“What the ****?!” The power of swearwords

Have you ever blurted out a four-letter word when you bang your head on the cupboard door? Or wondered why people with Tourette’s Syndrome may shout out offensive words rather than random ones? Or why you’re tempted to use more obscene language when you’re angry?

That’s because such ‘bad’ words are stored in a different part of your brain during childhood. When your parents tell you off for swearing, or you become aware that certain words are inappropriate, they are ‘filed’ in the amygdala or reptilian brain. This is also the part of the brain where emotional reactions are stored.

For me, there is a difference between swearing in anger (which I find more offensive) and swearing for entertainment. But, these days, some people use swearwords so often that they lose all their power.

For instance, I was on a tram and overheard the guy behind me using the F-word throughout his conversation. I counted 40 times! What offended me most was when he used it in a grammatically incorrect context, mid-word! I was tempted to correct him, but didn’t have the nerve.

Personally, I have too much respect for swearwords to use them willy-nilly! I prefer to treat them with respect and save them up for special occasions when they have much more impact. If you swear all the time, what do you say when you really want to emphasise something?

Dirty mind test

Just as you should risk assess every aspect of your business, and computer security depends on the skill of hackers to build protection, you should test your written communications to see if you can ‘break’ them.

I call it the ‘dirty mind test’. That is, make sure your writing is not ambiguous. If it can be misinterpreted, you can bet that somebody will misinterpret it!

When I worked at Freemans catalogue, a fellow copywriter wrote the headline: “Sh, it’s a Slimma skirt”. Printed across the double page spread, the space between the ‘Sh’ and the ‘it’s’ disappeared.

Another example was the cuddly Silentnight hippo and duck we sold. Another copywriter wrote ‘Henry Hippo is 9 ½ inches high and comes in his own striped pyjamas’.

A colleague invited me to a display of exhibition panels with this message: ‘Come and view this impressive erection’. (I suspect that one was intentional though!)

More on memory

Note that there’s a difference between recall (remembering at will) and recognition (knowing you’ve seen something before). For example, think of your favourite TV series. It may be hard to remember and recite a whole episode, but as soon as you watch a few seconds you’ll know if you’ve already seen it.

Tip: The best way to learn something new is to make as many connections in your brain as you can, such as repeating the word and making a visual image of it. The more effort you put into remembering it in the first place, the easier it will be to recall.

For more about swearing, see Steven Pinker’s ‘The Stuff of Thought’ , especially chapter 7 ‘The seven words you can’t say on television’. Or watch his videos on YouTube, each approx. 10 minutes’ long:

The Language of Swearing 1

The Language of Swearing 2

I originally wrote this article for Fresh Business Thinking

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply