The universal usefulness of cursing

We were in a hurry. In order for my son, Owen, to get to school in time to have breakfast with his friends we had to move quickly. He had one arm in his jacket and one foot in a shoe.

“Hurry or we’ll miss your breakfast! Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!” I yelled.

His response let me know that I was overwhelming my favorite little 4-year-old buddy.

“Heck! heck! heck! heck! heck,” he said flapping his arms and trying to comply.

Why do people curse?

“It’s because they don’t know any better words to use,” my dad said to me. That quote may not be dead-on. It’s a childhood memory from a camping trip. We were walking to an outhouse. Cursing can be offensive in mixed company, so anyone who wants their child to climb the social ladder would do well with an answer like this. But ideas on what constitutes a potty mouth vary widely.

My wife’s family is from the Wild West and they like to think of themselves as being a little more rough and tumble in their speech. They tell of Sarah’s first words with a grin.

“Oh Schick,” she said, repeating after her daddy, who had just cut himself shaving. My family is a less salty bunch and making a good impression on them has always been a high priority for Sarah.

One day, she heard Owen say “What the heck?!” Since she wasn’t sure where my conservative family drew the line on phrases like that, she decided to play it safe and taught Owen that “heck” was a curse word.

“Say what on earth–instead of what the heck?” she told him.

But his friends at school were using “What the heck” and he didn’t feel “What on earth?” was cutting it. So he fashioned, “What the puppet?!” for himself instead.

We backtracked on heck soon after that and here he was trying to get out the door quickly in the morning finding himself in a hailstorm of heckfire. It was cute, and an eye-opener.

Clearly, he was just being a little boy and there was nothing malicious in his attempt to grab for a saltier word. Watching him, I wondered if there was another reason for cursing. Do people have a psychological need to curse? Is there a positive side or benefit to swearing?

In his article, “Why Do We Swear?” John M. Grohol, PsyD, editor-in-chief of, writes “Swearing is beneficial in ways that people may underestimate or take for granted. Swearing is often cathartic — it often frees us of the feelings of anger or frustration we hold and allows expression for them.”

He goes on to add that not only can cursing be used for humor, social commentary and to convey extreme emotion, it can even be used as a substitute for violence.

Taking things a step further, researchers say expletives can “reduce physical pain,” according to Time magazine article, “Bleep! My Finger! Why Swearing Helps Ease Pain,” by Tiffany Sharples.

So it seems that curses can have a number of positive effects. Experts also agree that cursing is a universal experience and a natural part of development.

“Virtually all people swear, and people swear pretty consistently throughout their lifetime — from the moment they can speak to the day they die. Swearing is almost a universal constant in most people’s lives,” writes Grohol.

But it’s not just humans that are hardwired to swear cathartically, did you know that apes swear? Gorillas who have been taught sign language have also fashioned their own curse words.

About genemyers

Gene Myers is a New Jersey poet, music journalist and columnist who learned to walk twice. His weekly column is called The Joy of Life. He was awarded first place in Arts and Entertainment Writing by The New Jersey Press Association.
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7 Responses to The universal usefulness of cursing

  1. Great post! We’ve been torn on the “heck” debate with our children, as well. Since some of their friends’ parents are against it, we decided to play it safe as well and not allow them to use it. I assume that will change when my son starts school next year.

  2. Merrill Ann Gonzales says:

    This is priceless. My Mom always said, “There are so many ways to express yourself, Merrill, think of what you’re saying!” Of course the emphasis was on Merrill as the General in her demeaner took over. Another expression she’d use if I used the word “she”… Mom would say “She’s a cat’s mother”… I still don’t know what she (oops, sorry Mom) meant by that. Still, being conscious of words from an early age, I think was a wonderful gift for me…if not a little intimidating at times.

  3. Merrill Ann Gonzales says:

    By the way, I find that haiku has an affinity to cursing… in that there is a certain explosion of “uncarved” words…words that come to mind without thought sometimes that say things better than crafted ones.

  4. haikutec says:

    Hi Merrill,

    Could you expand on this comment:

    Merrill Ann Gonzales
    02/17/2012 at 6:17 pm

    “By the way, I find that haiku has an affinity to cursing… in that there is a certain explosion of “uncarved” words…words that come to mind without thought sometimes that say things better than crafted ones.”

    There was a new THF member who asked about cursing in haiku. 🙂


    • Merrill Ann Gonzales says:

      Hi, Alan, I wasn’t referring to “cursing” itself in haiku, I was referring to the fact that often the images in haiku come to us in a similar manner as an explosive curse might come. It’s that instant in a response to something that suddenly comes upon you… whether it comes out in a word, or a curse, or an image…. In a haiku we usually suddenly realize we’ve said something there that makes sense, whereas in a curse it’s just sound that goes on without necessarily meaning anything. I suppose I’ve seen some modern haiku that give these word reponses a sense of becomeing an “explitive deleted!”….. Hope this answers what I was driving at…

  5. Alan Summers says:

    Thanks Merrill! 🙂

    I also loved this: “uncarved” words.


    • Merrill Ann Gonzales says:

      Hi, Alan, I got that from an Old Testament injunction to the Hebrews…to make their altars of “uncarved stones”…. and it seemed to speak volumes to me about speaking truth… (It’s not a very good route to being accepted poetically since the words are so raw) but it’s what i’ve followed… and love plain speach a great deal.

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