Profanity is the linguistic version of a tattoo: Just as it used to be provocative and edgy to sport visible ink, it used to shock the pearl-clutchers of the world when you dropped an f-bomb — a signal that you were an ill-refined lout who didn’t have the intelligence or sophistication to choose your words more wisely. No longer: Science has found a steady stream of reasons — emotional, social and physiological — to justify our affection for curse words. Here’s everything beneficial about letting loose a string of obscenities.
It makes you stronger.
Cursing improves stamina, according to researchers at the University of Keele, The Independent reported. In one experiment, they asked 29 participants to utter a swear- or neutral word while pedaling at full effort on an exercise bike. Those who cursed upped their peak power by 24 watts on average — how professional cyclists measure the power they produce — a boost that could easily make the difference between winning or losing the race. In a second experiment, they tested the power of profanity on the handgrip strength of 52 participants. Cursing upped the average power by 2.1 kilograms.
Worth noting: They didn’t assign a random curse word to these volunteers, but had them choose the same swear word they’d use if they banged their heads — obviously, fuck and shit were the most popular. And they didn’t ask them to shout them like crazy people, either, because they didn’t want swearing to affect their heart rate, but merely to utter the words in a “steady and clear” voice. That made the curses measured and unemotional, but extremely effective.
It reflects intelligence.
A study of verbal fluency found that those who score higher on the ability to come up with a lot of words in general are also better at coming up with a lot of swear words. This contradicts the long-held notion that people who say “fuck” a lot are just bad at coming up with more interesting ways to express their frustration. Instead, it means they probably thought of all the possible ways to say everything’s gone nuts, and instead landed on the best word.
It increases pain tolerance.
There’s a reason why when you stub your toe you curse to the heavens — you’ve tapped into the pain-distraction power curse words offer, if only for a brief moment. A 2009 study—from the same University of Keele researchers who studied swearing and stamina—had participants dunk their hands into a pail of icy water and either swear (shit!) or say something neutral (sugar!). Those who swore reported increased pain tolerance, increased heart rates, and decreased perceptions of pain. In other words, it kicked up a fight-or-flight response. One catch: The same pain-easing effects weren’t there for people who “catastrophized” pain, suggesting that it may not work for the more anxious among us.
Taking taboo words into your own hands —then spewing them out of your mouth — creates the sense that you’ve taken your life into your own hands, too, and, hell, might possibly even do something about it. “By swearing we show, if only to ourselves, that we are not passive victims but empowered to react and fight back,” psychiatrist Neel Burton wrote at Psychology Today of the benefits of cursing. “This can boost our confidence and self-esteem, and also provide the impetus for further corrective action to be taken.”
It allows you to communicate more effectively.
Burton notes that swearing is really just a way to express that something you’re saying really matters, adding “emphasis or punch” to our speech, making it more lively, more colorful, and ultimately, more effective. (See the difference between this sucks and this fucking sucks.)
It promotes bonding or “fitting in.”
Please don’t curse to make people think you’re cool, but should you find yourself uttering a well-timed bullshit among colleagues and friends, bask in the momentary comic relief and sense of unity it promotes. “Swearing is important for creating close relationships, friendship or intimacy with others, and bonds can be formed around it,” linguistics expert Monica Bednarek told the Mother Nature Network.
Given the embarrassment of riches cursing actually offers, perhaps we should thank those pearl-clutchers for preserving its power. If they hadn’t forbidden us since birth from doing it, shaming us for uttering words that, ultimately, have no real meaning outside the arbitrary ones we’ve assigned, we’d never have this reservoir of verbal tricks to kick things up a notch. This isn’t a reason to go cursing up a storm everywhere you go—if we all start doing it, it won’t mean much anymore—but you can at least stop dropping change in a swear jar when you do it.