Research demonstrates how the use of bad language can alter our behaviour

Swearing provokes a physical stress response, researchers have found … even when it’s an accident
James Naughtie
James Naughtie’s verbal slip on the Today programme shocked Radio 4 listeners Photograph: Martin Argles for the Guardian

Ihave a friend who can’t say “fuck”. She never has been able to and shakes her head helplessly when teased and dared to give it a go. She’s not a prude. But she has such a strong reaction to the word that she cannot bring herself to utter it.

Using the f-word in the first sentence of this article wasn’t done for gratuitous effect. But how did you react to reading it? Would it have been more agreeable to see the euphemism “the f-word” instead? Do some “bad” words make you more uncomfortable than others?

It has been known for a while that people fluent in two languages respond far less strongly to swear words in their mother tongue than in their second language.

But a new study of people’s reactions to a “bad” swear word – fuck, for example – compared a euphemism that they understood to mean the same thing, now suggests our strong emotional reactions to swear words happen as a result of early verbal conditioning, rather than the meaning that is conveyed. This raises the possibility that young children may note their parents’ reactions to taboo words before they understand what the words mean.

All sorts of emotions are associated with the sound of swear words as we are growing up, says Jeff Bowers at the University of Bristol, who carried out the research.

The results of his study, Bowers says, throw some light on a question often debated by linguists and psychologists: do the words you say affect the way you think and perceive the world?

Bowers wired volunteers up to a machine that would assess their stress levels by measuring their sweat. He then asked them to say swear words and their euphemisms aloud.

Even though everyone involved had volunteered for the study and was fully briefed as to what was involved, and therefore presumably not likely to be offended, participants showed higher stress levels when they were asked to swear than when asked to state the common euphemism.

Bowers says the difference in stress levels between swear words and euphemisms shows that we don’t only respond to the meaning of a swear word. The furore in December last year when James Naughtie made an unfortunate slip of the tongue while introducing culture secretary Jeremy Hunt on the Today programme demonstrates his point.

After the slip-up went out live on air at breakfast-time, the BBC was inundated with complaints. Presumably nobody imagined the presenter had intended to use the c-word, but many were still so shocked that they called, wrote and emailed to tell the broadcaster of their dismay. The BBC felt bound to apologise.

“In our view, euphemisms are effective because they replace the trigger – the offending word form – with another word that is similar conceptually,” says Bowers.

A conversation reported in one of John Pilger’s books, Bowers says, gives a good example of how word forms, rather than their meanings, affect how we think and act. At an arms fair, Pilger describes asking a salesman to describe how a cluster grenade works.

“Bending over a glass case, as one does when inspecting something precious, he said, ‘This is wonderful. It is state of the art, unique. What it does is discharge copper dust, very, very fine dust, so that the particles saturate the objective …”’

What was that “objective”? asked Pilger. “Whatever it may be,” replied the salesman. “People?” asked Pilger. “Well, er … If you like” was the salesman’s response.

Pilger observes that salesmen at these events “have the greatest difficulty saying ‘people’ and ‘kill’ and ‘maim'”.

It’s doubtful there is any confusion in the minds of buyers or sellers about the function of weapons, notes Bowers. “Nevertheless, the argument we’d make as a result of our research is that the euphemisms allowed business to be conducted with minimal discomfort.”

If people feel uncomfortable with certain words – it doesn’t have to be swear words; it might be bodily functions or the names for genitalia, or indeed, saying “kill” and “people” at an arms fair – they may go to great lengths to avoid using them, Bowers explains, including not entering into discussion of a particular subject at all.

This, he says, is a perfect example of how what you say – or what you find too excruciating to say – affects the way you think and act.

In demonstrating that taboo words can create a physiological effect, Bowers’s study highlights how two words that mean the same thing can provoke different responses from us, and, he says, in terms of human relationships, how “subtle differences can make all the difference in the world”.

Swearing and Linguistic Relativity is freely accessible at