There is good evidence that swearing (cursing) actually does help reduce pain. This was shown in a study led by psychologist Richard Stephens at the UK’s Keele University. First, he asked 67 undergraduate students to list words, including swear words, they might utter if they hit their thumb with a hammer, as well as a list of neutral words. Then he had them immerse one hand in a container of ice-cold water while repeating either a swear word or one of the neutral words on their lists. Those who repeated the swear word were able to keep their hand in the water almost 50 percent longer than those who repeated a neutral word. In addition, heart rates increased in those who swore, and the experience appeared to initiate the “fight or flight response” that helps us deal with danger. The conclusion: when you respond with a swear word to stubbing your toe or banging your thumb with a hammer, the expletive may help you deal with the pain better (although some evidence suggests that compared to people who don’t swear, those who do seem to have a lower overall tolerance for pain).
Professor Stephens also tested whether swearing would help boost strength in a grip test. It did, even though the participants were instructed not to raise their voice, just to say the word in an even tone. Here, however, there was no evidence of the heart rate increase or other signs of the fight or flight response seen with the ice-water test.
Swearing has generated a growing amount of scientific research. We’ve learned that as a response to pain or anger swearing occurs in all languages and societies. We also know from studying brain injuries that swearing comes from a part of the brain other than the one responsible for ordinary spoken language. Studies have shown that people who cannot speak as a result of a stroke or other damage to the language centers in the left frontal cortex of the brain are often still able to swear, indicating that this ability is located elsewhere – in deeper brain areas, such as the limbic system, and in the right hemisphere.
One theory holds that swearing evolved as a substitute for aggressive physical action, such as throwing a punch in anger. More commonly, it is used to emphasize a point, to indicate your emotional state or, negatively, as a slur.
Research from the UK published in 2017 found that swearing with colleagues can help create “a sense of belonging, mutual trust, group affiliation…and cohesion.” We swear or curse to express a wide range of emotions from happiness and surprise to sadness and fear. It also helps us deal with stress and frustration.
Here’s a quick summary of what’s known about swearing today: it generally encompasses about 10 expressions and occurs at a rate of about 0.5 percent of a person’s daily word output, according to a 2012 article on the science of swearing. The authors note that while swearing “crosses socioeconomic statuses and age ranges and persists across the lifespan, it is more common among adolescents and more frequent among men.”
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Richard Stephens et al, “Swearing as a response to pain.” Neuroreport, September 2009, DOI: 10.1097/WNR.0b012e32832e64b1
Timothy Jay and Kristin Janschewitz, “The Science of Swearing,” Observer, Association for Psychological Science, May/June 2012