Swear by it

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING -

IHAVE a friend who can’t say “f***”. She never has been able to and shakes her head help­lessly when teased and dared to give it a go. She’s not a prude. But she has such a strong re­ac­tion to the word that she can­not bring her­self to ut­ter it.

Us­ing the F-word in the first sen­tence of this ar­ti­cle wasn’t done for gra­tu­itous ef­fect. But how did you re­act to read­ing it? Would it be more agree­able to see the eu­phemism “F-word” in­stead? Do “bad” words make you more un­com­fort­able than oth­ers?

It has been known for a while that peo­ple flu­ent in two lan­guages re­spond far less strongly to swear words in their mother tongue than in their sec­ond lan­guage.

But a new study of peo­ple’s re­ac­tions to a “bad” swear word – f***, for ex­am­ple – com­pared a eu­phemism that they un­der­stood to mean the same thing, now sug­gests our strong emo­tional re­ac­tions to swear words hap­pen as a re­sult of early ver­bal con­di­tion­ing, rather than the mean­ing that is con­veyed. This raises the pos­si­bil­ity that young chil­dren may note their par­ents’ re­ac­tions to taboo words be­fore they un­der­stand what the words mean.

All sorts of emo­tions are as­so­ci­ated with the sound of swear words as we are grow­ing up, says Jeff Bow­ers at the Univer­sity of Bris­tol, Bri­tain, who car­ried out the re­search.

The re­sults of his study, Bow­ers says, sheds some light on a ques­tion of­ten de­bated by lin­guists and psy­chol­o­gists: does the words you say af­fect the way you think and per­ceive the world?

Bow­ers wired vol­un­teers up to a ma­chine that would as­sess their stress lev­els by mea­sur­ing their sweat. He then asked them to say swear words and their eu­phemisms aloud.

us­ing bad lan­guage can al­ter our be­hav­iour.

Even though ev­ery­one in­volved had vol­un­teered for the study and was fully briefed as to what was in­volved, and there­fore pre­sum­ably not likely to be offended, par­tic­i­pants showed higher stress lev­els when they were asked to swear than when asked to state the com­mon eu­phemism.

Bow­ers says the dif­fer­ence in stress lev­els be­tween swear words and eu­phemisms shows that we don’t only re­spond to the mean­ing of a swear word. The furore in De­cem­ber last year when the BBC ra­dio jour­nal­ist James Naugh­tie made an un­for­tu­nate slip of the tongue while in­tro­duc­ing cul­ture sec­re­tary Jeremy Hunt on air demon­strates his point.

Af­ter the slip-up went out live on air at break­fast-time, BBC was in­un­dated with com­plaints. Pre­sum­ably no­body imag­ined the pre­sen­ter had in­tended to use the C-word, but many were still shocked that they called, wrote and e-mailed to tell the broad­caster of their dis­may. BBC felt bound to apol­o­gise.

“In our view, eu­phemisms are ef­fec­tive be­cause they re­place the trig­ger – the of­fend­ing word form – with an­other word that is sim­i­lar con­cep­tu­ally,” says Bow­ers.

A con­ver­sa­tion re­ported in one of John Pil­ger’s books, Bow­ers says, gives a good ex­am­ple of how word forms, rather than their mean­ings, af­fect how we think and act. At an arms fair, Pil­ger de­scribes ask­ing a sales­man to de­scribe how a clus­ter grenade works.

“Bend­ing over a glass case, as one does when in­spect­ing some­thing pre­cious, he said, ‘This is won­der­ful. It is state of the art, unique. What it does is dis­charge cop­per dust, very, very fine dust, so that the par­ti­cles sat­u­rate the ob­jec­tive...”’

What was that “ob­jec­tive”? asked Pil­ger. “What­ever it may be,” replied the sales­man. “Peo­ple?” asked Pil­ger. “Well, er ... If you like” was the sales­man’s re­sponse.

Pil­ger ob­serves that sales­men at these events “have the great­est dif­fi­culty say­ing ‘peo­ple’ and ‘kill’ and ‘maim’.”

It’s doubt­ful there is any con­fu­sion in the minds of buy­ers or sell­ers about the func­tion of weapons, notes Bow­ers. “Nev­er­the­less, the ar­gu­ment we’d make as a re­sult of our re­search is that the eu­phemisms al­lowed busi­ness to be con­ducted with min­i­mal dis­com­fort.”

Some peo­ple feel un­com­fort­able with cer­tain words – it doesn’t have to be swear words; it might be bod­ily func­tions or the names for gen­i­talia, or in­deed, say­ing “kill” and “peo­ple” at an arms fair – they may go to great lengths to avoid us­ing them, Bow­ers ex­plains, in­clud­ing not en­ter­ing into dis­cus­sion of a par­tic­u­lar sub­ject at all.

This, he says, is a per­fect ex­am­ple of how what you say – or what you find ex­cru­ci­at­ing to say – af­fects the way you think and act.

In demon­strat­ing that taboo words can cre­ate a phys­i­o­log­i­cal ef­fect, Bow­ers’s study high­lights how two words that mean the same thing can pro­voke dif­fer­ent re­sponses from us, and, he says, in terms of hu­man re­la­tion­ships, how “sub­tle dif­fer­ences can make all the dif­fer­ence in the world”. – Guardian News & Me­dia 2011

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