Why has this happened? Clearly, there is a lot of frustration out there–frustration about masks, restrictions, cancelled trips, an inability to lick this virus and get back to anything approaching the “old normal,” and countless other things–and that frustration finds its expression in increased use of obscenities. And according to the Journal article, the shift to more videoconferencing and remote work is part of the reason, too: “Pandemic stress, the melding of personal and professional spheres, and an exhausted slide toward casualness are making many of us swear more. It is “a perfect swearing storm,” says Michael Adams, a linguist at Indiana University Bloomington.” Another person quoted, memorably, by the Journal contends that cursing “is the yoga pants and Uggs of language”–which should cause anyone with even an ounce of self-respect to picture that image and pause before launching into their next profanity-laden tirade.
I have no doubt that, if you could somehow precisely measure it, you would find out that cursing has in fact increased, and that the Queen Mother of curses is often used to modify “COVID” and “pandemic.” The big issue with this linguistic impact, as with so many COVID-caused changes in society, is whether it is permanent or will end when the pandemic finally rides off into the sunset.
I’m hoping for the latter. I will certainly give everyone the benefit of the doubt during this unfortunate period in our lives, but I’m hoping that the end of the pandemic brings a return to more civility. I’ve seen and heard quite enough of yoga pants, sweat pants, Uggs and Crocs–of the actual or the verbal variety–over the last two years to last a lifetime.
For some of us, at least, it’s standard operating procedure to launch an obscenity when we stub our toes, bump our heads, cut our fingers while chopping food, or experience some other unexpected moment of physical pain.
Setting aside the morality or propriety of our bad habits, the practical question is: does cussing a blue streak actually help to relieve the pain?
One recent study, conducted by Keele University in England, concludes that it definitely does. In fact, the study determined that spewing crude language has measurable, therapeutic, physical effects. When study participants were saying dirty words their heart rates increased, their perception of pain decreased, and they were able to endure pain much longer than was the case if they were saying neutral words. (And if you read the article linked above and see how the researchers set up the study to test their hypothesis, you’ll conclude that you should never, ever volunteer to participate in a psychological experiment at Keele University.)
The study determined that foul-mouthed participants were able to endure pain longer because there is a significant psychological component to experiencing pain, and a person’s mood and other circumstances can have a clear impact. Swearing triggers an aggressiveness response, and an aggressive mental attitude helps a person deal with pain much more effectively. (This may be why football players, for example, seem to be able to endure pain during games that many of us would find disabling.) And the study also found that the pain endurance levels were directly related to the perceived filthiness of the obscenity being used. “Sanitized” curse words, like the British “bum,” were much less effective than actual obscenities, and the most effective pain relief of all came from using the “queen mother of curses.”
According to data published in The Atlantic, Ohioans tend to be ill-mannered jerks. The data was gathered from more than 600,000 recorded calls — to service reps, banks, and other businesses in more than 30 industries that advise you that your call to them might be recorded. The recorded calls were sifted to identify the obscenities, and then sorted by state. The results showed that we Buckeyes are far more likely to swear than, say, people who live in Washington or Massachusetts. What’s more, Ohioans also are among the callers least likely to say please and thank you.
Why is this so? Ohioans are usually a pretty mild-mannered bunch. We live in the middle of the country. Our population is divided between urban and rural, blue collar and white collar, Republican and Democrat, and we manage to get along just fine. We don’t have the reputation for arrogance of, say, Californians, and aren’t known for rudeness like New Yorkers are. So what gives?
The answer is simple. Ohio is home to the Cleveland Browns. I’d be willing to wager that the vast majority of the cursing communications were recorded on Sunday nights during the fall, after the Browns have managed to fumble away another game. When your team somehow manages to lose a 12-point lead with less than two minutes in the game — and that’s a routine result — all you can really do is launch invective at the heavens or, alternatively, the poor schnook who has fielded your call about whether there’s some way to fix that plasma TV screen you just kicked in.
I try to maintain a placid disposition. Normally I succeed, at work and at home. Introduce a sports disappointment to the mix, however, and you’re likely to hear me string together vile curses that would shame a longshoreman.
Consider yesterday’s Browns game, for example. My conscious, rational brain knew, to a point of metaphysical certainty, that the Browns were going to lose that game in heart-breaking, last-minute fashion — because that’s just what the Browns do. I thought I had prepared myself for the inevitable failure . . . but when Michael Vick threw a touchdown pass to put the Eagles ahead with about a minute to go, and the Browns responded by throwing a horrible, game-ending interception on the very next play from scrimmage, I felt the red rage boiling up inside, uncontrollable and undeniable. I let loose with an embarrassing series of awful epithets that shook the rafters, caused the frightened dogs to flee the family room, and left Kish shaking her head in dismay.
Put a golf club in my hands, and you’re likely to see the same thing. I’ll be playing along, accepting the many ugly shots and trying to focus on the fact that I’m outside on a lovely day with my friends and golf is just a game. But let me hit the ball into the water on one of my nemesis holes, or have my fourth putt in a row lip out, and the fury flows forth in a torrent of obscenity that leaves my playing companions laughing helplessly — which just makes me even madder.
I’m 55 years old. How can I still have these explosive outbursts about sports? What incident in my past created this wrathful inner demon who is always ready to throw a mortifying, childish tantrum at the latest sports disappointment? When I’m in my dotage, will I be alarming fellow residents at the old folks’ home when the Browns gag away another game?
I don’t think our President should cuss like a sailor, but I don’t mind a well-chosen epithet that arises naturally in appropriate circumstances. It wouldn’t surprise me if Harry Truman talked about “kicking some ass” once or twice when he was President, and if he did I bet his comment had a real impact on the immediate listeners. My reaction to President Obama’s statement, however, was that it seemed, well, scripted. News articles indicate that the President’s supporters have been urging him to show more anger and emotion, and the comment about “ass to kick” seemed like a carefully considered response to that criticism as opposed to a genuine, spontaneous reflection of true anger.
Trial lawyers know better than to try to make witnesses act in ways that are fundamentally contrary to their nature. Juries may not particularly like a person who comes across as cold, or as a hothead, but they really hate witnesses who seem totally coached and inauthentic. Most people can sense when someone is acting. The look in the eyes doesn’t match the words, or the inflection and the gestures are out of sync. I got that sense when I saw the clip of President Obama’s comments today. I hope I am wrong about that reaction, because we don’t need a President who worries about tailoring his actions and reactions to satisfy the instructions of his advisers rather than worrying about the huge real-world problems he needs to address.
This article reports on a scientific study that purports to find that cursing is good for your mental health and helps to minimize pain. Although the study design seems a bit questionable — I’m not sure that you can draw significant scientific conclusions from the reactions of participants who simply speak curse words and non-curse words while their hands are kept in a tub of ice water — the result confirms what seems self-evident.
If the study is true, then Ralphie’s Dad in A Christmas Story — an artist for whom cursing was his true medium — must have felt pretty good while he fought the furnace, fended off the Bumpus hounds, and tried desperately to glue back together his major award. And, I logically should never feel better than I do when I am out on the golf course, repeatedly dunking balls into the infernal pond on Number 8 West and casting thunderous epithets to the skies.