Imagine yourself as one of your ancestors. Not a hundred or a thousand years ago, but one of your progenitors from some 100,000 years back in the mist of time.
You’ve fallen from a tree, tripped on a rock, stepped in a pile of dung, or barked your knuckles while sharpening a tool. Your natural response is to utter a sound of fury — an Ur-expletive — “arrgh!”
And for some reason, this lessens the pain. Swearing is natural because it has a hypoalgesic effect; it reduces the sense of agony. Indeed, swearing has always been attached to any experience of strong emotion, punctuating the profound.
Given this, you’d expect that we would have a record of such words in our culture stretching back to antiquity. But we don’t, because strong language has traditionally been a taboo and only in recent history has it been allowed in print.
Go back some 50 years, you’ll find Bowdlerization and grawlix to be ubiquitous. “G—–n!” and the like are normal in period literature. The editing set were forceful in suppressing expletives from print. When the Nixon tapes were released, [expletive deleted] was rampant throughout the transcription.
Our understanding of swearing as a linguistic speech act has to be inferred from hints and clues peppered throughout recorded history. We see it in ancient graffiti, in Latin words like “irrumo” (face-fucking), and in phrases like, “He swore like a sailor.”
Writers like Henry Miller and William Burroughs, Anais Nin and Sylvia Plath did manage to inject strong language into their prose, yet their books were often banned or sold in plain brown wrapping paper, and it’s only since about the 1960s that expletives have routinely appeared in print.
As you’d expect, there have been protestations that our language has been befouled, that standards have fallen, that our tongue has coarsened; yet this is only an observation that the editor set has raised the bar and allowed prohibited terms into print and broadcast media.
In that studies show the effect of swearing decreases with its frequency, we see that its power as a hypoalgesic relies on its rarity. This is why it has been reserved for spare use and kept behind the curtain. When you experience a shock of some sort and need to jab yourself with a needle of relief, a shouted “fuck!” or similar will do the trick only if it is an exceptional utterance.
From the English “shit” to the German “scheiße” to the Japanese “chikusho,” every language has power-words that reduce suffering, but if overused their effect is diminished. Like any medicine, judicious application is the key to efficacy.