If you promise not to tell a soul and agree to share a red-faced moment of your own in the comments, I’ll let you in on one of my childhood humiliations.
I must have been about fourteen, and had been asked to recite a prayer at mosque. That day, all the ceremonies were being performed by children from Saturday School. It was a great honour, so our parents told us, and to refuse would be rude. More nerve-wracking still, it would take place not at our local mosque, but at the main one in Kensington, with its sweeping marble hallways, echo-filled rooms and unfamiliar faces.
There was nothing for it but to take a deep breath and try my best. A friend’s mum agreed to take us to the mosque, and for us to have a sleepover afterwards. In retrospect, I’m so glad my own mother wasn’t there.
When my name was called, I padded across the plush carpet to the podium at the front of the prayer hall, my heart hammering in my throat. I was singing a qasida, a song of prayer that comes from Persia. I began, and stumbled, realising that I had started an octave too high. I would never make the top note. And then came my reaction, loud and clear across the microphone, the beginning of an expletive, “Shhiii…!”
What had I done, and in a holy place? I made it through a few verses of the qasida, my cheeks tinged with embarrassment, and then hurried out of the hall, my only thought to change into my sleepover clothes so nobody would recognise me. They did, of course, despite me trying to blend into the walls. Cue much tutting by elders. We won’t mention the stinging slap I gave to a friend when he teased me. It quite rightly cooled our friendship. All in all, a day best forgotten.
So why do we swear? Is it because we don’t have other language to express ourselves, or because we lack education or control? Is it for extra impact, because swear words tend to be quick and harsh and can potentially lend our words more power? Or do we feel powerful simply because we are using words that we really shouldn’t? We swear to express surprise, anger and fear. It can be satisfying but is it great manners? Would you swear in front of your gran or your boss? It stands that some personalities are more prone to swearing than others. Still, it’s up to us to have the tact to find words that suit our audience.
I wear my emotions on my sleeve. I am careful around strangers, but once I am comfortable I am honest about how I feel, and if I hold back my words, my emotions inevitably filter through my body language. Swearing can be a useful tool to express emotion. My husband probably hears me swear more than anyone else. I don’t swear at him, mind (at least not often!). It’s part of the intimacy of being more comfortable with him than anyone else, that I don’t have to filter out words which might be offensive.
What is offensive differs across cultures and is tied to how we have been brought up. As a child my dad swore rarely, but most often when driving; my mum didn’t. I’d wager that Americans swear more than Brits, and that French cuss words sound less offensive than British ones. And times change. Swearing is perhaps more acceptable today than it used to be in previous generations. Bloomberg reported that millennials swear more at work than their predecessors, and in fact, within their own teams, swearing can help with bonding. It shows they are interacting with people they know well.
Rather than poverty of vocabulary, research by cognitive scientists at Marist College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts reveals that the more you swear, the more comprehensive your vocabulary is. If you are a fluent swearer, turns out you probably score highly in general language fluency. What is more, studies have shown that swearing can make us more persuasive, and even more able to cope with pain. So, let’s celebrate our little friends rather than washing our mouths out with soap and water. Who knows, a well-placed f-word might be doing us a world of good.