A Level English Language Website
Why do people swear and should we stop them?
By Paul Baker
It's thought that swearing first began as a form of 'word magic', connected to religion, in early civilisations. People were more likely to believe in divine beings who had the power to punish them. So people called on divine beings in order to curse people they didn't like. This became a tabooed use of language, and sometimes, just saying the name of the divine being was tabooed.
In Norse cultures, swearing, or 'flyting' as it was known, was a form of ritualistic entertainment. People would show off their creative skills, inventing clever insults for each other, in front of an appreciative audience.
There's also a theory that swear-words are kept in a different part of the brain to other words, and these words come out automatically when we're very angry or emotional in some way - for example, if we hit our finger with a hammer. Some people who have damage to a part of the brain which means that they can't use language, can still swear. Tourette's syndrome, which is associated with people swearing uncontrollably, is also connected to damage in a part of the brain which is to do with control and inhibition. If our brains do have this special place which is reserved for swearing, then perhaps we have evolved swearing in our brains for a useful purpose - as an alternative to responding with violence when we get angry.
Campaigns to stop people from swearing in the past have only really had short-term successes - we now have more swearing on television than we did in the 1960s, despite campaigns by people like Mary Whitehouse and the NVLA (National Viewers and Listeners Association) to regulate language in the media. Increased exposure to swearing may mean that some swear-words lose their power to shock us, although it's likely that they will be replaced by newer words. It's certainly the case that many of the words that the NVLA disapproved of in the 1960s, no longer have the same power to shock or upset people. It would certainly pointless in banning swear-words altogether. Most people are aware about what sort of language is appropriate in specific contexts and self-regulate their swearing accordingly.