Columns

2017.06.07 Expanding my vocabulary

By DAVID GREEN

I didn’t grow up in a swearing family. Sure, I heard a few words spoken over the years—very few—but my brothers and sister and I never secretly exchanged vulgarities. It just wasn’t done in our house.

Outside the house, however, I probably had a beginner’s education to curse words when I served as the jib man on the Lightning class sailboat that my father owned with Clyde Brasher.

There wasn’t any “swearing like a sailor” activity going on, but there were words spoken from time to time. After all, it was the heaviest Lightning on Devils Lake and we generally finished well back in the fleet during the weekend race.

Even when my future wife demonstrated how they talk in the Bronx where she grew up, I guess I was still clinging to some silly notion about how swear words are the products of a small mind and a person who can’t adequately express him or herself.

Now I see that that’s nothing but buffalo chips.

The last year or two I’ve been trying to overcome an absence of curse words emanating from my mouth. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been a lot of fun. And I suppose that’s how I’ve moved forward—using them as a joke to shock people who aren’t accustomed to hearing me talk that way. That’s always enjoyable.

I’m not the only one having fun with swearing. Richard Stephens, a psychologist in England, has studied swearing and decided that it can serve as a pain management technique.

One study involved a cold water challenge. He found that those who plunged a hand into a bucket of ice-cold water could stay in the water an average of 40 seconds longer if they cursed repeatedly.

Stephens also observed that cursers show improved physical performance on difficult tasks, so maybe swearing boosts physical endurance.

Perhaps it’s good for the body, too. A study by other researchers looked into the thought that swearing is the fundamental language of emotion. The words seem to emerge from the part of the brain from which emotions arise. Using naughty words led to an increase in the conductivity of the skin. Using other non-emotionally charged words failed to give the same response.

Studies suggest there’s an “obscenity bin” that remains intact following certain forms of brain damage. Even a man with his left hemisphere removed had some choice words to say.

Stephens took an interest in swearing while his wife was giving birth to their child. A 20-hour labor opened many opportunities for swearing. His wife was later embarrassed and apologized to the staff, but they hear it all the time. No big deal.

Stephens came up with a swearing fluency test—a wonderful scientific device—in which subjects had to list as many swear words as they could think of in a minute. Those who first played an emotionally charged game drew up larger lists. In total, 60 words were mentioned, although 19 of them were deemed not to be a “linguistic form of swear word.” For example, “feck” and “wanko” were not accepted.

Stephens once found that people who typically swear during the day didn’t gain as much advantage in the ice bucket experiment, although he hasn’t been able to replicate that finding.

He wrote in his paper that four-letter words seem to be losing their shock value. They’re becoming more common among politicians, for example, on both sides of the aisle.

“But there will always be new taboo words and phrases,” he added. “We might be in a kind of plateau at the moment, before new oaths and profanities and whatever come along. But they will.”

I’m quite far from a plateau. I’m still too much of a rookie. I started by “speaking” profanity silently inside my head, then quietly when no one was around. I practice some on my wife and really enjoy surprising her now and then with a few choice expletives.

And I am advancing in my practice. In fact, I’ve moved forward to the point where this situation arises: I’m working alone at the Observer, the front door is open, and that weird problem of disappearing typefaces occurs again. That’s when I let loose with a few choice words. But then I have to glance out the office window in hopes that no one is walking by, especially not my mother.