The Pleasures of Profanity: Why Are Curse Words So Damn Fun to Say?
Got a perpetual potty mouth? We can hardly blame you.
No other expression provokes parents into punishing their kids with corner time (or furiously scrubbing their mouths with a bar of soap) like the utterance of a swear. Our culture’s revulsion toward cursing has mellowed out over time, what with all these new studies showing that people who curse likely have higher IQs, or the popular reappropriation of these crass words into affectionate nicknames reserved for your bestest of friends (yas, bitch!). Whether it’s classic fucks and cunts or the more colorful amalgamations like dickwad, fuckwit, and fuckface, curse words have evolved into a natural, and arguably even celebrated fixture in our everyday vocabularies.
Many of us were taught in our youth to regard swearing as rude and totally inappropriate, but the magnetic kind of attraction we feel toward such “off-limits” vulgarities seems to be a universal experience. Turns out, there’s actual, scientific reason why these words feel exceptionally fun for us to say.
Here’s a bite-sized lesson in language studies for you: there’s a concept called phonosymbolism, which—as explained by linguist and best-selling author Amanda Montell—says that “certain speech sounds can hold meaning in and of themselves.”
“Think of the inherent harshness conveyed by a word like chop or slap, the ooey-gooeyness of slither, and coziness in velvet,” Montell says in her best-selling non-fiction book Wordslut.
There’s also a study called phonaesthetics that deals with the pleasantness we associate with the sounds of certain words or parts of words. Benjamin Bergen, author of What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, noted a tendency among swears like cock, shit, dick, and fuck to use more stop consonants (T, D, B, P, G, and K) than the average sample of words. Nested between these crisp stop constants are usually short vowel syllables, creating what’s called a closed-syllable structure (e.g. consonant-vowel-consonant).
These "opening bursts and closing thwacks” that bind commonly used profanities are what make them feel like what Montell calls “linguistic calisthenics”—or, in other words, a party in your mouth.
“The opening bursts and closing thwacks bookending terms like bitch, fuck, and dick felt like a party in the mouth (the word fuck alone makes use of the lips, the tongue, and the teeth),” says Montell in Wordslut.
Cuss words, as told by Montell, have explosive snaps, crackles, and pops that tickle us in all the right ways. And bear in mind that this pleasure doesn’t yet take into account their grammatical convenience; fuck is actually one of the most versatile words in the entire English language, usable as a noun (“You dumb fuck!”), a verb (“I totally fucked that up”), an adverb (“I fucking adored that”), an adjective (“I’m eternally fucked”), or an interjection (“Fuuuuuuuuuck”). Add in the sexiness of all things taboo and the wild feeling of rebellion we get from participating in the “forbidden,” and you have yourself a dirty, acid-like but very happy tongue.
Much to the disappointment of our parents and pre-school teachers, cuss words may very well be wince-worthy verbal garbage—but they’re also a word nerd’s dream.