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We swear it’s good for you!

Words have power! They can end wars, start relationships, make you happy or seal a deal.  In fact there’s a name for that: the performative utterance is a sentence which not only describes reality, but changes it, from ‘I now pronounce you man and wife’ to ‘I apologise’!

But what about the raw power of words – not to make the word better, but to offend?  While we might hope we never come across them in the business world, we’re all aware that almost all languages have words and phrases that are taboo.  Of course they differ from culture to culture;  you might insult someone by calling them ‘devil’ in Finnish, but in English it doesn’t have quite the same effect.  In fact, most polyglots report finding it easier to swear in another language, even where the meaning is the same.

Insulting someone may be cathartic – and in some languages like Japanese, may be as simple as using an inappropriate form of the pronoun ‘you’ – but it’s been argued there are multiple different types of swearing, beyond abuse, which interpreters need to be wary of: in certain contexts they may give emphasis to a word, or merely be idiomatic.

The use of swear words can also indicate inclusion in a social group and build trust, confusingly making them friendly rather than aggressive. They might also indicate rebellion, or even power: many taboos originate in superstition and magic, and speaking the words could demonstrate bravery or mastery.  Our word ‘bear’ began life as a euphemism meaning ‘brown’, to avoid using the ‘true’ name of the animal, in case it appeared.  In a less irrational age,  swear words of this type like ‘damn’ have lost their power to the extent they can be safely printed in this article!

Most strikingly, it has repeatedly been shown that the power of swearing is not only social: it actually has a physical effect on the human body.  Richard Stephens, a psychologist at Keele University, produced research that showed expletives both increased people’s tolerance of pain, and actually increased their physical strength.  It’s also been suggested that letting rip a stream of profanity once in a while can actually improve your mental health.

While words probably don’t have the power to summon a bear on command (unless it’s very well trained), it would seem swearing really is a kind of magic!

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