Why swearing becomes so endemic? | Dr Laila Alghalban

August 19, 2021
Dr. Laila Abdel Aal Alghalban

I sometimes take the stairs to my office on the fourth floor; it is the least I can do to be fit as I do not have time to walk. Sometimes, my fitness level fails me and forces me to stop between the flights of stairs, have a look at the scenery outside and go on. I come across lots of things I would miss if I took the elevator; some students smoke , others recklessly sit on the sills of the windows, putting themselves in the harm’s way, and dozens sit on the stairs all the way, dipping their heads into their phone screens, together but lonely. Driven by curiosity, I take a casual look at the screens to know that is hooking them: playing games, taking selfies, filtering photos, etc. However, the shocking thing that rocks me most is swearing, especially the abusive kinds by both sexes and for trivial or unjustifiable reasons. You hear swear words when males are joking or girls racing up or down the stairs. More shockingly, the name-called students do not find that abusive at all. I once stopped one of them and unbelievingly asked “This is bad. They are crossing the line, aren’t you hurt?” “Absolutely not, she’s kidding,” the young lady replied, shrugging her shoulders and looking at me as if I were an alien or a weird, nosy language policewoman.

A couple of weeks ago, one of my students told me that young women who swear much are storming the social media sites and it became a trend. I heard the same complaints so many times from my kids. And before I jump to a conclusion that it is the teenagers and millennials who take the lead and use filthy language more, and before directing fire against them, my husband told me that he has been observing that even middle aged people are using bad language when they argue on a particular topic on social media sites as well. Why does swearing become so epidemic and arouse deep concerns over the future impact of that trend on language, human relations and social values?

Everyone swears

Swearing is emotionally loaded language that is used intentionally to get people’s attention to your message and the need to be taken seriously by addressees. It is not new. Swearing is so common in many places and among certain social segments. A few years ago, people were not that intimidated by swear words because they were not as epidemic as such. Unfortunately, what we see or listen to promotes this kind of filthy language. If you watch any movie, including, sadly, Egyptian movies and the supposedly family-friendly ones, you get so upset by the high frequency of swear words. People become uninhibited. Some people really believe that cursing is okay, especially young people. They believe that it is a worldwide phenomenon. “Just be yourself,” they argue. “It is natural.” Some feel that it’s cool to swear. Teenagers are crazy about using such “glamorous” forms as a sort of revolutionary, anti-establishment action and in search for self realization. In fact, the tireless search for more glamorous, en vogue words to replace the worn out ones never stops.

What a paradox!

We live in a contradictory world. The majority of people who stand for freedom of speech are at the same time against bullying, which does not make any sense. Cussing may not be directed to a specific person, but in the long run, it may lead to bullying. It would be a habit.

A very powerful platform

Social media has been a very powerful platform for such speech to prevail. Things are getting worse. Every taboo or convention or tradition is being subjected to be broken. Parenting is in crisis. Parents no longer have the upper hand to filter things to their kids. The internet gave kids an unprecedented degree of self-determination. They embrace the weird, including excessive swearing. In the past, a sharp glance from parents or teachers communicates dozens of messages which we all understood instantly. That does not work anymore.

Breaking taboos

Likewise, the rise of hippie culture, feminist movements, and anti-establishment values boosted swearing. Young women tend to act like men in breaking the taboos in pursuit of a myth called “gender equality”. They want to decide for themselves what is appropriate and acceptable. It is not because that they are in love with swearing, but because they can do it. Swearing, they would believe, reflects their characters and emancipates them. One can also notice that those who curse are not even angry; it is just their everyday talk. Definitely, the world is heading steadily to break the taboos violently.

Gaming and swearing

A lot of gaming obsessives also use swear words to feed their passion for gaming. Cussing becomes an integral part of the gaming culture. Studies show that obsessives who spend long hours playing video games are socially awkward at an extreme level, turning away from real-life relationships.

What does science say?

Some studies find that people who swear more are thought to be more intelligent, more fluent and more honest. People who have verbal fluency have also swearing fluency. Others suggest that swearing occurs at a particular area in the brain that is different from the area where general speech production takes place. This is why when people lose verbal ability because of ageing or injury, their ability to swear remains intact to a great extent. Swearing also helps body vent frustrations and release pain-killing substances naturally, relieving pressure and maintaining mental health. But think about their impact on others and on undermining our ability for self control.

The outcry over the increasing profanity is giving many language guardians a very hard time. They call for severe punishment to curb swearing in public places, in workplaces, on the internet and even at homes. The question is: would it work?

Dr Laila Abdel Aal Alghalban, Professor of linguisticsFaculty of Arts, Kafrelsheikh University

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