The sacredness of the profane

DROPPING A BOMB: The C-bomb remains a shocking word when used in daily conversation.
DROPPING A BOMB: The C-bomb remains a shocking word when used in daily conversation.

Last year the Victorian government decided to issue on-the-spot fines for swearing in public. And I felt pretty damn glad that I no longer live in Melbourne.

I am very comfortable with profanity. Having said that, I never use racial slurs or homophobic slander, as... well... I'm not a homophobic or racist person. But I will throw around the F bomb with reckless abandon. I will use words which relate to male body parts. And I will have even invoked the C word when greatly provoked, much to the horror of some of my less-potty mouthed friends.

To me, profanities are nothing but lexical intensifiers - words that emphasize the sentiment of what is being said. And these can be used in both a positive and negative way. 'He is very cute' is nice, but doesn't quite pack the lustful punch of 'He is f**king hot'. And while 'This soup is really bad' conveys the taste of the meal, 'This soup is f**king awful' far more eloquently conveys the disgust.

My very erudite father despises swearing, calling it 'a substitute for thought'. And it's true; when I hear people drop the F word three times per sentence - as a noun, an adjective, an adverb and then a verb - I weep for their vocabulary. Not only do these people substitute profanities for thought, their entire dialogue loses its semantic power. It just becomes a f**king mess.

Still, I do believe there is a place for swearing in our culture. From a purely linguistic point of view, profanities are as valid as any other words. After all, language is defined by its capacity to make meanings understood. So if I say X and you understand what I mean, then X is valid as a form of language. It doesn't matter whether X is 'sex' or 'screw'; if we are effectively communicating, then the word works.

On another level, profanities have actually been proven to be cathartic, providing emotional release and relief from pain. A 2009 study by psychologist Richard Stephens in the UK found that swearing helps people to cope with pain. Volunteers were asked to immerse their hands in icy water, while chanting either a swear word of their choice, or a neutral word. Those who were allowed to swear reported less pain, and managed to keep their hands in the water for around 40 seconds longer.

And I'm not surprised. As someone who screamed expletives all the way through a drug-free childbirth, I greatly appreciate the significance of swearing. Yelling "Oh, that's terribly sore" as I pushed out my baby wouldn't have f**king touched the sides.

Of course, swear words are so satisfying simply because they are taboo. There's no intrinsic power in the words themselves. Which is why the best way to discourage kids from swearing is to not react; the words just aren't as exciting when they're not forbidden. (As a side note, my three kids virtually never swear. Seeing Mummy do it so often seems to make it uncool.)

Dr Timothy Jay, a psychologist at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, is a world renowned expert on swearing. He likens swearing to the use of a horn on a car, allowing us to express anger, joy, surprise and happiness. It can allow us to vent our feelings of anger and frustration, and be a more acceptable substitute for physical violence.

Still, we have to be careful with our use of profanities. The more we swear, the more desensitised we become to the language, until screaming 'c**t' will pack no more punch than shouting 'cock-a-doodle-do'. And then we'd have to invent a new crop of swear words, and really, all the bodily functions have been taken.

So the moral to the story is this: invoke profanities with caution. Use the milder words at will, and remember that words can never hurt you. But save the more intense language for when you desperately need it. Don't overuse it, abuse it, or sap its strength.

Because if you do, and the sh*t really hits the fan, you're going to be left up the creek without a f**king paddle.

- Daily Life

Are you comfortable with swearing, or do you think people who use profane language should have their mouths washed out with soap?