Sticks and stones

Two Calvin and Hobbes strips from a series in recent re-runs. Background: Calvin has called Susie names, deriding and insulting her. Susie tries to take solace in a proverbial rhyme, sadly without success:


And Calvin totally muffs an apology:


Words can indeed cause real distress, both physical and psychological.  People quite often maintain that taboo vocabulary is inherently damaging, especially to children (and wmen), but there’s no evidence of any lasting consequences — except for slurs, which can have a variety of baleful effects, in particular serious damage to self-image.

On the topic, from an Economist review by its language columnist Johnson (Robert Lane Greene) on 10/8/16, “Weapons of crass construction: Most swearing is perfectly harmless”, about

a delightful new book, “What the F?”, by Benjamin Bergen, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego. Despite the regional variation, there are four near-universal sources of swear-words: religion, sex, bodily wastes and slurs. As befits Mr Bergen’s discipline, the core of the book is about swearing in the mind itself. On hearing the bluest of blue words, people’s heart rates speed up, and their palms begin to sweat. Their concentration on tricky tasks can be severely disrupted. Merely being told to free-associate with the word faggot (frocio in Italian) made experimental subjects less willing to allocate funds for an HIV centre in a subsequent simulation. But Mr Bergen criticises bans or fines, arguing that education about the harm slurs can do is more effective.

Some swearing is hard to stop. Automatic swearing — the kind that happens when your hammer meets your thumb — seems to have its own brain circuitry: Mr Bergen tells the tale of the French priest who lost all language ability but the words je (I) and foutre (fuck). Reflexive swearing seems to be routed through a part of the brain that is evolutionarily older, and may be analogous to the circuitry that causes calls of fear or surprise in other animals. [Powerful swear words come to be stored mentally along with some other highly automatized vocabulary, like 1sg pronouns.]

… Swear-words in English tend to be short with hard-sounding consonants, especially k and g. But there is nothing strictly taboo about curse-words’ sounds; truck and punt are not taboo. Nor do the referents alone make a word taboo: copulate and vulva aren’t unmentionable to little ears. But when children see their parents cringe at the use of their sweary synonyms, they quickly pick up how powerful they are. Taboo words, ultimately, are those that people treat as taboo, the treatment itself giving them their force.

… Studying swearing is a way of studying human nature itself. “Strong Language”, a group blog by language experts, “Holy Sh*t”, Melissa Mohr’s book on the history of profanity, “In Praise of Profanity” by Michael Adams of Indiana University, or Mr Bergen’s own fine book would all be good places to start.

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