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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Swearing as a human distress call

Ever wondered why it's so hard to stop yourself from cursing? It's a preprogrammed response. But what is its real purpose?

W e've all experienced it: hit your thumb with a hammer and you start saying things like "G** **** f***** *** of a ***** **** **** ****!!!!!" Of course we can suppress it, or we can substitute euphemisms, but the basic urge to swear can be utterly compelling. Why is this?

The consensus view among psychologists seems to be that swearing is a way of releasing stress. In my opinion this is incorrect. Swearing is actually a human distress call. We are programmed to make noises with specific audio properties to warn those around us of danger or to alert us that someone needs help. In this case the help might be attending to the person's injuries or providing additional training on the proper use of simple hand tools.

Crow fighting a vulture
Crow fighting a vulture. This crow was emitting numerous angry swearing-type mobbing calls.

The fact that the words we use happen to represent a deity performing some specific action to sinners is incidental. The words themselves are merely a convention. Proof of this is the fact that atheists, for whom religious phrases have no meaning, use virtually the same terminology as the most devout Catholic. It's as if we were programmed to see things in terms of a deity and our language evolved to accommodate it.

When humans are in serious danger, they involuntarily scream. Women and children, being weaker, have a lower threshold, but even the most stoic man will scream in terror when subjected to enough fear or pain. It creates an involuntary response of anxiety and stress in the listener.

Swearing is thus just one extreme of a continuum of human distress calls. Stress is there, to be sure, but it's part of the programmed response to pressure the individual to make the noise. The biological purpose of screaming is purely social: it warns other humans that there is life-threatening danger. It's common to all social species including birds, squirrels, and even the seemingly taciturn rabbit.

In Tourette syndrome this programming is out of control. Tourette's causes even a trivial danger to evoke compulsive utterances, such as grunting, barking, screaming, or swearing. The sufferers can voluntarily suppress them only for a short time. Over 72% of sufferers have other disorders such as ADHD or obsessive-compulsive disorder, suggesting that these conditions may be related. Tourette's starts between age 4 and 10. Recent research suggests that although it is strongly inherited there might also be an epigenetic component.

Animals and birds use distress calls to warn each other about threats. Robins, for example, make a chirp-tut-tut sound which indicates mild alarm. When you think about it, it's a little disturbing that those birds immediately start cursing whenever they see a human.

Comics make extensive use of swearing because it makes people uncomfor­table, which in turn makes them want to laugh to hide their discomfort. In a searing criticism of John Oliver's pretend swearing after the Muslim terrorist massacres at the Bataclan theatre in Paris, commentator Mark Steyn called it a way of avoiding saying anything. To Steyn this stylized swearing is no different than those self-indulgent candlelight vigils that people use as a substitute for action.

(I admit I had to look up who John Oliver is. For those of us for whom a TV is little more than a little talking fireplace, he's a TV comedian on the cable channel HBO.)

What Steyn meant was that in a decadent society even our human distress calls become fake. It used to be that swearing was strictly forbidden by social convention. The Bible admonishes us not to do it. And for a culture still conscious of the need for survival, that would make sense: there are good reasons to avoid making fake distress calls.

In our age of relative safety, it's not surprising that psychologists would miss this. Daniel Blumstein, for example, wrote in Biology Letters that music like Jimi Hendrix's famous Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock and in the shower scene of Psycho are closely related to distress calls in animals.

But the resemblance is only superficial. Music is a highly stylized type of sound that we use to adapt ourselves to the sounds we hear in everyday life. That's why in the mechanized age we got repeated percussive sounds that mimicked the noises made by machines. And it's why as the sounds we hear change, musical styles change along with them.

An important function of ordinary bird calls is to make it easier for birds to locate each other in a dense forest. It's nearly impossible to do this visually, so a bird will make a coded species-specific call and wait for a reply from another bird of the same species. This tells it the distance and location.

By contrast, bird distress calls tend to be higher pitched, purer in tone, and get gradually louder and quieter. They're specifically designed to make the animal harder to locate. But this isn't always true: injured crows make a distinctive highly modulated call, quite different from the usual mobbing call, that makes it easy for their friends to find them.

Whatever the species, a distress call creates an automatic response of anxiety in conspecifics who hear it. Its purpose is always social. And that's why even our cussingest comics don't put human terror screams in their comedy routines. (That's the job of the audience.)

It raises the question, though: just what are all those Internet bloggers who pepper their sterling prose with F-bombs really doing? Is it just an affectation, or are they feeling, and displaying, weakness? If the former, to the extent that Internet is composed of F-bombs it is a lie; if the latter, maybe a gigantic cry for help.

Last edited nov 20, 2016 5:07 pm

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