I’m sitting in a polite home in southeast London shouting, “Go piss up a rope ya fuckstick,” at a sofa cushion. This odd ejaculation is at the behest of Australian singing teacher Sam, who’s part of today’s four-woman therapeutic “cursing circle,” a group therapy trend that emerged, like all things in fringe therapeutics, on the west coast of America.
Sam, our group leader today, sees her compatriots’ reputation as experts of the profane as a form of honest discourse that might help uptight people improve our intimate relationships and let off steam.
And it’s something that could be especially helpful at this time of year: a way of venting after a festive overload of troublesome relatives or office Christmas parties. Perhaps best not to vent in company, though, as Sam recommends hollering therapeutic profanities at volume towards inanimate objects when you are alone. This year, try dreaming of a blue Christmas rather than a white one.
The aforementioned “Go piss up a rope ya fuckstick” was a popular curse in 1990s Australia: yelled at queue-cutters or the sort of unreconstructed drongos who enjoyed snapping women’s bra straps. Tonight our circle is trying it for size for its stress-relieving potential against our tried-and-tested teen favorites. “Let’s go full blue Aussie!” cries Sam.
ANATOMY OF SWEARING
Vulgarisms form a large part of most nations’ vocabulary, though they differ in their nature and categorization from place to place and over time. Anthropologist Ashley Montague’s classic 1967 text, The Anatomy of Swearing, distinguishes between three categories: “swearing” (“Fuck it”), “cursing” (“Fuck you”) and “oathing” (“By God”). Most nations and points in history have seen sexual and body-part categories of profanities, whereas religious profanities have dwindled in Protestant nations while they retain currency in culturally Catholic nations such as Spain, Italy and Ireland.
Britons issue on average 14 expletives a day, making it among Europe’s most potty-mouthed nations. The English language boasts a handsome 348 curse words and phrases, the world’s highest tally (compared to Mandarin’s paltry 29 and Norwegian’s 94). While older Britons swear less in person than 20 years ago, millennials and Gen Z swear more than their forebears, and expletives are on the rise both in workplaces and on social media. Use of the most common swear words on Facebook rose by 41 percent from 2019 to last year, according to intelligence agency Storyful, and expletives rose by 27 percent on Twitter during the remote-working pandemic years.
BENEFITS OF SWEARING
Swearing confers a range of benefits, says psychotherapist Heidi Soholt, from pain and stress-relief to social leveling. Soholt uses curse words therapeutically, mirroring clients’ use of language to put them at ease.
“Using taboo words allows us to release these intense emotions without actually using physical aggression,” Soholt says, “by releasing anger, for example, in a more culturally acceptable and less problematic way.”
Swearing is particularly useful for male clients, she says, for whom profanities can be a proxy for breaking down in tears.
“Swearing is more socially accepted for men than crying.”
In 2020, British psychologists asked 92 subjects to submerge their hands in painfully icy water. Some subjects were told to use profanities, others to exclaim a non-profane neutral word and a third group used an invented curse word such as “twizpipe.”
The swearers tolerated more pain and found more humor in the experience than those using the invented curse, but even the invented curse provided more emotional relief than saying the neutral word, an effect that’s behind the cursing circles’ use of group swearing as therapy. According to research published in 2006, more than half of the voluntary cursing that we do follows anger and frustration, 9 percent of it follows humor and 6 percent follows pain.
“If I dropped a hammer on my thumb, saying flippin’ heck just wouldn’t cut it,” says Matt, a 47-year-old builder in Yorkshire who only wanted to be identified by his first name. Matt is aware that the building trade is characterized as being rife with foul language and thinks this cliche holds as true today as when he started out in the business.
“I’d say 30 out of 50 words uttered on the site are swear words,” he says. “What the fuck are you doing?” is, he adds, a constant refrain; small distances are measured in “cock’s hairs” and the weight of objects is “fucking heavy” or “not that fucking heavy.”
“We had a fireplace to lift the other day,” he recalls, “and I asked my boss: ‘Is it heavy?’ and he said ‘Yes, fuckin’ heavy’ and that told me a lot more than knowing it weighed 25kg.”
CONTEXT IS KEY
Clearly not all cursing can or should be seen as harmless “bants.” These exchanges need to be seen in the context of who is cursing whom and where any power balance — or imbalance — lies. Melissa Mohr, a US-based historian and author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, says that identity-based curses, including racist and homophobic curses, and those referring derogatorily to women (if not women’s body parts), are waning in most social contexts in the West.
“These words are no longer used in terms of, say, pain relief,” Mohr says. “Curses do need to be taboo to have their transgressive power, but these words occupy a space beyond that.”
When it comes to our current profane lexicon we are, Mohr explains, squarely back with the ancients.
“In ancient Rome and Greece the most prevalent curses were around excreta and sexual activity, and that’s kind of where we have been since the 20th century.”
Religious profanities were common in the middle ages — as an example, Mohr offers: “God’s nails, this stew is hot!”
By the 16th century, however, these words had lost their shock factor. Sexual swear words have also been sanitized over time. “Swithe” and “sard,” once obscene verbs for the sexual act, with some translations of the Gospels rendering the Sixth Commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery” as “Thou shall not sard another’s wife,” dropped out of use in the modern period.
By the 19th century, sexual swear words (“John Thomas,” “quim”) were both ubiquitous and frowned upon by sermonizing Victorians.
“You get all these tut-tutting Victorian tracts about how the working classes can’t put two words together without cursing, as well as religious imagery showing the terrible consequences of what would happen if you swore,” adds Mohr.
Interestingly, the word “Christmas” had a brief life in the mid-20th century as a sanitized substitute for religious oathing, akin to “egad,” “gosh” and “golly” for “God.”
John Cohen’s The Natural History of Swearing (1961) relates: “A member of the royal family, somewhat irritated by a slight tear in her dress at a public ceremony, uttered the rather unexpected exclamation, ‘Christmas!’”
As Matt the builder intimates, swearing can have a powerful group-bonding function. Karyn Stapleton, who researches the social effects of swearing at Ulster University, has found that women swear less frequently and when they do swear it tends to be in closed circles, perhaps as a way of feeling close to an intimate group of friends by dabbling, as a shared exercise, in linguistic taboos.
Victoria Emes, a 39-year-old comedian based in London, is the author of Welcome to Motherhood, Bitches (2022) and a blogger of “Unfiltered thoughts from a potty-mouthed mama navigating the peaks and troughs of parenthood.” Emes’s recent posts explore “sprout hos,” or mums who suffer flatulence after a surfeit of the festive brassicas, and annoyances about having no loo roll left to “wipe my b-hole thanks to the kids.”
She says that targeted use of profane humor diffuses tension as it allows strangers to feel at home.
“I’ll drop a dickhead or two into conversation when meeting new mums as by doing that you soon realize who your people are,” she says. “I think humor brings people together and makes them feel they can express their true feelings about the shit of parenting without fear of judgment or shame.”
Group-bonding is much of the explanation for swearing’s prevalence in the white-collar workplace, fishing fleet or financial trading floor. The Wolf of Wall Street remains the most profane film in English screen history, with 506 F-word expletives, according to Guinness World Records; an average of 3.81 swear words per minute. Financial adviser Errol Slater, 42, spent 20 years working as a floor trader in London and says that swearing provides a pressure release for workers in a constant state of central nervous system stimulation on the trading floor: “Fuck, wanker, shit, twat, cunt, dick — the short and sweet ones were the favorites,” he recalls.
“Though Wolf of Wall Street was less blue than my recollection of those years.”
Mohr says that working-class occupations were for years culturally derided for their blue language. “Heart! You swear like a comfit-maker’s wife… Swear me, Kate, like a lady as thou art…” Hotspur cajoles Lady Percy in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1.
As well as its powerful in-group signaling function (“You and me, you old bastard, are kin”), swearing is associated with honesty. In 2017, researchers writing in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science analyzed studies that looked at 74,000 social-media interactions and found that use of profanities was associated, in those interpreting the swearers, with less lying and deception.
Jay Stansfield, 42 and based in Lancashire, is a singer in punk band All Hail Hyena and also runs a children’s coloring-book business. Despite his punk credentials, Stansfield experiences his teenage daughters’ favored cultural diet of Nicki Minaj TikToks and RuPaul’s Drag Race as a seemingly uncensored morass of profanities.
“It’s not really to hurt anyone,” he says, “it tends to be along the lines of, ‘Fuck, yeah!’ — like an exclamation of joy.”
Stansfield feels that his generation was more guarded about swearing than the northern working classes of his parents’ day, generally sticking to in-group uses, “such as calling people twats when they’re really big-headed, as loads of music egos are.”
Studies on swearing and class have found that, historically at least, the working and upper classes were more prone to swear, with the middle classes being the least sweary and most censorious of the blue outbursts of others.
It’s swearing’s cathartic potential that most appeals to my cursing circle, we agree, after an hour of sharing our childhood recollections of blue language interspersed with profane outbursts. This aspect of swearing — shared social release — is also seen in the rise of “blue” (acceptably sweary) open mic nights in London and New York, and in the Karen’s Diner concept, an Aussie theme restaurant where staff bombard customers with profanities, which last year arrived in the UK (with branches in Birmingham, Newport and Sheffield).
In South Korea, meanwhile, “swearing granny restaurants” allow customers to let off steam as they dine by shooting the breeze with unapologetically foul-mouthed older woman proprietors.
“Fuckin’ A,” Sam says as we discuss this wonderful concept. “That’s something twats like us could do with, right?”
One of history’s most celebrated swearers, French satirist Rabelais (who was fond of the word “bollocks” as a term of endearment), passed this rosy judgment: “Swearing,” says his character Panurge in his celebrated work Gargantua and Pantagruel, “doth your spleen a great deal of good…”
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