Tuesday 24th November 8:00 am
Swearing makes pain go away
Tuesday 5th August 2014 2:00 pm
WARNING! This story may contain traces of swearing.
Swear words, or bad language, make up about 0.6 per cent of our speech. Given that we speak an average of about 16,000 words each day, that means that about 95 of our daily words are profanities. In general, swear words are offensive — but there is one situation where they are actually very helpful.
The word ‘profane’ comes from the Latin roots of ‘pro’ meaning ‘before’, and ‘fanum’ meaning ‘temple’. So a profanity was something that you said before or outside the temple. It was definitely not to be spoken inside the temple.
In every single language or dialect ever studied, regardless of whether that language was living or dead, regardless of whether it was spoken by billions or just a small tribe, profanities exist.
Interestingly, some cultures draw their swear words from religion. For example, when four centuries ago Shakespeare wrote ‘zounds’ or ‘sblood’, he was using very offensive (for the day) contractions of the phrases ‘God’s wounds’ for ‘zounds’ and ‘God’s blood’ for ‘sblood’.
Other societies protect the concept of the honour and purity of women. So, many of their swear words relate either to female genitalia, or to the theme of ‘son of a whore’.
Just as an aside, in our English language, the majority of swear words we use come to us from German language roots, not Latin.
Sometimes swear words lose their power over time. Nobody today would be bothered by the word ‘golly’, but originally, it was a very obscene and profane compaction of the phrase ‘God’s body’.
Sometimes, it goes the other way, and neutral words can become a little unpleasant or uncomfortable to use. Originally, the word ‘coffin’ simply meant a ‘box’. But once the word ‘coffin’ became linked to the concept of ‘death’, people stopped saying “let’s think outside the coffin”, or “let’s see if there’s anything to eat in the bread coffin” — which I think is a gosh darn shame.
But swear words do have power. Merely hearing profanities will change the electrical conductance of your skin. Your pulse will quicken, the hairs on your arms will rise and your breathing will become shallow.
Back in 2009, Dr Richard Stevens and colleagues from Keele University in the United Kingdom looked at the link between swearing and pain. They got 67 unfortunate undergraduate students to undergo a standard pain test called the cold pressor test.
In the cold pressor test, the students were instructed to submerge their unclenched and non-dominant hand into cold water, for as long as they could stand. How cold? Bloody cold: 5°C. And while their hand was in the cold water, they were to say, over and over either a swear word, or a neutral (or control) word.
How did Stevens and Co. pick the swear word? The students were each asked for “five words you might use after hitting yourself on the thumb with a hammer”. The very first swear word on their list was chosen.
But the experimenters needed to control for the possibility that saying any word at all could change how long the subjects would be able to keep their hand in freezing water. So they also asked the students for “five words to describe a table”, for example bench, counter, desk, worktable, horizontal surface and so on, and then chose one of these words.
Their study showed that, while repeating over and over a word meaning ‘table’, men could withstand the cold water for a bit over two minutes, while women could go a bit over one minute. But if instead they were to repeat their chosen profanity, each gender could keep their hand in the 5°C water for an average of an extra 40 seconds.
A similar pattern was found for the heart rate. Their pulse rose a bit when they had their hand in cold water and were saying a neutral word, but rose again even higher when they were saying their preferred profanity.
So swearing makes pain go away.
But what about people who tend to swear more than average. Does the power of profanity fade the more you use it? After all you can also use swear words to express surprise and happiness, or anger and disgust.
So in 2011, Dr Stevens did a follow-up to see “if overuse of swearing in everyday situations lessens its effectiveness as a short term intervention to reduce pain”. The answer was yes. So if you’re prone to cuss and curse, you would get less pain relief by swearing.
The lesson seems to be — it’s okay to profane, but only when you’re in pain.
This blog first appeared on Dr Karl's Great Moments in Science
© 2017 Karl S. Kruszelnicki Pty Ltd