"People who swear do not have a good vocabulary," my great -grandmother, an English teacher, used to insist. Bless her, she really thought that was true. But a half-century of moral and societal decline later, I have to disagree. One reason is that removing words from your vocabulary can hardly enrich it—it's not as though the blue words crowd out the purple. A second reason follows from that: I could probably do without "peregrination" and "finial", but swear words are among the most powerful in the language. This is why most people dislike them, some people fear them and try to ban them. To give them up would feel like unilateral disarmament.
Why the power? After all, the most common taboo words refer to body parts, unavoidable daily functions, and the act Woody Allen called "most fun you can have without laughing". Others, referring to religion, should be losing their bite in an increasingly secular society. Steven Pinker, a talented scientific populariser, probes the question in an essay for the New Republic, drawn from his new book, "The Stuff of Thought". Why do we say "fuck you", and not "fuck yourself"? What exactly makes certain excretions more linguistically taboo (shit) than others (snot)?
Swearing, it turns out, has its own part of the brain. Well, not exactly, but when you spill hot coffee on your crotch and expel a salty Anglo-Saxon term for sex or faeces, the brain's limbic system—involved in instinctive raw emotions like fear and disgust—is activated in a way that it isn't when you proclaim your love for Rimbaud (using the main language engine seated in your neocortex). This is probably why, no matter your mastery of and immersion in another language, when that coffee hits its mark you will almost always swear in your mother tongue. Swearing goes deep.(read more>>)
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