There's something about a good curse word that has a healing effect. Whether it's a G-rated oath or a full-scale f-bomb, profanity helps in some situations, and science backs that up. Researchers say there are plenty of ways that cursing is good for your physical and emotional health.
There are several types of expletives to choose from. In his book "The Stuff of Thought," Steven Pinker explores the different types of swearing, from the abusive — "You ass!" — to the cathartic — "Sh*t, that coffee is hot!" What type you choose may depend on whether you're stressed or in pain or just trying to make your friends laugh.
Studying our choice and use of curse words can teach us about language and our brains, according to Benjamin K. Bergen, a cognitive scientist and author of a new book called “What the F.” As the New York Times reports:
When brain injuries or tumors render people speechless, they sometimes still swear, while Tourette’s syndrome can cause uncontrollable shouting of offensive slurs and obscenities. For comedy writers, that’s all catnip, but for Bergen, these phenomena reveal where language originates: When you pay attention to the affected brains, you learn that there’s a specific place where automatic, stubbed-toe expletives originate, distinct from the pathway, in the left hemisphere, that generates the rest of our talk.
So the next time you're ready to let loose, do so with confidence. Here are some of the potential benefits:
1. It eases pain. In a chilly research study published in the journal NeuroReport, college students plunged their hands in cold water to see how long they could withstand the freezing temps. Those who uttered the expletive of their choice reported less pain and lasted about 40 seconds longer than those who were forced to chant a neutral word. After leading the study, researcher Richard Stephens of Keele University in England said, "I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear."
2. It makes your heart race. Swearing can activate your fight or flight response, firing up your aggressive tendencies — hopefully in a good way. Maybe that's why coaches and drill sergeants tend to fire up their charges with obscenity-laced "pep talks."
3. It keeps you engaged. Monika Bednarek, senior lecturer in linguistics at the University of Sydney, studied some of America's most popular TV shows, counting how many swear words were used in each one. With more than 100 curse words per episode, the very popular "The Wire" won the profanity sweepstakes. On the big screen, the five-time Oscar-nominated "The Wolf of Wall Street" had so many curse words that it worked out to about one curse word every 20 seconds. The conclusion? Curse words = popularity.
4. It helps you bond. Maybe we're not all dropping f-bombs during our casual conversations, but Bednarek says that for the most part, profanity can help relationships. “In addition to the psychological function of swearing, we mustn’t forget its social functions. Swearing is important for creating close relationships, friendship or intimacy with others, and bonds can be formed around it.”
5. It makes you feel in control. "By swearing we show, if only to ourselves, that we are not passive victims but empowered to react and fight back," writes English psychiatrist Neel Burton. This can boost confidence and self-esteem.
6. It can make people laugh. We often use off-color humor to crack up our friends. As long as nobody's offended in the process, profanity can have great entertainment value.
7. It can be cathartic. Pound your thumb with a hammer? You know a couple (or more) well-placed expletives can have quite the soothing effect. But you can get relief from non-physical ailments too. Whether you got dumped or are late for carpool, experts say swearing helps deal with emotion as well as pain.
8. It lets you express yourself. "It allows us to vent or express anger, joy, surprise, happiness," says Timothy Jay, a psychologist at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, who has studied profanity for 35 years. "It's like the horn on your car, you can do a lot of things with that, it's built into you."
9. It helps you fit in. Peer pressure, anyone? Swearing can help you feel more comfortable socially. If everyone else is being a little profane, cursing shows that you are part of their group. It also demonstrates that you are at ease being yourself in front of them.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in April 2015.