Case study #3. My friend Mother Mary: forty-something, attractive, spiritual, and compassionate. Never has a word of negativity to speak about anyone or anything. But put a delicatessen in her mouth, and she turns into a trash-talking whore. "Mmmm…" she says upon taking the first bite, "Shit," she moans as she starts to chew, "Wholly motherfucking lord! This is so fucking good! Fuck!" Although I have never been privy to her bedroom talk, I would imagine it’s along the same lines. Why not say, "Wow, this tastes so good. Give me more!" while in the throes of passion? Why do we need the emphasis of curse words?
Taboo: something deemed improper or unacceptable. Human beings are inherent sinners. We long to be bad, and not because we are born that way, but because society wraps us in all these convenient little boxes, packaged with the labels "right" and "wrong" and tied with pretty bows called "the rules." And the majority remain gift wrapped quite handsomely, although we occasionally like to peek our heads out and rebel a bit, not enough to hurt or harm, but enough to satiate our wickedness and keep us content in our box. We might steal a piece of candy from the grocery store, we might cut in line at the DMV, or we might swear when we are sinning, be it in the bedroom or with our favorite dessert. There are taboos we dare not touch, but the taboo of the curse word is inviting, accessible, and cathartic.
[inset pos=left]Sometimes a "fuck you" says, "I love you," like no other two words can.[/inset]But what is the power behind these particular words? Why not choose words like cracker, fudge, and shucks? Curse words are never associated with food. Curse words are always related either to religion, the body, or a function of the body. You got damn, fucking, cock, holy shit, asshole, jerk off, wanker, and so on. And then, there are the many different combinations and variations such as, armpit fucker, asswipe, or clit lick. Secondly, we have not sprinkled words like gosh and heck and dagnabit with the powerful drug that powders the curse words we’ve grown to know and love. They have the power to anger, to hurt, to embarrass, and to free us. And how did they get that power? We gave it to them. Handed it over and said, control us, rule us, measure us by our use of these words.
Still, all this observation was a bit too intuitive for my tastes. I wanted some hard scientific fact to back me up. According to researchers, the brain registers cuss words differently from other words. The brain is supposed to process language in the cerebral cortex, which is considered a higher region of the brain, and for the most part, language is managed in the prescribed area. But the brain processes swear words in the lower regions of the brain that control emotion and instinct. Well what in the world are swear words doing down there?
The brain links together units of sounds, or phonemes, to form words. So each word is made up of a sequence of phonemes. The brain, however, digests a swearword as a single, whole unit, so the language faculties of the cerebral cortex are not required to process a nasty word. The brain does use the limbic system, responsible for memory and emotion, and the basal ganglia, in charge of impulse control and motor functions, to make sense of swear words. So, if swearing is indeed a motor activity, then this would explain why a lot of us involuntarily combine swearing with some sort of physical movement, be it stamping a foot or punching the air. Furthermore, the higher and lower sections of a healthy brain will battle with one another when a swear word jumps into the mix, both wanting to claim responsibility for the nasty expression.
My hypothesis is that it is not the particular phonemes, but a society’s perception of the word’s denotation that is causing the problem. To experiment, I tried cursing in different languages. "Kak" means shit in Armenian. I didn’t feel compelled to stomp my foot. "Footo delo," or asshole in Somali, didn’t do it for me either, and I really don’t think my brain struggled with "Rot op," which is Dutch for fuck off. I did like "fich dich" which means fuck you in German, and think I could train my brain to turn it into a single phoneme with some practice. Note: this experiment can be tried in the safety of your own home.
My boyfriend and I are driving to church. We are, of course, late. And no one is driving the way they should be. My boyfriend is gradually turning a deeper shade of red. "Just say it," I say. "No, I don’t need to," he assures me. A Mercedes cuts him off and slows down. My boyfriend starts rocking back and forth and grunting like a gorilla. "You know, if we’re too late for church we can always take a trip to the zoo, monkey boy." He smiles in spite of himself. "Just say it baby, you’ll feel better," I urge. "Fuck you," he says softly, giving me a kiss on the lips. Let’s face it; sometimes a "fuck you" says, "I love you," like no other two words can.
Amy Lucas is a Los Angeles based writer and actress. Her favorite curse word has always been and will forever remain “fuck,” especially when used as a verb.
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