Science on Swearing

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Timothy Jay knows enough about curse words to make any seven-year-old jealous. The Boston Globe has called him the “Doctor of dirty words,” and he frequently appears in news stories — like this one from the Today Show — to discuss swearing.

Even though swearing is frowned upon, research that Jay published in Perspectives on Psychological Science shows that profane language is everywhere, and it has an important purpose. Taboo words pack a lot of emotion, and this allows them to achieve certain goals, such as conveying frustration or humor, more easily than non-taboo words. Jay also argues that the scholars often neglect the study of swearing, which should be recognized as an important element of language. He proposes having a scientific theory of swearing “to acknowledge that we have similar nervous systems for emotional expression, but different personalities, learning histories, and cultural constraints.”

More from Jay is available from NPR’s This American Life, LiveScience, and The New York Times.

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