were arrested last week for their use of foul language.  This interested me because I was working on a column about profanity, aka swearing or the use of foul language.  A Denison policeman said, "By the mere utterance of language like that, it can incite a breach of the peace -- people can hear it."

Now for my backstory: While working a crossword puzzle, I needed to find a synonym for  the term "profanity," so I looked the word up in Wikipedia, the internet encyclopedia.  To my surprise, I discovered a wealth of interesting information about "swear words" that can be discussed without using offensive language.  This topic intrigues me because I grew up in a household where profanity was not used.  As one of my cousins expressed it, "Your dad wouldn't use the s-word if he stepped in it."  Of course, I learned plenty of cuss words and vulgar language from other sources, but I was careful not to use them in the presence of my parents.

By way of definition, "profanity" is language generally considered to be crude or offensive. It can reflect a debasement of someone (as in "lower class"), or show intense emotion.  Research has found that swearing does relieve the effects of physical pain, and it has other beneficial effects.

In its older, more literal sense, "profanity" refers to speech or behavior showing flagrant disrespect or causing religious offense.  In Shakespeare's time, there were severe penalties for this kind of speech, and the characters in his plays often disguised their blasphemous language.

Regarding today's use of profanity, researchers who have analyzed thousands of hours of recorded conversations found that an average of roughly 80-90 words that a person speaks each day are swear words.  So the average person uses a great deal of profanity. A three-country poll conducted in July 2010 found that Canadians swear more often than Americans and Britons when talking to friends, while Britons are more likely than Canadians and Americans to hear strangers swear during a conversation.

Swearing actually serves certain psychological purposes.  Abusive swearing is intended to offend, intimidate or cause harm.  Cathartic swearing is used in response to pain or misfortune.  Emphatic swearing draws attention to what is considered to be worth stressing.  Finally, there is idiomatic swearing, used only as a sign that the conversation and relationship between speaker and listener is informal.

Cathartic swearing is an underappreciated anger management technique.  After all, giving someone a "cussing" is less damaging than attacking them physically (especially with a knife or gun).  Studies have shown that men generally curse more than women (unless the women are in a sorority), and university presidents swear more than librarians or the staff members of the university day care center.

A team of neurologists and psychologists reported that a patient's use of swear words can help differentiate Alzheimer's disease from other types of dementia.  One neurologist also noted that despite loss of language (resulting from damage to the brain), patients were often still able to use profanity.  That means our swear words are the last bit of memory we lose.

Regarding profanity in social media, one group of researchers studied why people swear in the online world by collecting tweets posted on Twitter. They found that cursing is often associated with negative emotions such as sadness and anger, thus showing people in the online world mainly use profanity to help express their sadness and anger.

In the USA, courts have generally ruled that the government does not have the right to prosecute someone solely for the use of profanity, which would be a violation of their right to free speech enshrined in the First Amendment. On the other hand, they have upheld convictions of people who used profanity to incite riots, harass people, or disturb the peace.  So the recent arrest in Denison was legal because it was for breach of the peace, not merely the utterance of "foul language."

Jerry Lincecum is a retired English professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com