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I grew up in a conservative Christian home, and was taught that we do not 'take God's name in vain'.

Interestingly, among some churches I grew up in, the consensus was that the common usage of God or Jesus as an expletive offered 'proof' that there was 'power in the Name.' Meaning, no one took Satan's name in vain because there was no 'power' in it. (I'm sorry if this is not clear to those who don't have a Christian background)

Now I look back and find this reasoning rather self-serving; and that led me to wonder...what is the real reason people use God/Jesus/etc. as expletives? Was that always a common part of speech? Has it accelerated recently? Do other cultures use the name of their local Deity as handy profanity?

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Jesus, what a question! –  asymptotically Nov 24 '12 at 6:41
Stackexchange unfortunately does not have a PsychologySE. Therefore, I suspect that the "drive" bit of the question would best fit in ChristianitySE. To stay on-topic here, you might want to reword your question to understand how these words came to be used as expletives. –  coleopterist Nov 24 '12 at 7:09
Probably because they're taboo, just as scatological and sexual terms used to be. Satan's name has never been considered holy or sacred, so it's never been possible to take his name in vain. See this. There are many articles about this on the Net. Here's an interesting linguistics article. –  user21497 Nov 24 '12 at 8:06
@coleopterist - it does however have Cognitive Sciences. –  Matt Эллен Nov 24 '12 at 8:54
Not Satan directly, but you get "What the devil!" and "What the hell!". Other languages such as Finnish use Satan names and devil words: saatana, perkele, hitto, hiisi, hitto, hiisi, piru; as well as God: jumala, jumalauta, luoja; and Jesus. –  Hugo Nov 24 '12 at 9:11
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3 Answers

Religion is a taboo subject. That is, we expect it to be referred to only in certain ways and in certain contexts. Breach of that convention results in varying degrees of shock, and it is that potential that gives expressions like ‘Christ!’ and ‘God!’ their power. Other taboo subjects are sex, bodily functions and ethnic groups, and swear words related to them operate in the same way.

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Thank you, that makes perfect sense. –  Ada Nov 27 '12 at 0:19
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One theory is that swearwords in general evoke negative emotions that the listener cannot help but instinctively process. In the specific case of words relating to the supernatural, this means specifically that such words might instinctively invoke, for example, fear associated with God or the supernatural in general. Apparently some MRI studies have shown, for example, that in the perception of swearwords, the amygdalae (generally associated with the processing of emotion) are more highly activated than when processing language generally. Swearwords also apparently exhibit the Stroop effect: if asked to name the colour of a word, it takes people longer to do so if that word is a swearword than if it is an 'everyday' word-- in simple terms, their processing of the task is "interrupted" because they cannot help but interpret the swearword.

Now, how did this association between word and emotion actually come about? It clearly isn't that, say, English speakers consciously decided "let's use 'fuck' as a swearword because that will activate the listener's amygdalae as they are forced to think about rape". As in many cases of language evolution, the process is probably more Darwinian: those words that in practice over time are observed to provoke a response from listeners are those that "stick", while words proven to be ineffective as swearwords fall out of use. So it may be, for example, that "bloody"[*] has all but fallen out of use as a strong swearword in English because in today's society in English-speaking countries, people now generally live peacefully enough not to have a fear of blood. It may also explain why God!, Lord! etc are probably not such strong swearwords (at least in England) as they used to be: it's probably fair to say that society as a whole doesn't have an actual "fear of God" that it once had.

[*] (In its origin, "bloody" as an expletive may not have been directly a reference to blood; but even if that is true, it may have passed through a period when that was how it was interpreted.)

This may explain why-- although there are common themes across languages-- which emotional themes tend to underlie swearwords does appear to differ a little from language to language or society to society with, say, speakers in some Catholic societies having more of a bias towards religious swearwords.

When you next have an hour to spare, I would recommend taking a look at Steven Pinker's Authos@Google talk where he touches on some of these issues. He also gives the example of Canadian French, which has a higher bias towards religiously-oriented swearwords compared to English.

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Thank you very much - this was really interesting and informative and also answers other questions I had about how profanity seems to go through phases...both memetic (omg, wtf, ftw) and also how specific words gain or lose shock value over time. –  Ada Nov 27 '12 at 0:21
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(I'm not sure how "Jesus Christ!" (and all the variations) developed into a common exclamation of surprise, so this answer is just for "God!")

All of the uses (that I'm familiar with) of "God" as an expletive derive from "God, damn it!" It's straightforward cursing: asking God to punish someone/something. "The Devil take it!" is a counter-example to "no one takes Satan's name in vain." It's a less common curse, but not unknown. So I don't see anything self-serving in that origin of "God!" as a swear word.

These days, the real reason people use them as expletives is that they hear other people using them. Just as kids who don't know what sex is learn that "fuck you!" is bad, people who aren't religious are used to "God damn it!" and "Jesus H. Chris!" as swear words.

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+1 for evidencing the counter argument re: the Devil's name. –  5arx Nov 24 '12 at 11:30
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