Things You Didn’t Know About Swear Words

According to a book by Melissa Mohr (Holy Sh*t: A Brief History Of Swearing), cussing can be traced back to Roman times.

• The average person swears quite a bit: About 0.7 percent of the words a person uses in the course of a day are swear words, which may not sound significant except that as Mohr notes, we use first-person plural pronouns — words like we, our and ourselves — at about the same rate. The typical range goes from zero to about 3 percent.

• Kids often learn a four-letter word before they learn the alphabet: Timothy Jay, a psychology professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, charted a rise in the use of swear words by children — even toddlers. By the age of two, most children know at least one swear word; it really “kicks off” around the ages of three or four.

• Some of today’s most popular swear words have been around for more than a thousand years: According to Mohn, the S-word that rhymes with hit is found in Anglo-Saxon texts.

• The ancient Romans laid the groundwork for modern day f-bombs: There are two main kinds of swear words, says Mohr: oaths — like taking the Lord’s name in vain — and obscene words, like sexual and racial slurs. The Romans gave us a model for the obscene words, she says, because their swearing was similarly based on sexual taboos.

• In the Medieval era, oaths were believed to physically injure Jesus Christ: In the Middle Ages, certain vain oaths were believed to actually tear apart the ascended body of Christ, as he sat next to his Father in heaven. Phrases that incorporated body parts, like swearing “by God’s bones” or “by God’s nails,” were looked upon as a kind of opposite to the Catholic eucharist — the ceremony in which a priest is said to conjure Christ’s physical body in a wafer and his blood in wine.

• However, obscene words were no big deal: The sexual and excremental words were not so shocking because people in the Middle Ages had much less privacy than we do. Or, as Mohr puts it: “they had a much less advanced sense of shame.”

• Swearing can physiologically affect your body: Hearing and saying swear words changes our skin conductance response, making our palms sweat. One study also found that swearing helps alleviate pain, that if you put your hand in a bucket of cold water, you can keep it in there longer if you say the s-word that’s not “shoot.”

• People don’t use cuss words just because they have lazy minds: Mohr says expletives are the best words that you can use to insult people, because they are much better than other words at getting at people’s emotions. Swear words are also the best words to use if you hit your finger with a hammer, because they are cathartic, helping people deal with emotion as well as pain. And studies have shown that they help people bond.