The curse of coprolalia

Quick—what’s the most offensive thing you could say right now?

Whether it’s shit-gargling cunt, faggot cumtits, or something equally inappropriate, your brain’s basal ganglia helped you figure it out almost instantly. And if you didn’t blurt out what you were thinking, you can thank your prefrontal cortex, which plays a role in impulse control. For people with coprolalia, though, something in that neural circuitry has gone awry, and they can’t help letting loose with profane outbursts.

Coprolalia—from the Greek kopros meaning “feces” and lalein meaning “to talk”—is usually associated with Tourette syndrome [1], although it appears in only 10 to 20 percent of Tourette cases. It has also been documented in people with brain injuries from stroke, encephalitis, and cerebral malaria.

For people who have coprolalia, the vulgar vocal tics can be mortifying, not least because the utterances can be way louder than their normal speaking voice. You can imagine how uncontrollable swearing, the content of which may not reflect the person’s own opinions, can kill job opportunities and relationships. But research on coprolalia can tell us a surprising amount about ourselves and how we store and process language:

Coprolalics invoke the most inappropriate curses of their eras and cultures, and their vocal eruptions are contextually relevant in their inappropriateness. For instance, phoning an airline to make a reservation, a coprolalic patient blurts out, “there’s a bomb on the plane!” When he meets a black person, the same patient cannot restrain himself from exclaiming, “Nigger!” [2]

In other words, semantics matter. Earlier researchers weren’t sure if people with coprolalia repeated swear words because of their percussive sounds (see James Harbeck’s post about the phonology of cuss words) or because of their meaning. Putting that debate to rest, with meaning being the clear winner, is the case of a coprolalic man who was deaf before he learned to speak: he’d not only make obscene signs but also finger-spell swear words.

More generally, these studies suggest that the catalogue of what people emit in their coprolalic tics reflects what society at large finds most offensive. Take this list of the most frequently uttered coprolalic words in different countries [3]:

UK: fuck, cunt, bastard, piss, sod, cock, shit, prick

USA: fuck, shit, bitch, asshole, bastard

Denmark: kaeft (shut up), svin (swine), fisse (vulva), kusse (vulva), pik (penis), røv (buttocks), pis (piss), gylie (animal feces), sgu (by God)

Spain: puta (whore), mierda (feces), coño (vulva), joder (fornicate), maricon (homosexual) cojones (testicles), hijo de puta (son of a whore), hostia (holy bread)

Brazil: merda (feces), bosta (feces), filho da puta (son of a whore), bunda (buttocks), buceta (vagina), cacete (penis), caralho (penis), porra (sperm), vai tomar no cu (fuck off)

Words about body parts and bodily functions dominate over religious curse words. The differences in the UK and US lists are also interesting, showing what words their respective populations consider more obscene.

What’s more, coprolalic tics are pretty much never euphemisms, which might mean that we store the most offensive terms separately from the rest of our lexicon. Primal, hardwired connections to an exclusive library of curse words explains why euphemisms feel so much less powerful and provocative—and why fluently bilingual people with coprolalia involuntarily swear only in their native tongue. When we tone down our vulgarity for the sake of decorum or swear in a second language, even one we’ve mastered, we’re using different, more conscious neural pathways.

[1] For more information about Tourette Syndrome, visit the (US) Tourette Syndrome Association site or watch this hour-long BBC documentary.

[2] Kate E Brown and Howard I Kushner, “Eruptive Voices: Coprolalia, Malediction, and the Poetics of Cursing,” New Literary History 32 no. 3, 2001: 537–562.

[3] F Cardoso, CC Veado, and JT de Oliveira. “A Brazilian cohort of patients with Tourette’s syndrome.” Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry 60 no. 2, 1996:209–212.

13 thoughts on “The curse of coprolalia

  1. Mr Punch December 22, 2014 / 10:44 pm

    Do Americans really regard “asshole” as more offensive than “cunt”? I doubt it.

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    • Iva Cheung December 22, 2014 / 10:48 pm

      Agreed. The caveat is that these lists were from 1996 data, when “cunt” was likely more commonplace in the UK than the US. May not have even been on the American radar.

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  2. hanmeng December 23, 2014 / 3:10 am

    “Merda” is Spanish? What about “mierda”? As for most offensive thing I could say right now, it was “nigger”, followed by “faggot”.

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    • Iva Cheung December 23, 2014 / 3:18 am

      Thanks! Fixed. Transcription error.

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  3. Adrian Morgan December 26, 2014 / 1:47 pm

    One thing I’ve sometimes wondered about is why you never hear about people with coprolalia blurting out PINs and passwords, for example. What’s so special about offensiveness as opposed to other reasons to not mention particular words and phrases? The bomb example shows it’s not just about swearing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. NHF December 29, 2014 / 12:18 pm

    (Proper) Portuguese speaking guy here, from Portugal. It’s “filho DA puta” (i.e., not son of “A” whore, but rather son of “THE” whore) probably because it makes things more personal when insulting someone, given you are actually referring to the target’s mother, rather than some random, abstract whore. “Cacete” only has one “t” (no double tt in Portuguese, ever) and “vai tomar no cu” – which in Portugal is usually said as “vai apanhar no cú” – literally means “go take it in the ass”, and it’s actually applied more as an equivalent of “fuck you” than as “fuck off”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Iva Cheung December 29, 2014 / 4:35 pm

      Thanks! Fixed the first two, which were OCR/transcription errors. The last may be a difference between Portugal and Brazil?

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  5. Quentin Hardy January 24, 2015 / 5:34 pm

    “What society at large finds most offensive” seems like the wrong conclusion. For example, in the U.S. putting the name “Jesus” next to any of those in a compound term would be far more offensive to most people than simply the word itself. And, as an earlier comment noted, “cunt” would be more offensive than “asshole,” and was known in 1996. Likewise “cocksucker.” It seems more like the speaker is searching for terms that would most broadly offend – “asshole” is in more common use than “cunt” – not most deeply offend. Which sort of makes the affliction oddly socially aware.

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  6. neminem February 14, 2015 / 11:48 pm

    Huh. Funny, I’d never thought about the literal meaning of the word coprolalia – funny that it literally means “to talk shit”, which of course in English now also has the completely unrelated meaning, “to trashtalk”.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. coruscantbookshelf June 25, 2015 / 1:32 am

    Funny – the first words that came to mind when I read the first sentence were “E’chuta, schutta!” which – while offensive – don’t translate directly into English at all! (So it looks like your point about rude words being stored separately holds good.)

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  8. Allmalegaynude Hempfarmers May 5, 2016 / 7:46 pm

    I believe persons with TS have a weaker language filter in general and that coprolalia just like other sorts of tics is sometimes masked. Subtler language inappropriacies than outright swearing are a way that some persons with Tourette’s release the pressure to blurt out something worse. A child with TS might disguise a facial tic as an allergic sniffle or cough. An obscene outburst might be re-channeled into a milder but also offensive and unnecessary remark.

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