The way we might impulsively blurt out a profanity, in response to anger or surprise or hitting a thumb with a hammer, suggests curse words might have a special place in our brains, accessed a little bit differently than ordinary language.
The study of taboo words has been a little bit taboo itself. But there is legitimate academic and health rationale for studying profane language, says associate professor Jamie Reilly, who directs the Memory, Concepts and Cognition Lab in the College of Public Health.
“I've seen lots of patients clinically who curse after they’ve had brain injuries,” Reilly says. “It just kind of comes out, and they really don't want it to come out. Often they'll say something harsh and then start crying and apologizing. There’s no treatment for it.”
So Reilly and his team have been conducting serious research on explicit language.
With their newly published paper “Building the perfect curse word: A psycholinguistic investigation of the form and meaning of taboo words” in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, Reilly’s team has produced an R-rated report containing language too explicit to be spoken on network television, at least without frequent bleeps. They also have pioneered research in the emergent phenomenon of compound swear words, which creatively connect time-tested profanities with inoffensive words (-bucket, -wad, -monkey) to create novel and sometimes amusing expletives.
Their goal is to better understand how our minds process bad words, as a step toward helping people control unwanted behavior. There’s much that researchers still don’t know.
“It seems like cursing language may be coded differently by the brain,” says Peter Twigg, a graduate student and research technician in the lab. “You see in traumatic brain injury or aphasia, people may have these outbursts of cursing language that is preserved, while other parts of their vocabularies are lost.”
Are curse words stored in a way that lets them emerge like involuntary knee-jerk reactions? Does inappropriate language have the same “stop switch” that motor behaviors have, such as reacting with violence?
It’s probably not the same for all brain disorders. “In traumatic brain injury, there may be little difference between a punch and a curse,” Reilly says. “Whereas stroke patients aren’t going to punch you, but maybe they can't stop cursing.”
Reilly’s research team began with psycholinguistics: what characteristics of a word make us think it’s bad? Building from existing lists of taboo American English words and adding others—1,194 in all, including non-offensive control words—his team of grad students and research technicians first graded words based on their meanings and sounds. Did the words describe bodily parts or functions? Were they male or female oriented? They obtained “valence” (whether a word connotes a positive or negative idea) and “arousal” (“how much of a jolt it gives you”) ratings for the words from existing psycholinguistic databases.
They scored word lengths to investigate whether the “four-letter word” aphorism holds up. They rated words on concentration of stop consonants (t, d, b, p g and k), which sound more blunt. These factors all were potential “predictors of tabooness.”
They enlisted 190 participants to rate each word on how taboo it seemed. Then, the researchers correlated the tabooness ratings with the word characteristics.
Analysis revealed that words with high arousal and negative valence scored high on the taboo-meter. Other predictors of tabooness were gender-specificity, body parts and body acts. The lone, purely linguistic element predicting tabooness was obstruence, the presence of consonants. Word length seemed irrelevant; the old “four-letter-word” idea collapsed, in part because the test included longer, compound bad words.
The team’s further investigation of compound curse words was inspired in part by the rise of the epithet “sh—gibbon,” which had migrated from a British music magazine to the TV political sitcom Veep to Internet name-calling directed at the real U.S. president. An article about the phenomenon in the online magazine Slate mentioned Reilly’s lab and invigorated his research.
What makes one common noun a better swear-word sweetener than another?
“You'll hear things like ‘ass clown,’ which works as an insult. But something like ‘ass sink’ doesn't,” says Alexandra Kelly, a research technician on the team.
Some neo-profanities concatenate a known swear word with a trochee, a two-syllable word that stresses the first syllable (blank-blanker). But short words with potentially organic interpretations also seem to work (-sack, -rod, -stick). Receptacles appeared to be effective. “If you can put something in something, people think that’s a good compound, like -hat, -hole, -bucket,” Reilly explains.
The researchers categorized the meanings and phonetic characteristics of about 500 common nouns. They eliminated words already used in well-known profanities (e.g. -hat, -hole) in favor of neutral words like balloon, baby and tool. Outside participants then rated how effectively they felt each of the words might combine into a taboo curse word. Shorter words with more stop consonants emerged as the best candidates for compound cuss-word creation, including -sack, -trash, -pig, -rod and -mouth.
Can this off-color research really lead to medical advances?
“For people who experience debilitating social consequences of uncontrolled taboo word usage, algorithmic prediction of tabooness may hold promise for tailoring intervention,” according to Reilly’s recent paper. Reilly says his team also has completed a companion paper describing lab research that involves electronically stimulating people’s brains to see if their behavior can be changed as they’re cursing.
“The right hemisphere of the brain is really important for emotional control. When people have injuries to that side of their head, it really does change the amount they curse,” Reilly says. “What we wanted to see was if we either basically kickstart this hemisphere, or we suppress its function, can we change cursing behavior, in terms of the amount of arousal people feel while they're cursing? We’re trying to see if we can modulate that.”
As for the promise of “Building the perfect curse word,” Reilly’s lab has yet to devise a formula for generating the ultimate profanity. The regression analyses that his team performed can help predict whether a given word might be considered taboo, but there’s no algorithm yet for creating the golden cuss.
Though, Reilly admits he has some personal favorites.