You Don’t Know &*%# About Cussing!

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Jeffry Coolidge/Getty Images

Jeffry Coolidge/Getty Images

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The saga of A.J. Clemente, the news anchor in North Dakota-fired for cussing his first day on the air, prompted me to think about the art and history of “words you wouldn’t say in front of your mother).

According to a new book by Melissa Mohr (Holy Sh*t: A Brief History Of Swearing), cussing can be traced back to Roman times.

-The ancient Romans laid the groundwork for modern day f-bombs: There are two main kinds of swear words, says Mohr: oaths—like taking the Lord’s name in vain—and obscene words, like sexual and racial slurs. The Romans gave us a model for the obscene words, she says, because their swearing was similarly based on sexual taboos.

-The average person swears quite a bit: About 0.7 percent of the words a person uses in the course of a day are swear words, which may not sound significant except that as Mohr notes, we use first-person plural pronouns — words like we, our and ourselves — at about the same rate. The typical range goes from zero to about 3%. What would it be like to have a conversation with a three-percenter? Think Eddie Murphy.

-Kids often learn a four-letter word before they learn the alphabet: Timothy Jay, a psychology professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts charted a rise in the use of swear words by children — even toddlers. By the age of two, most children know at least one swear word; it really “kicks off” around the ages of three or four.

-Swearing can physiologically affect your body: Hearing and saying swear words changes our skin conductance response, making our palms sweat. One study also found that swearing helps alleviate pain, that if you put your hand in a bucket of cold water, you can keep it in there longer if you say the s-word that’s not “shoot.”

-People don’t use cuss words just because they have lazy minds: Mohr says expletives are the best words that you can use to insult people, because they are much better than other words at getting at people’s emotions. Swear words are also the best words to use if you hit your finger with a hammer, because they are cathartic, helping people deal with emotion as well as pain. And studies have shown that they help people bond — like blue-collar workers who use taboo terms to build in-group solidarity against management types.

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