The power of the four-letter word

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I love swearing! I also love other words, but I find swearing, when used in the right way, is a really powerful method of communication. It can draw attention, illustrate and emphasize a point, help us express anger, disgust, pain, it can add color, and it can be really, really funny. Swearing is both big and clever and while I’m not advocating swearing at people (well, most people), it is a wonderful way to enrich your vocabulary.  

Full disclosure, I am Irish, and swearing is somewhat ingrained in our culture. We don’t tend to get offended so easily if sworn at, in fact we often use some of the stronger swear words as terms of endearment. So swearing does come naturally to me.  

However, I also work in healthcare communications, where we are in the business of words. We use them to communicate, to inform, to educate, and to persuade. And yet, when it comes to talking to our audience, we don’t use some of the most powerful words – we don’t swear, ever. Swearing is taboo; it’s considered rude, offensive and even low class.  

But we are also in the business of science. And science has found some other interesting facts about swearing that might make us change our mind. 

 First, and most impressively, is that while the general perception might be that those who swear are less intelligent, swearing is actually associated with higher intelligence. A 2017 study from the University of Rochester found that intelligent people tend to swear more. A separate study linked swearing to having a larger vocabulary and higher verbal fluency!1  

There are some who disagree with this, feeling that while a wide vocabulary may indicate intelligence, sounding intelligent and being intelligent are different.2  

Well OK. But how about this – swearing is also linked to creativity. According to Timothy Jay, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, who has been studying the art of swearing for more than 40 years, and who led the study about swearing and vocabulary mentioned above, swearing is also an indication of honesty and creativity.3 He believes that people who swear are choosing powerful words to express their emotions and honing an area of the right side of the brain known as the ‘creative brain’.  

In an interview with the New York Times, he also claimed that people who swear are more honest, as they get right to the point and do not think about what they are going to say. Unlike liars, who formulate their stories to get them straight, and tend to take their time and be meticulous about their words. 

Swearing can also increase your persuasiveness. A 2014 study found that a politician’s use of swear words – in this case in a fictitious blog post – increased the perceived informality of the language and improved readers’ general impression of the source, although it turns out that this didn’t change their likelihood to vote for them!4  

Finally, if that doesn’t convince you, swearing helps us cope with pain. Research has shown that repeating a swear word not only effectively increases tolerance of physical pain,5 but can also attenuate social pain.6 And to ensure that it was the actual swearing that was helping, a further study compared repeating a swear word vs a made-up swear word (fouch and twizpipe) and a neutral word.7 The swear words won through, outperforming all other words in terms of pain threshold and tolerance.  

So, is there a place for swearing in healthcare communications? Where we need to be persuasive, emotional and clever? And sometimes even funny? Fuck yeah! 

References 

  1. Jay KL and Jay TB. Taboo word fluency and knowledge of slurs and general pejoratives: deconstructing the poverty-of-vocabulary myth. Language Sci. 2015;52:251–9. 
  2. Is cursing a sign of intelligence? Available from: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/swearing-and-intelligence/. Last accessed November 2022. 
  3. Swearing shows creativity, ingenuity and intelligence, expert explains. Available at: https://metro.co.uk/2021/01/27/swearing-shows-creativity-ingenuity-and-intelligence-expert-explains-13972892/. Last accessed November 2022. 
  4. Cavazza N and Guidetti M. Swearing in political discourse: why vulgarity works. J Language Soc Policy. 2014;33:537–47. 
  5. Stephens R, et al. Swearing as a response to pain. Neuroreport. 2009;20:1056–60. 
  6. Philipp MC and Lombardo L. Hurt feelings and four-letter words: Swearing alleviates the pain of social distress. Eur J Soc Psychol. 2017;47:517–23. 
  7. Stephens R and Robertson O. Swearing as a response to pain: Assessing hypoalgesic effects of novel ‘swear’ words. Front Psychol. 2020;11:723. 

MedComms = something about medics (I think?)

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