Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - April 9, 2021

Four-letter words

As Christmas 1944 approached, American forces in Bastogne, Belgium were surrounded. When asked to surrender, commander Anthony McAuliffe answered with one word: "Nuts!" Some stories suggest the German commander was confused by the response. Whether true or not, it would be easy to imagine a much more "salty" refusal message. But McAuliffe was known as a man who didn't swear.

In contrast, Gen. George Patton was noted for his "colorful" language. He once told his troops,"No bastard ever won a war by going out and dying for his country. He won it by making some other dumb bastard die for his country."

Journalists often encounter situations where swearing is involved, and how to deal with those is challenging. Many journalistic style rules are written to convey the most information in the least space, but "expletive deleted" consumes far more room and reduces the impact of the most frequently used four-letter words.

I've always thought swearing was more a guy thing, and mom strongly discouraged sister Gaila and me from engaging in its use. I don't remember Dad swearing much, but husband Art said when Dad was away from us gals, he had his moments. While women haven't closed the equality gap with men, in regard to being practitioners of profanity, they�ve narrowed it.

It's common when a person changes where they live or work to unconsciously begin adapting to any differing language habits. Art mentioned that as a young man, he was startled one day when his dad asked why he had begun swearing so much. Art wasn't aware he had been. But he knew it was the effect of working on the railroad. Using profanity there was so prevalent that commonly-used swear phrases had their own abbreviations so they could be effortlessly inserted into written communications.

This reminded me of "SNAFU" - a 1970s column that appeared in the Kansas State Collegian, the university's student newspaper. Students asked questions and the Collegian attempted to address them. The column title came from military slang: "Situation Normal: All F- - - ed Up."

Swearing isn't something I normally think about, but Art mentioned a recent BBC radio program about scientific research into the subject. I had also read a June 2020 Discover magazine article, "Skip the swear jar." The focus of both was why we swear, even when we are alone. Pondering this a bit, it seems that while using a swear word is a decision that is virtually unconscious, it is not done without a purpose. Friend Dave said he noticed when he wants to emphasize that he�s really serious about something, he sometimes adds, "Damn it!" at the end of his remarks.

I had heard people who are more poorly educated with poorer vocabularies are more likely to resort to swearing. That's wrong. Research shows that greater education and a larger vocabulary just make people more creative cursers.

The Discover article mentioned studies that demonstrate that swearing "fosters camaraderie among peers and is linked with traits like verbal fluency, openness and honesty." But what about the times when we are alone? The article also said "swearing relieves stress" and "dulls sensations of pain." Similar findings from a 2018 study reported in Psychology of Sport and Exercise showed that participants who cursed out loud while gripping a hand vise were able to squeeze harder. Research from Keele University's School of Psychology in the United Kingdom found that participants who repeated a swear word of their choice could submerge their hands in ice-cold water for longer periods of time.

A January 2021 article in the online St. Louis Post-Dispatch also discussed the benefits of cursing. Timothy Jay, professor emeritus of psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, has studied swearing for more than 40 years. "... The benefits of swearing have just emerged in the last two decades, as a result of a lot of research on brain and emotion, along with much better technology to study brain anatomy. ..." Jay said perhaps profanity provides an evolutionary advantage that can protect us from physical harm. "... A dog or a cat will scratch you, bite you when they're scared or angry," he said. "Swearing allows us to express our emotions symbolically without doing it tooth and nail...."

Emma Byrne, the author of "Swearing is Good for You," said swearing appears to be centered in the right side of the brain. She said research on swearing dates back to Victorian times, when physicians discovered that patients who lost their ability to speak could still curse. "... They swore incredibly fluently," she said. "Childhood reprimands, swear words and terms of endearment - words with strong emotional content learned early on tend to be preserved in the brain even when all the rest of our language is lost." I literally heard this first-hand when I worked in a nursing home.

I learned a few choice words in Spanish when I lived in Latin America, and I use them from time to time when the occasion seems to call for it. But I noted that studies also have shown that using cuss words from another language isn't as satisfying as using "culturally-unacceptable" ones from a person�s native language. So only when some minor setback afflicts Art or me are we likely to say "Schei�e," - the German word for what is found in the cow pasture - or its French equivalent "Merde."

Perhaps it is the "feel in the mouth" that produces the desired effect, but "Fick" was found to not cut the mustard.

We certainly don't have to swear to get ahead in life. McAuliffe was promoted again and again and in the post-war era, he became commander of United States Army Europe. According to Capt. Vincent Vicari, his personal aide, "General Mac was the only general I ever knew who did not use profane language. 'Nuts' was part of his normal vocabulary."

The occasional swear word in a fitting situation doesn't bother me and I confess to being a sometimes user. But then, even "Nuts" is a four-letter word!

"Mad" from emojiisland.com

Comments? [email protected].
Other columns from this year may be found at: Current year Index.
Links to previous years are on the home page: Home