Sarah Lang swears… to some degree of moderation. She wonders: have certain words been used so often that they’re not really swear words anymore? And can swearing actually be good for you?
F**k. At Capsule, this is our ‘bleeped out’ version of a certain four-letter word. That is, when one of us uses the word first-person as the writer. We usually use all four letters if we’re quoting someone, because no one pauses mid-sentence to spell out ‘f, asterisk, asterisk, k’ to us.
The last time I bleeped out the word, I wondered where it currently sits on the swear-word scale. Yes, ‘f**k’ was originally (and is still) a term for sexual congress, but when ‘f**k’ is used in other ways – for instance, as an exclamation after you stub your toe – people know it’s not referring to sex.
Personally, I think ‘f**k’ can, at times, be a satisfying, emphatic, versatile word. It’s certainly not a word I’m shy of. Doing a word search, I’ve discovered that I’ve used the word ‘f**k’ in eight of my 65 articles for Capsule (as in, using the word myself as opposed to quoting someone). I try to only use it when I feel it adds necessary intensity, disdain, or rage. I find it pairs particularly well with other words – as in ‘f**k off’ to the idea of curtailing abortion rights, or it being fun to use appetite suppressants to get extra-skinny. And the term ‘I’m f**king done’ appeared in the titles of my stories about ditching mum guilt and reality-TV dating shows.
When I searched that four-letter word sans asterisk, I found that, in quite a few articles, I’d directly quoted people saying that word themselves. As in, they said it themselves, unprompted. My next thought was “F**k, it’s not just me then!” Indeed, in each instance, it seemed to me a perfectly appropriate way for an interviewee to emphatically convey how they felt about something.
Swearing is about saying words we’re not really meant to say. Things to do with sex, God, what emerges from our intestines, etc. Being ‘taboo’ gives swear words their power. But what I’m wondering is, when a word is used often enough and in different ways, might it lose a level of ‘sweariness’? And, more specifically, has the word ‘f**k’ progressed from ‘swear word’ to ‘emphatic term’?
There’s a Reddit thread entitled “The word ‘fuck’ has such a universal use that it shouldn’t have the stigma of being a bad word”. The author asks: “Has anyone ever said something like, ‘wow, this is fucking amazing!’? It’s not being used in a negative way at all. On the contrary, it’s exclaiming how much more enjoyable it is. It has a positivity to it.” “I really fucking agree with you,’ someone else posts. Another commenter says: “The word has been in positive use for years and people still consider it swearing. It’s just like an interjection.”
And ‘f**k yes’ can show enthusiasm! So, do we still need to ‘bleep’ out those middle two letters here at Capsule? Let us know!
Who knew you could come up with a perfect swear word? King’s College London postgrad mathematics student Sophie MacLean has apparently done just that. She fed a list of 45 swear words (the most common starting letter being ‘b’, by the way) into a mathematical model that predicts the probability of a sequence based on previous inputs (the details are boring, but think predictive texting). Anyway – drumroll – the ultimate swear word is: ‘banger’.
Underwhelming, much? Sure, its first four letters have some sexual connotations, and sometimes it’s a term used in wrestling, but to me ‘banger’ goes with ‘mash’. Non-sausage-related definitions of the word include ‘a noisy old car’, and ‘a firework that explodes with a sudden loud noise’ – and apparently it can also describe a hit pop song? Anyhow, I resolved to try it out. It turns out that saying ‘banger’ when you lose a Word document doesn’t convey the accompanying emotion. I think I used a variety of swear words.
Sophie suggests ‘ber’ as a shortened version. Hmm… ‘ber’ sounds more like a version of ‘er’ (less a word, more a word-filler) than a swear word. I’m not imagining that either ‘banger’ or ‘ber’ will catch on anytime soon. Because being designated as a swear word doesn’t make you one; you have to be taboo to begin with.
Sophie mentioned something that surprised me in one article (sciencefocus.com/news/heres-the-worlds-ultimate-swearword-according-to-maths). “Actually, science has shown that it can reduce pain if you stub your toe and swear,” she said. The article explains that “this phenomenon is called the hypoalgesic effect (an action or sensation which lessens pain stimuli), and has been studied for several decades. Unfortunately for the new curses, research in 2020 found that only conventional and established swearwords increase pain tolerance by 33 per cent more than made-up words.” This seems bizarre to me, but then again saying ‘shit’ when I stub my toe will likely feel more satisfying than saying nothing – or saying ‘ber’.
The word ‘shit’ has appeared in many Capsule stories and titles: e.g. ‘makes shit happen’; ‘shit you should care about’, ‘let women like silly shit’ etc. In these examples, ‘shit’ means ‘stuff’ or ‘things’, so we don’t consider this swearing. But elsewhere, we don’t feel the need to bleep out ‘shit’ to ‘sh*t’.
Because is ‘shit’ really a swear word anymore? Like, does ‘shit, I forgot to set my alarm and I’ll have to run to make the bus’ constitute swearing? What about ‘crap, I forgot my mum’s birthday’? Neither of these statements makes me envisage faecal matter at all. I don’t think many people would be offended by either sentence.
On a Reddit thread called ‘Shit should not be a swear word’, one commenter states that “it shouldn’t be disrespectful to say anything [a swear word] unless it’s directed towards someone.” So, for instance, ‘shit, I stubbed my toe’ is quite different from ‘you stood on my toe, you little shit’.
Another commenter says “I swear by shit. Swear words are powerful in how they can relieve pain. They function by causing endorphins, the same way that a very hot bath relieves pain. Because of this it’s important to protect these words, using them only when needed.”
But how the hell do we know when it’s goddamn ok to swear, FFS? Well, I reckon we subconsciously adapt our swearing or lack thereof to the imagined tolerance levels of those around us. Older generations may be less tolerant. And clearly, it’s best not to overdo swearing at work meetings either. Generally, less is more, and situational awareness is good.
However, the next time I stub my toe and swear, I can tell people that swearing increases pain tolerance. And I highly doubt the word I use will be ‘banger’.