Studies show that expletives are socially a mixed bag.
An analysis by Slate released Wednesday shows that our selection of expletives have quite a bit to do with who we are. The data, which Slate collected over a three day period from all Facebook interactions using a new developer's tool, revealed that the top 5 curse words in the United States were "shit" (10.5 million appearances), "fuck" (9.5 million), "damn" (6.3 million), "bitch" (4.5 million), and "crap" (2 million). Men and women use these words in more or less equal amounts, but other curse words—particularly anatomical words like "pussy" and "cock," diverged sharply between genders. "Pussy," "dick," and "fag" are all more popular among young men, while "cock" and — with the largest gender gap in the bunch—"darn" were more popular among women.
Sexual profanities like "pussy" and "fag" are also strongly correlated with age, with more graphic obscenities tapering in use as age rises. "Darn," "fag," "dick," "asshole," and "pussy" also varied highly by region, with the West and the Northeast generally on opposite lexical poles. Us Northeasterners, for example, apparently say "dick" a whole lot more than folks in the West do, while you're more likely to catch "fag" on the Facebook of a Californian than a New Yorker.
This got us thinking: is cursing attractive? Are you more or less likely to get a date if you swear online? According to psychologist Edward Mabry, cursing can fulfill more than one function. Based on an evaluation of 283 college students, he concluded that expletives generally fall into one of five categories: "abrasive," (e.g. "pussy") "technical," (e.g. "vagina") "abrasive-expletive," (e.g. "bastard") "latently sexual," (e.g. "scuz") and "euphemistic"(e.g. "shit"). The study was conducted in the late 70s so some of his featured slang — like the apparently latently sexual word "goose"—comes off as a little dated, but you get the basic idea. Like Slate, he also found that each of these classes of words is employed with different frequency depending on factors like age, gender, region, religiousness, and political affiliation. Some of our most commonly used curse words, like "fuck" and "motherfucker," don't seem to fall into any one abrasive or expletive category.
The purposelessness (or omnipurpose, perhaps) nature of many swear words is a hot topic in fields like neurolinguistics. For example, why is it that when we can't quite grasp the word we're thinking of we might stammer "fuck fuck fuck" until the word comes to mind or we give up? "Fuck" is in this case what psychologist Timothy Jay calls a "neurological control," a way of re-routing a waylaid electrical impulses that might otherwise be expressed as more straightforward aggression. Cursing also has quite a bit to do with rebuffing systems of power, which is perhaps why religion, region, and gender affect which curse words you use, and transitively, our attractiveness.
A related cognitive explanation is that cursing is a part of our identity and that the words we use help remind us—and prove to others—who we are. Somebody who wishes to appear "no muss no fuss," for example, might say "pussy" or "faggot" with greater frequency than somebody who wants to come off as sensitive. You might also look at the problem from the opposite direction: everybody knows how to curse; the words we use have more to do with how we curb our innate attraction to the profane. Being highly religious, for example, will make you less likely to say "Jesus H. Christ!" when you stub your toe. For these reasons, public cursing can signal a desire to emotionally connect by concisely summing up, "Hey, I'm unconventional, religious, enjoy humor, and identify as female, wanna hang out?" without having to consciously or explicitly recourse to treatise.
Because of the strong relationship between cursing and identity, your use of obscenities actually has quite a lot to do with dating. Medicine hasn't exactly rushed to answer this question, but an informal poll by The Frisky offers some insight: cursing can be attractive at long as it doesn't seem forced. In other words, people who seem like they should curse are attractive when they curse, and people who don't seem like they'd curse come off as even less attractive for their attempts. YourTango tried a similar in-office poll and said that results were mixed: "One mate finds cursing always unladylike and unimaginative, another tends to think hearing the late George Carlin's famous seven words from a woman is sexy, and the tenuous agreement seemed to be that swearing is most attractive when used in the right place at the right time."
Think cursing is sexy? Trying to curb your pottymouth? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
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