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As a species, humanity continues to howl into the void of the collective human condition, one in which the likelihood of civilization’s collapse into barbarity seems to be increasing with a rapidity that even Sean Spicer can’t deny (and he knows a thing or two about the future). When raging against the dying of the light, who doesn’t appreciate throwing a good “fuck” or “shit” into the elocutionary mix? We all have our own pet swears, the words or phrases we use when trying to give voice to a thought that requires that extra exclamation of intensity. But most of the time, we don‘t give swears a second thought. They tumble out in the heat of the moment, or as a means of spicing up opinions without necessarily deepening our point or conveying more information. Or so we think—as a couple of new books argue, curses have more going on than just your goddamned need to swear.

The New York Review Of Books published a piece this week that looks at What The F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, And Ourselves by Benjamin K. Bergen and In Praise Of Profanity by Michael Adams. The books both argue that profanity plays a valuable role in discourse, and not just because they give us ways of reinforcing just how much we fucking hated the new Steven Seagal movie. Neurologists have discovered that swears words are likely “encoded in the brain separately from most other language,” NYRB writer Joan Acocella notes. The words emerge from the primitive limbic system, which controls emotions, which helps to account for their potency in language. Most of us savor the hard consonants that end “fuck” or “shit,” but that satisfaction isn’t just mental—it’s physical, too, as evidenced by studies that show how swearing helps you endure pain.

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Additionally, it helps serve as a bulwark against that very existential void that began this article. As Adams says, in the very extremity of swearing, “One has found the end of language and can go no further. Profanity is no parochial gesture, then. It strikes a complaint against the human condition.” Not only that, but it helps stave off more serious emotional responses, such as violence.

Different cultures employ curses in a variety of ways, as Bergen uncovers in his research. Perhaps most noteworthy of all? Japan doesn’t really have swear words. Acocella notes that “Japanese baseball star Ichiro Suzuki told The Wall Street Journal that one of the things he liked best about playing ball in the United States was swearing, which he learned to do in English and Spanish.” Truly, America’s pastime isn’t baseball, but swearing up a motherfucking storm. And while both authors seem to revel in the silliness of treating swearing this seriously, they also go off on a few unnecessary or even incorrect tangents, such as Bergen belaboring the time the pope accidentally swore, or worse, trying to make the case that ethnic slurs are no different than religious, sexual, or scatological ones. But even then, it’s an illuminating read, and makes the case for swears as a salutary aspect of our lexicon. (Especially “cunt,” which all three of them—Adams, Bergen, and Acocella—seem to find among the best of all possible swears.)

What isn’t discussed, however is the paradoxical status of swearing. If these writers want to legitimize curse words as an accepted form of discourse, that very legitimation would likely sap the terms of their power. It’s precisely because these words and phrases are taboo—they transgress the boundaries of what’s considered “polite” manners—that lends them that primal encoding and makes them such powerful tools. In other words, it’s for the best to have lines of civilized exchange that curses violate. That shit is what makes it work.

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