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  • The situation when I swear, can be of joy, can be of utter surprise can be of deepest

  • regret, or pain or anger. It seems to be the most expressive means to show your emotion

  • This is CrowdScience from the BBC World Service. I’m Anand Jagatia, and this edition is all

  • about the stuff you can’t normally put on the radio: bad language..

  • Itll come out automatically without me even thinking about it, and I’ll feel better

  • immediately.

  • I’m a nice person, I don’t curse a lot!

  • CrowdScience is the show that runs off your curiosity.

  • And it turns out that swearing is something that a lot of you are interested

  • in!

  • A few weeks back, we mentioned we were making a show all about swearing, and since then

  • our inbox has been flooded with your stories - and quite a bit of profanity.

  • I used to play sports. And definitely, I think a lot of swearing used to come out there.

  • And I wouldn't always swear as other players because you can, you know, get sent off for that

  • so…!

  • I don't swear a lot. I think if you use it a lot, it kind of loses strength. You want

  • to save it for when it's really useful.

  • Thanks to everyone who got in touch - well be hearing more from you throughout the show.

  • But first, let’s hear from the listener who started this off with his question - Gadi

  • Shalom, from the UK.

  • I want to know why it feels so good to use bad language.

  • So Gadi your question, can you sort of put that feeling into words,

  • Yeah, so it is rare. But in a stressful situation, or when something happens, that is unexpected,

  • it seems to be like a reflex to swear. And it sort of feels good in a way! It's also

  • the feeling after, so after you've stubbed your toe, for example, and you've used some

  • bad language, it sort of diffuses the situation a little bit. But how and why? And that's

  • what got me thinking

  • Gadi says he doesn’t swear much himself, and of course there are people - maybe youre

  • one of them - who never swear - even if youve been cut up in traffic,

  • locked out of the house or shut your fingers in the door.

  • But many of us will relate to what Gadi’s talking about - that sudden sense of release

  • when uttering bad language, the feeling that certain words are charged with an extra layer

  • of energy...

  • So how and why do these words work? To help us figure it out, we turned to Dr. Emma Byrne,

  • an expert on expletives who’s written a whole book about them, [called Swearing Is

  • Good For You.]

  • First things first - what is swearing?

  • Swearing is very, very tricky to pin down. We decide what swearing is by consensus. And

  • a lot of that consensus is to do with what's taboo in that particular

  • culture. Some places are very offended by parts of the body, some by animal names, some

  • by illnesses, some by certain bodily functions and not others. So what I ended up landing

  • on was that swearing is something that is by its nature taboo, in order to have that

  • emotional impact, you've got to be playing with a taboo. And

  • it's the kind of language that you would consider not using in certain circumstances, for example,

  • in a job interview or meeting your partner's parents for the first time. And it is the

  • kind of language that we use either in shock, amazement, elation, to be funny, to be offensive,

  • but as it's a cultural phenomenon, it is very, very hard to pin down an exact definition

  • of what swearing might be.

  • Right, okay. So it's emotive, it's generally something taboo.

  • And something which we've immediately run into, obviously, in

  • this programme is that we it's quite tricky to talk about swearing, without actually swearing.

  • I mean, we can just bleep them. If I say ****, that's now been bleeped. No one knows what that word

  • was. Or maybe we can just say like the F word, which is an English word lots of people be

  • familiar with, or maybe we could agree on some substitutes, like flip and sugar...

  • Yeah, I mean, the problem with using completely arbitrary substitutes is that they don't have

  • the emotive impact of a real swear word. So they're okay is sort of code to let people

  • know what it is we're talking about, but it is very hard to know how to use swearing in

  • broadcast is because you know, it's going to have an emotional impact, you just not

  • entirely certain what that emotional impact will be, particularly on a service like the

  • World Service where you're speaking across so many cultures, that the the opportunity

  • to give inadvertent offence is so great.

  • And maybe somebody who can help us navigate these tricky boundaries is our producer,

  • Cathy, so you're on the call Cathy, what are we allowed to say what we're not allowed

  • to say?

  • Yeah, I have got the BBC guidelines in front of me. And they're very detailed.

  • But they start off by saying that different words cause different degrees of offence in

  • different communities, as well as in different parts of the world. So like Emma said, we've

  • got listeners in all parts of the world. So we don't want to alienate anyone. But saying

  • that, judging by our inbox, the CrowdScience inbox, it's something a lot of our listeners

  • want to know about and are very interested in. It is gonna depend on the

  • context each time, so just do your best to not offend anyone.

  • Okay, so we can use we can talk about bad language, but we can't take the **** basically.

  • Watch it. Anand you *******

  • STOP IT

  • Now we've got that out of our systems. And I mean, there are clearly special social rules

  • and BBC guidelines. But Emma, what happens in our own heads when we use them? I mean,

  • do we process them differently in the brain?

  • Yeah, I mean, this is one of the most interesting things that I came across,

  • particularly at people whove had something called a hemispherectomy

  • where you remove one hemisphere of the brain. If damage to a single hemisphere is so extensive

  • it’s sometimes easier to just remove that entire hemisphere and you can live with one a single hemisphere of the brain.

  • Speech tends to be very strongly lateralized to one side of the brain or the other.

  • However, when you take somebody's left hemisphere, or somebody's left hemisphere is very

  • badly damaged to stroke, and they lose the majority of their language, what you tend

  • to find is that they will still be able to swear. And it seems we lay down very strong

  • emotional connections to certain types of language and that that is stored separately

  • from the rest of our language, you can remove the entire of a left hemisphere, and completely

  • negate somebody's ability to use language in a way that is sort of deliberative and

  • planned like I'm doing now. But they can still spontaneously swear. Swearing is so profoundly

  • connected with emotions, that the muscular movements required to utter swear words are

  • stored in multiple places. So we have backups for when we need them.

  • Wow. Okay, so I guess that speaks to kind of how deeply embedded

  • swear words are in our in our brains. And what listener Gadi is really interested

  • in is specifically about how swearing provides this almost magical, physical effect

  • these words that can actually make you feel better when you're in pain where

  • if you stub your toe. And so to that end, I've got a bucket of ice here, which Cathy

  • asked me to procure, foolishly, I perhaps thought this would be for something fun, like

  • maybe, maybe champagne. But I think that was hopelessly optimistic. So I've got the ice

  • in front of me here, what what are we doing this Emma?

  • So this is a reproduction of one of my favourite experiments. In fact, the one that got me

  • into the whole subject of swearing.

  • So what we're going to do is see whether or not a swear word allows you to keep your hand in

  • that ice cold water for longer than a neutral word. So were going to contrast the word

  • soft and the world BLEEP. Sorry Cathy busy on the beep key.

  • So you're going to pop your hand in ice cold water and start the timer at same time. And

  • when you feel like you need a little help, you can use the word BLEEP.

  • Okay. 123 go. Hoo! Not warm.

  • No.

  • Yeah, I can it's actually quite painful..

  • There’s not much here that were allowed to broadcast, so while I’m freezing my hand in ice cold water

  • let’s go to the person who came up with this experiment.

  • Hi, I'm Dr. Richard Stephens, a senior lecturer in psychology at Keele University. And I run the Swear Lab at the University.

  • The Swear Lab that's quite cool. So I mean, you're the perfect person to talk to.

  • What made you interested in the impact of swearing?

  • This relates to just personal experience, doing DIY, having accidents, hitting myself

  • with a hammer, swearing, thinking, why would I do that. And then when my daughter was born,

  • there was a lot of swearing during the labour. And the medical staff said, this is a completely

  • normal part of giving birth. So that kind of brought the idea of swearing and pain together

  • in my mind, And I thought, I wonder if there's any point to swearing when you're in pain,

  • I wonder if it helps at all?

  • Before Richard carried out his studies, one theory doing the rounds was that swearing

  • made pain worse. Bad language, the thinking went, was a form of catastrophizing - it put

  • you in a frame of mind where you imagine the worst possible outcome. Like stubbing your

  • toe and thinking you’d have to get your whole leg amputated.

  • But catastrophizing would actually make things feel more painful, and that didn’t chime with

  • Richard’s gut feeling about things. So he decided to investigate with the ice water test I just

  • demonstrated with Emma, called the cold pressor test. Though - not initially on himself.

  • For the first few years, I'd never actually done the cold pressor

  • Classic experimental psychologist! Being mean to people not doing experiments on themselves

  • I sort of thought I'd be quite good at it, I was terrible at it, I felt the pain really

  • quickly! And what we found across all our studies, it's replicated really well,

  • it’s always worked. We always see an advantage - more time spent in the ice water for swearing

  • versus neutral word.

  • Now before Richard explains why swearing might help people cope with pain, I want to bring

  • in a couple of our listeners whove got some first hand experience in this area. First

  • up, Colin.

  • I don't usually swear. But a few years ago, I had to be rescued from a mountain after

  • an accident. I’d badly dislocated my shoulder. And I had to be put on a sled to come down

  • the mountain. Every single bump was agony. And all I could do was mouth expletives all

  • the way down the mountain. No other words seem to do.

  • Medics are probably used to their patients swearing at them - whether that’s up a mountain

  • or in a hospital, like listener Rebecca, a radiographer and swearing enthusiast.

  • If somebody comes into my X ray room, and they are in a lot of pain, a lot of people

  • will jump straight to swearing at me, which I encourage. Or if people seem to be feeling that it’s impolite I will say no, no, no, it's okay. You swear away

  • it helps with the pain. I read it in a magazine once. People seem to really go for it. And

  • it's a bit of relief. It gives them a bit of a chuckle as well.

  • The pain-relieving power of swearing in full force there - but why exactly might it help Colin

  • and his dislocated shoulder or Rebecca’s X-ray patients? Another finding from Richard

  • Stephensice bucket test might give us a clue.

  • We usually see an increase in heart rate in the swearing condition as well compared with

  • the neutral word. And that seems to indicate some kind of emotional response to the swearing

  • and we know that swearing is kind of emotional language. So our kind of working hypothesis

  • has been that when people swear in pain, they're actually ramping up their stress levels, and

  • bringing into play a phenomenon called stress induced analgesia, which is part of the wider

  • fight or flight response.

  • It’s a bit like soldiers on the battlefield who don't notice their injuries because theyre

  • so flooded with adrenaline. Maybe the emotion of swearing helps you get into that pumped

  • up state, and that reduces the pain?

  • Well, further studies have suggested it’s more complicated than that.

  • We were interested, if swearing brings about fight or flight response, it should make you

  • stronger. So we ran a study, where we looked at swearing again, the same thing repeating

  • the swear word, compared with a neutral word. And we did show as we predicted that swearing

  • makes you stronger. However, there was no sign of the fight or flight response, so we

  • had the effects we predicted, but not by the mechanism we predicted. So that tells us there's

  • something else going on, and that's kind of where we are now, trying to pick up what that

  • mechanism might be.

  • And that means I get to swear for science again...

  • Put your hands underneath each thigh, right hand and your right thigh obviously left undone

  • to your left thigh. Yep. Push down, straighten up your arms

  • so that you're lifting your feet off the floor and you're behind off the seat.

  • Okay, so you're supporting all of your body weight on your hands on the chair.

  • okay.

  • So while you're doing this task, I would like you to repeat the word BEEP at normal speech

  • volume and same pace once every two seconds. So when you're ready, go.

  • OK. My arms are shaking quite a lot.

  • Youll just have to imagine what popular English expletive I’m using,

  • it features high up on the BBC’s offensive

  • word list.

  • But it did seem to help - I could almost feel a little blip of release when I swore.

  • People in the next room are going to be wondering what kind of interview I'm doing.

  • This went on for quite a long time….

  • Do you work out Anand? As well as swearing while weightlifting, Richard

  • set me some other tasks, involving blowing up virtual balloons. Because, if it’s not

  • the fight or flight response that’s making people stronger, he wants to know what else

  • is at work.

  • I think it's entirely possible that there is more than one mechanism by which swearing

  • can lead to effects, what we're sort of thinking is that may be swearing

  • just makes you kind of go for it a little bit more and become a little bit less inhibited.

  • And there are some parallels with this. So for example, people doing karate, when they

  • kind of make a move, they make that sound the kayap, studies have compared the amount

  • of strength people can produce with and without the sound, and they can produce more strength

  • with the sound.

  • They were not able to say what the mechanism was but again, they they were talking about something

  • like disinhibition, going for it.

  • Thanks to Dr Richard Stephens - and if you want to help him and his team test this new hypothesis

  • then if English is your first language you

  • can get involved and help CrowdScience live up to its name - go to swearlab.co.uk for more information on how to take part.

  • So, if swearing has this physical power to relieve pain and even make us stronger - the next

  • question is: since theyre just words, where do they draw this power from? Back to our

  • trusted profanity pundit, Dr Emma Byrne.

  • Yes, there were two contending theories as to why swearing is so satisfying.

  • And there is the the sound based theory, which is that there's something about the particular

  • letters and sounds phonemes that we use in swearing that are very satisfying the ff and

  • the shhh and then there is the taboo theory. And so when you have a look at swear words

  • throughout history, throughout the world, it turns out that there isn't really any phonological,

  • any sound based pattern that we can discern. Certainly the two most commonly used swear

  • words in the UK do have a f and sh. But that hasn't always been the case.

  • But when you look at taboos, there's definitely much more of a link with a society's taboos,

  • and the language that is used as swearing. I find it really interesting, for example,

  • that in European French, a lot of the swear words are to do with bodily functions and

  • bodily parts, whereas in Canadian French, they're still a lot more religious. They talk

  • about tabernacle, and the host, the communion host. And it's not that the words sound any

  • different, or that they're produced differently, or they feel different in the mouth. It's

  • just they don't have that emotional resonance. It's the same language, the same words, but

  • they're swear words in one culture and not in another.

  • Ok so I guess we can look at society, but also we can try and work out experimentally what's going on

  • and try to pick apart what’s going on in the words, and I know that you were involved in an experiment

  • with Richard Stephens, who we just heard from, where you tried to basically create new swear

  • words from scratch and see if those words still had power. So can you tell us a bit

  • about that?

  • Yeah, that was enormously fun. So I was involved in shortlisting from a whole range, I think

  • we had hundreds of submissions from members of the public that we went through. And the

  • two words that we decided that we'd like Richard to take back to the lab were fouch and twizpipe,

  • we decided on two because we