The incredible power of a word – part 2 – why do we swear?

I just covered how words have power over our behavior. Came across a f***ing brilliant article on why we swear [Caution: article Not Safe for Work – NSFW], written recently by Steven Pinker, the man who has made a name for himself by writing insightful tomes about the power of language.

It is a long article that explores the usage of swear words and the hows and whys of it. Per Pinker, the crux of why swear words seem to have such emotional power seems to boil down to how speech cognition occurs in the brain. He says that swear words have both denotations and connotations and these are interpreted by different parts of the brain:

The mammalian brain contains, among other things, the limbic system, an ancient network that regulates motivation and emotion, and the neocortex, the crinkled surface of the brain that ballooned in human evolution and which is the seat of perception, knowledge, reason, and planning. The two systems are interconnected and work together, but it seems likely that words’ denotations are concentrated in the neocortex, especially in the left hemisphere, whereas their connotations are spread across connections between the neocortex and the limbic system, especially in the right hemisphere.

A likely suspect within the limbic system is the amygdala, an almond-shaped organ buried at the front of the temporal lobe of the brain (one on each side) that helps invest memories with emotion. A monkey whose amygdalas have been removed can learn to recognize a new shape, like a striped triangle, but has trouble learning that the shape foreshadows an unpleasant event like an electric shock. In humans, the amygdala “lights up”–it shows greater metabolic activity in brain scans–when the person sees an angry face or an unpleasant word, especially a taboo word.

The response is not only emotional but involuntary. It’s not just that we don’t have earlids to shut out unwanted sounds. Once a word is seen or heard, we are incapable of treating it as a squiggle or noise; we reflexively look it up in memory and respond to its meaning, including its connotation.

There in lies the power of the swear word, its ability to provoke an limbic reaction. I was discussing this article with my wife Priya Raju and she made a brilliant point –

She said, it appears that swear words – f***, c**t, s**t etc seems to sound very animal like. Swear words never sound sweet but instead sound very harsh. She pointed to Vilayanur Ramachandran’s Buba/Kiki effect that he describes in his brilliant book – The Emerging Mind.

I was doing some more research on Priya’s point and I landed on this Wired magazine article about Steven Pinker’s latest book – The Stuff of Thought and the article says things confirming Priya’s point:

The experimental psychologist also takes a fresh look at the “poo-poo theory,” which proposes that swearing was actually the first form of language. He points to the fact that brain-damaged patients who lose the power of articulate speech often retain the ability to curse like a sailor. “Since swearing involves clearly more ancient parts of the brain,” Pinker says, “it could be a missing link between animal vocalization and human language.”

Isn’t it amazing how deep a significance some routine thing like swearing has?

Going back to my article, it must be pretty clear, that the term “Contractor”, due to the elaborate rituals surrounding the term, had a lot of negative connotations, there by producing a limbic reaction with a deleterious effect on performance. On the contrary, the term “Partner” had a lot of positive connotations producing a positive limbic reaction with the attendant benefits.


1. Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran’s The Emerging Mind available as a series of lectures both transcript and audio form available at the BBC Site. He uses the Buba/Kike example in this lecture to postulate how language might have originated in contrast to Steven Pinker’s theories.

2. I have added Pinker’s latest book The Stuff of Thought to my to-do list. If any of you have read it, would appreciate a comment.

3. Stroop Effect – a popular psychology phenomenon that demonstrates how color impedes reading cognition.



  1. Quote
    Anonymous said October 21, 2007, 10:10 pm:

    No wonder why people learn all those “gaali” words when they start learning a new language πŸ™‚

  2. Quote
    Anonymous said October 21, 2007, 10:46 pm:

    Very interesting article, Sukumar. If this is the case, everyone should swear, right. I don’t know if you will believe me if I tell you that I never swear (stupid, idiot is the highest I can get too). I find it postively repulsive even when someone else uses these words. I wonder how much of a factor cultural influences play. Don’t you think women swear less then men?

    About your point on swearing being the first form of language, may be thats why most people pick up the swear words first when they learn a new language. Thats why, when people wish to convey they don’t know the language at all they use the phrase, “I don’t even know how to swear in that language”, so you may have a point there.

  3. Quote
    Anonymous said October 21, 2007, 11:35 pm:

    Archana – I probably swear more than most men & I’m very much a woman πŸ™‚ I think anyone who’s capable of rage will swear, or substitute words that sound like hisses or have strong guttural components.

    Stupid & Idiot have strong letters – S, T, P, D that make it an ideal substitute for swearing. I mean, you can’t really yell “Developmentally Challenged Person!” when you are enraged, can you? Stupid & Idiot – as well as Fool (which lends itself to a FFFT hiss) are animal-like hisses & growls.

    Even a cat that goes “Meow” starts hissing, spitting & goes “Aaaarrrrrr” when it fights. Looks like we do the same.

    – Priya

  4. Quote
    Anonymous said October 22, 2007, 3:13 am:

    Thanks Mahesh. Interesting point. I think Archana has also made a similar point below.

  5. Quote
    Anonymous said October 22, 2007, 3:17 am:

    Thanks Archana. I don’t swear that much either. So i do believe you. Women in India may swear less probably due to cultural conditioning. I don’t think in the west that is true?

    On learning swear words first, Mahesh also made the same point.

    But i think Pinker’s point is more related to the evolution of language, don’t you think? he is saying that because swearing is an important aspect of social communication, we would have started using swear words first.

    As Priya says below, animals do use the equivalent of human swear words when they are angry or in a mood to fight.

    For me at least, this adds another dimension to the evolution of language similar to Ramachandran’s buba/kiki effect.

  6. Quote
    Anonymous said October 22, 2007, 6:45 am:

    Thank you Sukumar. I missed reading Mahesh’s comment.

    I have my own reservation about Pinker’s findings, I think I should read the book before I conclude. If that is the case, all language should have similar sounding swear words. I personally feel it is more of a habit. If you keep using these words whenever your are in rage, it becomes a reflex action. The example he gives about swearing when you hit yourself, I feel the most natural reaction would be to scream. Any language related reaction is acquired through cultural conditioning.

    There is nothing to suggest that all Limbic reactions are something you are born with. It is also aquired right. Like my fear for dogs.

    We would be able to better judge if we make a list of swear words in each language and see how similar they sound.

  7. Quote
    Anonymous said October 22, 2007, 9:14 am:

    Screaming when you hit yourself & stopping there may be natural for you, Archana. Not for me. “Aaarghhh…F***! Piece of S***!” is what I seems natural to many of us.

    Now, how would we tabulate all the swear words in all the languages? There must be 100s of languages in the world. A cursory checking of swears/cusses in the languages I know suggest a strong connotation of biting/hissing/spitting. A lot of baring the fangs is also involved – which is a show of aggression for all animals. Its about the sound AND about the word’s similarity to aggression displays.

    I think you aren’t able to appreciate Pinker’s points because you are caught up with what swearing is – you did agree that you shout “Idiot!” when you are pissed off.

    Show of aggression (& most emotions) are faily consistent across all populations for human-beings – all tests on facial expressions across the world confirm this. Which tells me that swearing – a show of aggression – will also be fairly consistent across geographies.

    There won’t be as much difference as you think.

    – Priya

  8. Quote
    Anonymous said October 22, 2007, 10:02 am:

    Maybe you are right. Let me give it more thought.

    I kind of disagreed with the following conclusion

    Since swearing involves clearly more ancient parts of the brain,” Pinker says, “it could be a missing link between animal vocalization and human language.”

    The implication being, because it is centered in the Limbic region, hence it evolved first. I disagree that Limbic region cannot be programmed by culture. That’s why I gave the example of my fear for dogs. It is clearly an acquired fear, yet my reaction is anything but cortex. Similarly, swearing can be an acquired trait? I don’t think it is a universal trait, to swear when you hit yourself. Do you think our Dad’s generation people do that (I have not noticed this habit in older people)

  9. Quote
    Anonymous said October 22, 2007, 12:12 pm:

    Pinker talks about how speech evolved in the distant past – swearing seems to be a link for that.

    What you mention is how cultural influences inhibit a person from getting enraged & swearing. I think when someone doesn’t swear, that indicates conditioning – rather than the other way round. When someone is less inhibited (for good or bad), rage & swearing seem natural – which is why it is prevalent in all the cultures.

    Anything can be conditioned & inhibited. Sex is from the limbic system. But, in India, most people don’t show their sexuality openly. But, that still doesn’t make sexuality less natural.

    Fear per se is from the limbic system. In your case, the target of fear is different. That’s all.

    – Priya

  10. Quote
    Anonymous said October 24, 2007, 2:40 am:

    This is pretty interesting Sukumar but I dont think all languages have swears which are similar to animal shouts….I am sure of Taml swear word s dont have Animal Sounds..same is case with Hindi and Telugu am not sure of other languages…I guess it could be true to all Germanic Langauages

  11. Quote
    Anonymous said October 24, 2007, 10:54 am:

    Interesting discussion Priya and Archana. Couple of points from my side:

    1. The idea that human language may have originated in swearing is an extremely interesting anthropological idea from Pinker. i am not sure, we can use our current behaviors and languages to either support or refute the idea. The one idea that comes to my mind is to possibly look at primitive languages that are still being spoken and see if we can come up with something that supports or refutes the view. But because even the most primitive languages might have evolved beyond recognition over the past 150,000 years it is going to be hard to conclude anything, but it is worth a try.

    2. I don’t know where we said Limbic reactions can’t be learnt. i didn’t say it, Pinker doesn’t say it and no neuroscientist will agree with that. All Pinker is saying is that when we do speech cognition 2 parts of the brain are involved and swear words seem to be generate a strong limbic reaction. I don’t see why there is a problem in accepting this? Even in the example i gave about contractor vs. partner, the limbic reactions are getting generated i think because of the discriminatory rituals surrounding contractors that would have contributed.

  12. Quote
    Anonymous said October 24, 2007, 10:57 am:

    Thanks Karthik. Many swear words that i know in Hindi and Tamil definitely have animal-like tones. I don’t think one can say all swear words have this signature but many do. I don’t know swear words in Germanic languages.

  13. Quote
    Anonymous said October 24, 2007, 11:59 am:

    i have not read Pinker so i cannot comment on that but i feel priya’s logic can beaccepted as it does make sense…

    But words in Tamils lke O@@@@,U@@@@(please exucse me for using this ) really dont sound like animal tones…so i am intriguing do ancinet languages have it example what bout sanskrit or may be yiddish or aramaic ..did these have swear did they sound…that will an interesting area of thgt…

  14. Quote
    Anonymous said October 24, 2007, 5:03 pm:


    Thanks. When you render those words o@@@@ etc with anger you will see how it sounds. When i said primitive languages, i am talking about languages tribes would be using. Sanskrit, Tamil, Aramaic though ancient are not primitive and in the anthropological scale they are too very recent.

  15. Quote
    Anonymous said October 25, 2007, 11:50 am:

    Thanks Sukumar. Pinker says that since swearing involves more ancient part of the brain thus swearing could have been the first form of language to evolve. If you extend the example he gives in the article, even after the language module of the brain is destroyed people were retailed their ability to swear. My arguement was, even learned reactions involve ancient part of the brain, hence that cannot be used as a conclusive evidence.

    Maybe I will be able to understand better if I read the book.

  16. Quote
    Anonymous said October 25, 2007, 2:07 pm:

    I will not be surprised if this post generates most comments πŸ™‚

    Archana, I used to think women swear less. But one train journey back in 1999 changed my opinion. I was traveling to Hyd from Chn in Charminar Express. I got RAC side birth in a compartment full of may be 11th grade students(all girls) going on a ‘educational tour’ to hyd. Their escort, one catholic teacher(some Mother Superior) was also traveling with them (and she got a seat in other compartment. That night I heard some of the worst(or best) English swear words of my life that too from 15 year old girls. It is like reading Harrold Robbin novels non stop. My partner in the RAC birth was around 50 years old gentleman and imagine hios plight. He was fussing whenever those girls use a bad word. Overall unforgettable journey πŸ™‚

  17. Quote
    Anonymous said October 25, 2007, 3:22 pm:


    Now i see which point you are referring to. What Pinker says about language module being destroyed is real evidence. That just means that swear words are stored somewhere other than the language module. This does not imply that learning doesn’t occur in the ancient parts of the brain. If i know my neuroscience right, Amygdala plays a key role in emotions and emotions play a key role in memories. If you study “fear” in neurological terms, you will notice that the fear response is extremely fast because the Amygdala gets involved and the fear trigger goes directly from the sensory cortex(es) directly to the Amygdala without the secondary cortical inference processes getting involved (which may slow down the fear response).

    In sum, the fact that the Swear Words are not stored in the language module in no way contradicts the fact that learned reactions involve the ancient part of the brain. In fact, most human behavior is learned – we as a race have very few instincts.

    Hope that clarifies the point?

  18. Quote
    Anonymous said October 26, 2007, 1:36 am:


    On a slightly different note, but not to dilute this very interesting thread which I have been watching from the sidelines, what kind of words become curse words in a specific language?

    I can find equivalents for f**k, bastard in tamil. However, I do not see s**t and p**s being cuss words in tamil. Same in hindi.

    I also have to agree with Karthik that I do not find the correlation between animal tones and curse words in tamil. And the argument that is is not an ancient language should hold for english too.


  19. Quote
    Anonymous said October 26, 2007, 6:28 am:

    Yes, I understand that Sukumar. What I don’t understand is how it proves that “swearing was actually the first form of language”.

    You cannot conclude it from this fact,right? I am trying to understand how he makes that conclusion. I am pasting the relevent paragraph for you to understand where my cofusion lies.

    The experimental psychologist also takes a fresh look at the “poo-poo theory,” which proposes that swearing was actually the first form of language. He points to the fact that brain-damaged patients who lose the power of articulate speech often retain the ability to curse like a sailor. “Since swearing involves clearly more ancient parts of the brain,” Pinker says, “it could be a missing link between animal vocalization and human language.”

  20. Quote
    Anonymous said October 26, 2007, 6:33 am:

    It must have been a really interesting journey Vamsi πŸ™‚

  21. Quote
    Anonymous said October 26, 2007, 3:30 pm:


    I’m sure Pinker’s book will have more details. To me, this is the same strategy Ramachandran uses – look at brain disorders and figure out what the pathways are. Neurologically speaking language is considered to be a higher order function. So if evidence shows that language is also part of the limbic system it certainly throws new light on langauge origin. If the brain damaged folk only retain swear words and it is coming from the limbic region it certainly can lead to the conclusion that langauge may have evolved there. If you want to look at it another way, we do see animals using rudimentary communication techniques and most likely they are limbic. So the connection that Pinker is making is certainly a one with a high likelihood. – Sukumar

  22. Quote
    Anonymous said October 26, 2007, 3:37 pm:

    Good point Ganesh. Maybe its because we don’t consider s**t and p**s as that disgusting as the westerners do.there is evidence to show that this is the case from the fact that people do their ablutions on the street.

    As for cuss words in Tamil. Atleast the ones I have come across, I see them as animal like when they are delivered with a good measure of anger thrown in. Also, I think it would be unwise for us to think all cuss words are going to be with animal like sounds. Even if a few are there as is the case with Tamil, Hindi it seems to bear out the case that they could be limbic in origin, don’t you think?

  23. Quote
    Anonymous said October 27, 2007, 7:16 am:

    Archana.. I agree with you .. swear comes only by habit.. When i was in childhood, i was raised with utmost discipline, that i dont use even mild words like idiot stupid.. (only up to 10th !!!! πŸ˜‰ ) . If i am enraged, i will say “Dont tense me” in tamil.. that’s all.. but, as i moved with different people, i got the habit of using these mild words, like stupid etc.. its more of a habit..

    Till now, i havent used any of the swear words mentioned in this article, even at utmost anger.. I particularly took care than i dont get that habit..

    So, when these swear words have been part of childhood, then it becomes habit without one’s knowing..

    Personally, i feel, these swearing words, has a negative tone.. when we realise, that we have many alternative positive good ways of expressing ourselves, we might not want to use these negative words..

    Long back, i got an audio of speech by OSHO.. he just casually used these f word, in different modulations, for almost 15 minutes.

    After hearing that, i understood one thing.. More than the word, the meaning that’s imbibed in our mind for that word makes the difference.

    Even now, i consider the phrase “pissed off” somewhat ugly, but people use it casually, and as fashionable.. i feel, there might be good words to replace those.

  24. Quote
    Anonymous said October 27, 2007, 7:26 am:

    Can we say, that these swear words may be remnants of humans becoming more civilized? SInce humans evolve from animalistic behaviour, when the society gets more advanced, these swear words become not commonly used..
    More than in memory, its the social culture that makes people learn these words.. in a highly civilized communities like brahmins (i am NOT speaking of current.. lets say some 50 years back), these words are virtually non-existent.. they were even afraid of telling lie) But, the same kind of words were common among common masses, like kshatriyas and shudras..
    And who said women do not use these words… It depends on the family background.. Normally women in villages on those days were bold, and use these words, mostly during verbal fights with another women.. (again, these words are not used against Men in most circumstances)..

  25. Quote
    Anonymous said October 27, 2007, 6:12 pm:


    I’m not sure if it is a sign of being more civilized or being more inhibited? Priya made the point above that women don’t use swear words that much because of inhibitions.

  26. Quote
    Anonymous said November 3, 2007, 4:29 am:


    I feel i have not conveyed properly. My opinion is that when people were more civilized, they are bound by social virtues. In that case, they have to behave themselves accordingly before the society. In that case, referring to things out of the bounds that were generally not approved by the society, may give a deep connotation for the point that they want to express.

    That’s why i said that when they were less civilized these swear words might not have any effect, but when they become more civilized, the same words become unusual, undesirable and hence may become swear.

    Just my few thoughts..

  27. Quote
    Anonymous said November 3, 2007, 12:00 pm:

    Thanks for the clarification Senthil. Now I understand, sort of. I think you maybe onto something here.

  28. Quote
    Anonymous said November 3, 2007, 9:20 pm:


    Although I am not an expert on this, based on a cursory research, I have to concur with you that the utterance of these cuss words does seem to be limbic in origin.


  29. Quote
    Anonymous said November 4, 2007, 12:10 am:

    Thanks Ganesh

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