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Swearing is Good for You – Especially in a Foreign Language

Release Date:
8/24/2011 4:02 PM
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University of New Haven: Alexandria Guzman, features Alexandria Guzmán

Aug. 24, 2011

West Haven, Conn. -- When you swear, do you feel better? Is it better to swear in a foreign language?

A psychology professor at the University of New Haven, who is conducting research on the use of swear words, believes that cursing might actually be therapeutic because you are getting emotional release. She also believes there are benefits to swearing in a foreign language.

But why is the use of taboo words so popular in so many cultures?

“Every society has these words, everyone knows and uses them,” Alexandria Guzmán, associate professor of psychology at UNH, says. “You can express yourself in a lot of different ways. So why not get an emotional release from taboo words?”

Guzmán, a cognitive psychologist, is interested in how the brain differentiates and uses linguistic information. She says memory allows humans to view words and sounds in different ways and to use language in a different way orally than they do in writing.

Research so far shows that people frequently swear for emotional release.   The meaning of the words they use, however, change in context.  And although they have the same meaning in another language, they don’t have the same venom they might in English.

So is it nicer to swear, say in French, than in English?  Sometimes it is, Guzmán, an Ecuadorian-American who is bilingual, says.  “I know that certain phrases can be used in front of my parents in Spanish without any thought at all.  But if I say the same phrase in English in the same way, it is considered trouble. The words are interpreted culturally.”

Likewise, friends might use a taboo word to address each other or refer to others. If outsiders, however, use that word, it is considered pejorative or racist.

“I want to know why people behave the way they do,” Guzman says.  “What triggered them to use a curse word at all?”

Interestingly enough swear words in most languages are the same, Guzmán says.  In nearly every language, they relate to sex, parentage, disease (such as a “pox”), evil (like the devil, damnation or hell) or bodily functions (i.e. defecation).

And in nearly every language, they can be used as different parts of speech -- noun, adjective, verb or adverb. So why not just substitute a word that isn’t taboo, such as “fudge” or “shoot?”

Maybe because they just don’t provide the same emotional release as the taboo word, according to the UNH psychology professor. “Words are important because they are what we use to express ourselves,” she says. 

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