Tuesday, 27 September 2005

Researching the cursing brain

Some of you might remember George Carlin's list of Seven Dirty Words*. You might also have heard his wonderfully enlightening eulogy to the word 'fuck.'

Now, if either or both offended you -- or if seeing the 'f' word just one line above offends you -- then consider this:
Researchers who study the evolution of language and the psychology of swearing say that they have no idea what mystic model of linguistic gentility the critics might have in mind. Cursing, they say, is a human universal. Every language, dialect or patois ever studied, whether living or dead, spoken by millions or by a single small tribe, turns out to have its share of forbidden speech,
Even old Will Shakespeare was not averse to the odd curse or three, and as for the Bible:

"The Jacobean dramatist Ben Jonson peppered his plays with fackings and 'peremptorie Asses,' and Shakespeare could hardly quill a stanza without inserting profanities of the day like 'zounds' or 'sblood' -- offensive contractions of 'God's wounds' and 'God's blood' -- or some wondrous sexual pun." The title "Much Ado About Nothing," McWhorter said, is a word play on "Much Ado About an O Thing," the O thing being a reference to female genitalia.

Even the quintessential Good Book abounds in naughty passages like the men in 2 Kings 18:27 who, as the comparatively tame King James translation puts it, "eat their own dung, and drink their own piss."

Our researcher concludes that studying cursing offers an ideal opportunity to probe "the tangled, cryptic bonds between the newer, "higher" regions of the brain in charge of intellect, reason and planning, and the older, more "bestial" neural neighborhoods that give birth to our emotions." There could be something in that.

* [ Hat tip Mark, who has the list of dirty words for you. Go on, look. You know you want to.]


  1. I'm proud to say that I pulled the list, in the correct order, entirely from memory!

    We wore out that album when we were in high school.

  2. I confess I didn't hear George Carlin until much later. The bFM comedy show on Sunday mornings used to play snippets, and they were hilarious. My favourite is his 'The Planet is Fine' -- the ~people~ are fucked. :-)


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