Prohibiting Profanity - Word Week


By Molly FreemanPhoto courtesy of stockicide.

At the beginning of February, a Catholic high school in North Arlington, NJ made headlines when it asked all the girls of its co-ed student body to pledge not to swear for Lent. Ignoring the blatant sexism here (school officials actually claimed their female students “have the foulest language,” according to The Record,) this is just one chapter in the long story of schools or towns trying to ban cursing—without any success.

The real kicker in the case of Queen of Peace High School is that a lot of the students were on board with the civility campaign. Lori Flynn, who coordinated the pledge, told The Record that her logic behind it was simple: “We want ladies to act like ladies.”

Although some of the student body disagreed with the sexist implications of the pledge, they weren’t necessarily adverse with the principle idea behind it, something they share with the majority of the residents in Middleborough, MA. Last year, at a town meeting, the people of Middleborough actually voted to make anyone caught swearing in public pay a $20 fine.

Just a few months later the Associated Press reported the law could not go into effect because “the Supreme Court has ruled that the government can’t prohibit public speech just because it contains profanity.”

Despite violating free speech laws, cursing bans have been cropping up every few years all over the world. In 2005, the town of Staphorst in Amsterdam tried to make it illegal to take the lord’s name in vain. St. Charles, MO tried to ban swearing in bars in 2008. In 2011, Barnsley, England residents who used abusive or aggressive swearing were fined up to $130.

However, the media rarely reports on whether these bans succeed or fail. “These things are always in the news when they’re initiated; they’re never in the news when they fail, and they all fail,” Timothy Jay, a professor of psychology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and author of Why We Curse, tells BTR.

“We can’t stamp emotions out of people, but who wouldn’t want a better world without discrimination, hate, and prejudice,” he says. Swear words are symbols of emotions, and swearing is a symptom of emotional feeling according to Jay. But at the core of these cursing bans is the desire to eliminate the terrible things associated with swearing.

There are a lot of reasons people swear, though, not just to spread discrimination or hate. Kristin Janschewitz, a professor at Marist College and co-author of the article “The Science of Swearing” that appeared in The APS Observer has also studied cursing from a psychological standpoint.

“Sometimes swear words are used to cause distress in another person (insults, name-calling); sometimes swear words are used as emotional intensifiers (in the context of a range of emotions, not just negative ones); sometimes swear words are used so frequently in conversation that they have very little meaning; sometimes swear words are used to vent frustration (catharsis),” Janschewitz says.

There has also been research that concludes swearing can help people endure pain. A study published in the NeuroReport journal in 2009 measured how long college students could keep their hands in cold water with the option of chanting a swear word or a neutral word. The study found that those who swore repetitively reported less pain and held their hands in the water an average of 40 seconds longer.

However, swearing remains one of the most contested subjects within language. Many people give it up for Lent and these cursing bans continue to crop up.

In his column about the Middleborough cursing ban for CNN, John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University, said the move was empty and hopeless. “Americans need to rethink what is considered profanity in 2012. We are taught that a certain collection of words is profane, but this no longer makes sense given the readiness with which even the most mild-mannered of Americans use such words,” he says.

Psychologists like Timothy Jay and Kristin Janschewitz feel that swearing, in and of itself, isn’t bad for you.

“Some people, who take a moral view of swearing, would think all uses are bad. For psychologists trying to take a dispassionate look at this, a lot of it really is inconsequential and neither good nor bad; it’s just there,” says Jay.

Janschewitz even believes that swearing can be emotionally helpful. “It’s certainly true that, at least in some situations, expression of emotions, rather than suppression, has psychological benefits (suppressive coping style generally is associated with worse physiological outcomes.)”

Unfortunately, there has been very little study into the psychology or linguistics of swearing. Janschewitz points out that many people who study language scientifically and systematically tend to ignore cursing, seemingly because it is such a taboo topic. As a result, very little has been collected regarding the breakdown of swearing among different groups and classes of people.

“We would really benefit by a systematic examination of some variables of interest within a sample that is more diverse in terms of regional, ethnic/racial, sociocultural background,” says Janschewitz.

However, given the prevalence of cursing bans even in 2013, it might be some time before any real study into swearing is done.