Why do people swear so much?

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Why do people swear so much?

Post Number:#1  Postby Lark_Truth » April 4th, 2017, 10:09 am

I was raised by my parents not to use swear and cuss words as a morality principle, and I'm quite glad that I don't swear. Usually I just use substitute words like "Dang it!" "Tarnation!" "Heck" and "Drat!" But out in the world away from my home I hear people swearing every other word, much of it in ways that I don't understand.
For instance: My interpretation of the F-word is "rape", so when people use the F-word repeatedly, I see that as saying: "rape, rape, rape, rape" which I see as disgusting and foul! It abhores me and I don't understand why in heck people would say stuff like that. I've always been taught that procreation is a sacred responsibility, and out in the world there are people who treat it like it's something to joke about instead of something that shouldn't be treated so vilely. I hear about every day people who say "F-word you!" which by my interpretation means "Rape you!" and that carries a lot of meaning in a really bad way.
When I was young, I asked someone who did swear regularly why people swear so much. They replied that people who swear are more in touch with their emotions, which completely blew me out of the water. Lust, Anger, Hatred, Greed, I see all of those as negative emotions in which people swear the most. Such negative and vile emotions are not what I want to be in touch with that cause me to use foul language. Could that be the only reason as to why people swear?
So, dear fellow philosophers, I am coming to you with this burning question: Why do people swear so much?

(Please do not swear on this thread.)
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Why do people swear so much?



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Re: Why do people swear so much?

Post Number:#2  Postby Xeadas » April 8th, 2017, 11:19 am

While I won't talk about the social side of swearing, which I think is what you're asking about, I think it'd be useful to give an origin theory of swearing, to provide some clarity and give a good starting point for further discussion. So, I'll get right into it.

Professor Jordan Peterson (now famous for reasons besides the point) explained swearing as a type of human alarm signal, just like the ones found in primates. His evidence for this is partly cultural, psychological, biological, and overall pragmatic.

In almost all ancient civilizations, cross-culturally, there is the archetype of the dragon. Fascinatingly, the representations of dragons in early civilizations across the globe -- which had not had much contact (or had no contact at all) with other civilizations -- are very similar: they are reptilian, with bird-like talons and the four legs of a cat. According to David E. Jones in his book An Instinct for Dragons, the dragon is a representation of the three predators that threatened early humans the most: snakes, raptors, and large cats. For more on that, read Jones' book, it's terrific. What's important is that he came to that conclusion by analyzing the three calls of vervet monkeys, which I'll look at next as briefly as I can. This is where swearing starts to come in, bear with me here.

Vervet monekys from south east Africa, a prey animal, have calls to warn the other monekys if they spot predators. They even have different calls for different predators, which is quite sophisticated, and might even be evidence of some proto-language in primates. The three different calls that researchers focoused on were found to represent warnings against leopards, snakes, and eagles, since each call elicited a different response: for the leopard call, the monkeys would look up, run into trees, and sit on smaller, outer branches which the leopard's weight would not allow it to climb to; for the snake call, the monkeys would look down; for the eagle call, they'd look up and run for cover. However, how does this alarm signal compare to human swearing?

The important distinction is that early human beings amalgamated their predators into one archetype: the scary dragon. If we follow the perspective of psychologist Carl Jung (in The Dragon as Archetype by Laurence Mee), then an archetype is
created from the collective unconscious to explain certain phenomena of the world, rational thought being impossible at [the time of early humans].


So, early humans, as a collective, had a symbol that represented all of their prey-animal fears. As civilizations grew more sophisticated, so did the archetype of the dragon, encompassing more than just this prey-animal fear, and explaining more about the world. However, the dragon is not just a symbol that was only relevant to ancient peoples; the dragon as the archenemy has stayed in our unconscious, since Jung also believed that powerful archetypes were common to all humans throughout all time. The archetype, too, is just a thing that becomes present in the unconscious when rational thought is absent. The conclusion drawn from this is that modern humans can still imagine a primordial archenemy when they perceive danger.

So, Prof. Peterson's claim about swearing is that it's an alarm signal that's stuck with humans through the evolutionary process (as evidenced by vervet monkeys). We tend to swear when confronted with something frightening because of our seeing that terrifying thing as predatory. So, as humans in a complex civilization, our unconscious image of what constitutes predator also becomes more complicated. But, that unconscious image is there, also a remnant of early humans, and since the unconscious influences the conscious, then humans tend to swear when responding to things they're afraid of. Peterson additionally supports this by noting that the majority of curse words are short and guttural, which is also characteristic of the vervet monkey alarm signal.

Obviously, this does not cover all of swearing, since much more of it has to do with social situations; it's not always that people swear because they're afraid. Peterson's conclusion that swearing is a fear response thus seems overly simplistic and narrow. However, this could still mean that the origin and core of swearing is fear, but that the other manifestations of it branch out from the core. This could explain why we swear casually, simply to show our strong emotions or express anger. For more on that, you could look at Why We Curse by Timothy Jay. Additionally, there are some problems with Peterson and Jung's interpretation of the dragon. They both view it under a Christian lens, seeing the dragon as the archenemy of the hero archetype, even though many cultures have varying perspectives on the dragon archetype that view dragons not as archenemies. There are problems here, but some invalid parts do not destroy the whole argument, and on a whole the argument seems sound to me. Though i didn't get to much of the social aspect of swearing, I think that's a much more complicated topic that I'm not too well-versed with, but there are some articles online about it. This origin theory of swearing, though, is very interesting to me, and again, as far as I can tell, it's quite sound, too. Let me know what you think!
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Re: Why do people swear so much?

Post Number:#3  Postby Lark_Truth » April 8th, 2017, 5:11 pm

Wow. I can very much see fear being a reason as to why some people swear, though I did not expect someone to post such a profound point based upon the universal symbol of dragons and monkey calls. I am blown off of my feet. I will be very interested to see what else you will post on this sight, Xeadas.

Can anyone else give a reason as to why people swear so much?
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Re: Why do people swear so much?

Post Number:#4  Postby Felix » April 8th, 2017, 5:37 pm

Can anyone else give a reason as to why people swear so much?


Just the most obvious ones: lack of impulse control, insensitivity, verbal diarrhea, a way to get my pet dragon's attention, etc.
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Re: Why do people swear so much?

Post Number:#5  Postby Greta » April 8th, 2017, 5:37 pm

Love your post, Xeadas. So swearing appears to be basically sharply saying "bad thing". That would explain the taboo - false alarm calls are effectively crying wolf.

I personally swear because I knew all the words, used in all manner of creative and angry ways, as a small child. Swearing has never mattered to me. I see it as utterly trivial. I've known people of fine character and good nature who swear like troopers and also most refined types who frown at uncouth language while being nasty, treacherous snakes behind the scenes.
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Re: Why do people swear so much?

Post Number:#6  Postby Xeadas » April 8th, 2017, 6:40 pm

I've known people of fine character and good nature who swear like troopers and also most refined types who frown at uncouth language while being nasty, treacherous snakes behind the scenes.


Drawing from personal experience, I think swearing is cathartic when done in moderation. That's what I think Mark Twain suggested when he said:

When angry, count to four; when very angry, swear.


Maybe people who continue to swear because of its cathartic value are more in-tune with how to calm themselves, while those who refrain from it might be weaker in that regard.
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Re: Why do people swear so much?

Post Number:#7  Postby Greta » April 8th, 2017, 6:48 pm

Xeadas wrote:
I've known people of fine character and good nature who swear like troopers and also most refined types who frown at uncouth language while being nasty, treacherous snakes behind the scenes.


Drawing from personal experience, I think swearing is cathartic when done in moderation. That's what I think Mark Twain suggested when he said:

When angry, count to four; when very angry, swear.


Maybe people who continue to swear because of its cathartic value are more in-tune with how to calm themselves, while those who refrain from it might be weaker in that regard.

Heh, I'm thinking that the swearing is not a factor at all, more of a moral null than a moral indicator.
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Re: Why do people swear so much?

Post Number:#8  Postby Lark_Truth » April 10th, 2017, 9:28 am

A good point Greta, that the totally moral and propriety folks who don't swear are a good portion of the time nasty pieces of work, while people who do swear seem to be better people in general. WHY IS THAT?
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Re: Why do people swear so much?

Post Number:#9  Postby Steve3007 » April 10th, 2017, 10:39 am

Re: Xeadas's post.

Swearing as a danger alarm signal to other members of our tribe seems like a pretty good core theory. We have a lot of visual alarm signals too. One particular striking one that springs to my mind is the "Ew! that's disgusting!" face that we involuntarily pull when we smell, taste or see something unpleasant. Try smelling something disgusting and not pulling that face. It's quite difficult. Clearly it acts as a very visible and easily recognisable warning to our tribal comrades.
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Re: Why do people swear so much?

Post Number:#10  Postby Greta » April 11th, 2017, 1:26 am

Lark_Truth wrote:A good point Greta, that the totally moral and propriety folks who don't swear are a good portion of the time nasty pieces of work, while people who do swear seem to be better people in general. WHY IS THAT?

Well, I think that's just a guess, lark. It may be that hypocrisy just stands out to us, as do car crashes.

On the other hand, experiments suggest that willpower is not a limitless inner resource, that it takes energy to apply willpower. So when our energy supply is depleted, our level of self control is reduced. If a person expends a fair bit of moral energy on swearing then there would seem to be an opportunity cost, where that energy could have been applied to, for instance, matters of honesty or empathy.
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Re: Why do people swear so much?

Post Number:#11  Postby Lark_Truth » April 11th, 2017, 10:03 am

I can see that. I have never thought of will constantly needing energy to be up-kept, but it does make a lot of sense. Like in DC's Green Lantern, the green rings of will need to be constantly recharged. So if someone uses up a lot of their will on looking like a moral person (such as not swearing), then they divert energy away to from things such as integrity and empathy.

If say a child is taught very well while young by loving and caring parents who are excellent role models of morality and integrity to follow those same standards, would less willpower be needed to be applied to things such as not swearing and be put to better use in other areas such as integrity and empathy? Could a person be raised to have it be almost instinctual to not swear and instead use other words, and not be a nasty piece of work?
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Re: Why do people swear so much?

Post Number:#12  Postby Steve3007 » April 11th, 2017, 10:39 am

Using other words instead sounds like a good idea. Instead of "s**t!", say "merd!" Instead of "damn" say "zut!" If you hit your thumb with a hammer, instead of "God Almighty that hurt!" say "Dieu tout-pouissant! Ca fait mal!"

In other words, be french (or another foreign language of your choice). I've never, ever heard a french person swear, at least not using anything that I would call a swear word. So that's ok isn't it?
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Re: Why do people swear so much?

Post Number:#13  Postby Dissimulation » April 12th, 2017, 10:58 am

'Swear words' are no different then any other representational type of language. Swearing is often used to express a strong feeling or emotion which the user lacks the ability to communicate. swear words or formal language, both can be used to express ethical assertions, however are not intrinsically
morally impermissible.
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Re: Why do people swear so much?

Post Number:#14  Postby Lark_Truth » April 13th, 2017, 9:51 am

Okay, question to you all: Do you consider swearing to be morally right or wrong?
Please state yes or no and give reasons as to why.
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Re: Why do people swear so much?

Post Number:#15  Postby LuckyR » April 14th, 2017, 2:47 pm

Lark_Truth wrote:I was raised by my parents not to use swear and cuss words as a morality principle, and I'm quite glad that I don't swear. Usually I just use substitute words like "Dang it!" "Tarnation!" "Heck" and "Drat!" But out in the world away from my home I hear people swearing every other word, much of it in ways that I don't understand.
For instance: My interpretation of the F-word is "rape", so when people use the F-word repeatedly, I see that as saying: "rape, rape, rape, rape" which I see as disgusting and foul! It abhores me and I don't understand why in heck people would say stuff like that. I've always been taught that procreation is a sacred responsibility, and out in the world there are people who treat it like it's something to joke about instead of something that shouldn't be treated so vilely. I hear about every day people who say "F-word you!" which by my interpretation means "Rape you!" and that carries a lot of meaning in a really bad way.
When I was young, I asked someone who did swear regularly why people swear so much. They replied that people who swear are more in touch with their emotions, which completely blew me out of the water. Lust, Anger, Hatred, Greed, I see all of those as negative emotions in which people swear the most. Such negative and vile emotions are not what I want to be in touch with that cause me to use foul language. Could that be the only reason as to why people swear?
So, dear fellow philosophers, I am coming to you with this burning question: Why do people swear so much?

(Please do not swear on this thread.)


A couple of things: First, your interpretation of the F word is atypical, therefore your putting that onto other's use of the word is inaccurate at best and insulting (by you) at worst.

Second, you focus entirely on what folks (including yourself) say or don't say. But if you think about it verbiage is just the outward expression of one's thoughts. True, some (both me and you, for example) exert some self control and don't outwardly use swear words when we have essentially identical internal feelings as others who swear routinely. Good for us, but if both groups are having the same thoughts, should one group claim higher moral ground. I don't think so.

Lastly, to me swearing routinely does two things, one is that routine use dilutes the power of the words to the point of comedy, second frankly it makes the swearer look somewhere between idiotic (can't express oneself with their vocabulary) and low class, when viewed in mixed company.
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