I have a friend who can’t say “fuck.” She never has been able to and shakes her head helplessly when teased and dared to give it a go. She is not a prude, but she has such a strong reaction to the word that she cannot bring herself to utter it.
Using the f-word in the first sentence of this article was not done for gratuitous effect, but how did you react to reading it? Would it have been more agreeable to see the euphemism “the f-word” instead? Do some “bad” words make you more uncomfortable than others?
It has been known for a while that people fluent in two languages respond far less strongly to swear words in their mother tongue than in their second language.
However, a new study of people’s reactions to a “bad” swear word — “fuck,” for example — compared to their reactions to a euphemism that they understood to mean the same thing now suggests our strong emotional reactions to swear words happen as a result of early verbal conditioning, rather than the meaning that is conveyed. This raises the possibility that young children may note their parents’ reactions to taboo words before they understand what the words mean.
All sorts of emotions are associated with the sound of swear words as we are growing up, said Jeff Bowers at the University of Bristol in England, who carried out the research.
The results of his study, Bowers said, throw some light on a question often debated by linguists and psychologists: Do the words you say affect the way you think and perceive the world?
Bowers wired volunteers up to a machine that would assess their stress levels by measuring their sweat. He then asked them to say swear words and their euphemisms aloud.
Even though everyone involved had volunteered for the study and was fully briefed as to what was involved, and therefore presumably not likely to be offended, participants showed higher stress levels when they were asked to swear than when asked to state the common euphemism.
Bowers said the difference in stress levels between swear words and euphemisms shows that we don’t only respond to the meaning of a swear word. The furor in December when the BBC radio journalist James Naughtie made an unfortunate slip of the tongue while introducing the British Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt on air demonstrates his point.
After the slip-up went out live on air at breakfast-time, the BBC was inundated with complaints. Presumably nobody imagined the presenter had intended to use the c-word, but many were still so shocked that they called, wrote and e-mailed to tell the broadcaster of their dismay. The BBC felt bound to apologize.
“In our view, euphemisms are effective because they replace the trigger — the offending word form — with another word that is similar conceptually,” Bowers said.
A conversation reported in one of John Pilger’s books, Bowers said, gives a good example of how word forms, rather than their meanings, affect how we think and act.
At an arms fair, Pilger describes asking a salesman to describe how a cluster grenade works: “Bending over a glass case, as one does when inspecting something precious, he said, ‘This is wonderful. It is state of the art, unique. What it does is discharge copper dust, very, very fine dust, so that the particles saturate the objective ...’”
What was that “objective”? asked Pilger.