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I know that the use of profanity has a number of social and psychological functions like pain relief, a sense of control over helpless situations, intimacy and group bonding through release of social norms, and various physical benefits. Used incorrectly (in the wrong type of situation or to an inappropriate level of vulgarity), it can also have negative impacts (mostly social).

In terms of language itself, though, is there any particular function served by profanity? Or is it just a shortcut to expressing concepts like "this is extra important to me" or "I am angry" or "I perceive this as a comfortable and informal social situation" which could otherwise be expressed without the profanity?

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    It's stating the bleeding obvious to say that swearing serves a purpose in terms of language! Since the purpose of language itself is to communicate, it's clearly a succinct and forceful way of getting across one's feelings! – FumbleFingers Mar 11 '14 at 22:36
  • I don't think you've given much of an argument as to why profanity does not serve a language function. – Mitch Mar 12 '14 at 0:33
  • @mitch - Why would I give an argument as to why profanity doesn't serve a language function? – Eli Mar 12 '14 at 11:56
  • Your title assumes profanity has no language function. I disagree and think the burden of explanation is on you first to substantiate your claim before asking others to support the opposite. This will help people address what purpose profanity may (or may not) serve in terms satisfying to you. Do you care about communicating mental states? Do you care about information transfer? Do you care about social interaction? Tell us what you think language is supposed to serve. – Mitch Mar 12 '14 at 12:09
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    @mitch - My title is a question, it doesn't really assume anything, unless you believe questions always assume the opposite of the content of their phrasing. That's like saying the question "how many species of birds don't have flight?" really means "all species of birds have flight", which is silly. That question is clearly asking what number of bird species don't have flight. Perhaps you should read a little less in between the lines and take a question at face value. Nevertheless, I will rephrase it, just for you. – Eli Mar 12 '14 at 13:50
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To greatly oversimplify: I don't think there's really such a thing as profane language. Only profane usage.

For instance, the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes closes with the famous lines:

You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!

At that time, "God damn you all to hell." was considered language worthy of the censor's red pen. But this was allowed to pass, on the grounds that the usage was not profane: the character was literally asking God to damn people to hell for what they did. Curiously, the censor was more comfortable with an earnest prayer that the Almighty should inflict us all to eternal torment than with a simple, vulgar expression of outrage.

Why do we do it? The best theory I've come across is that we are communicating the intensity of our emotions by shocking the listener with emotionally intense words used out of context.

So, returning to your original question, can we manage without profanity? Of course. But when Dame Judy Dench says, "I've really fucked this up" in the movie Skyfall, that word fuck, coming from the mouth of an otherwise well-spoken character, packs a powerful emotional punch.

  • To add to your best theory, the same would apply to the volume at which someone speaks. Louder = the person is adamant about the message. The same appears to be true of more profanity. Though it can be considered unwarranted (just like yelling), it very much stresses the importance that the listener actually listens to what is being said. "I'm not deaf" is a statement, "I'm not fucking deaf" is a statement that I want you to remember in the future. "I'M NOT DEAF" achieves the same as the profane version, and "I'M NOT FUCKING DEAF" puts even more stress on the message. – Flater Nov 3 '17 at 12:49
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Profanity can serve any of several purposes in communication, and by doing so, it modifies the tone of the communication.

Here are some example of what it can do (a couple of these you already stated):

  • add emphasis
  • shock or throw someone off balance
  • create a distraction
  • show irreverence, contempt or disrespect
  • titillate (excite or arouse agreeably)
  • provoke (excite or arouse to a state of anger or rage)
  • set the tone or "register" of the discourse (to be very informal)
  • encourage uninhibited discourse (if it is not otherwise taken as disrespectful)
  • implicitly or explicitly indicate anger
  • vent or release tension
  • create tension

Here is an article you might find interesting: Cursing is a normal function of human language, experts say.

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Hmmm ... old post, but interesting. Many years ago I came across an article while doing a lit review (sadly, I did not keep it) that extended the proposition that "cuss" words are a form of violence, the function of which is to shock. The author argued that in confrontations that have the potential to descend into physical violence, swearing may serve to diffuse the aggression and minimize the threat. If I recall rightly, the author also discussed the normalization of swear words in common usage. He opined that we are using up our swear words and are not replacing them with anything that has the same aggressive impact.

  • Interesting! (And some more words to meet minimum length) – Eli Sep 11 '17 at 18:14
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I have observed swear words being used by rote, apparently to enable the speaker time to think of the next part of what they're saying, rather like "um" and "er" and "know what I mean"; which you will find interjected most frequently with BE.. These are called Filler Words.

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This is just another example in my opinion of the power of traditions and conformity when it comes to how a society inadvertently allows themselves to be ruled by groupthink. Profanity and its use have always been a bit of a mystery to me. As a child, you’re told that this and other certain words are very bad and never to be said! Why do people say this? Easy, because that is what they were told as children. And so on and so forth generation after generation of passing down a thought or belief in or about something that they have no real understanding of. “This is what you do. This is what you don’t do. Don’t ask me why it’s just the way it is”.

Social conditioning can be a nearly impossible thing to be able to see and move beyond. People generally don’t want to hear something that goes against what has been ingrained into their minds throughout their lives. They reject it or view it as strange or misguided. Which suggests that most people are not really seekers of truth nor hope to find the deeper understanding for why they or others do the things they do. Who can blame them, right? It is so much easier to ignore than to explore.

I’m not an advocate for the use of profanity. To me, the whole concept is rather juvenile. Do we really need to have words that only “adults” can use? What kind of example does that set? Does it help a person in some way feel like they are being heard, taken seriously, or seen as an adult? Having a seven-year-old daughter who is just now being exposed by way of school and her friends to the world of profanity and the whole middle finger absurdity, it will be my pleasure for us to sit down and have deep and meaningful discussions in order for her to learn to think for herself, understand the issues, and to not just follow along with what others are saying or believe.

It truly hurts me to be witness to yet another generation being indoctrinated into a whole slew of misguided and essentially ridiculous rules and traditions that have long since lost their meaning. To a world that values and encourages original thought and the pursuit of truth, transparency, and clear concise communication for the sake of being understood… For me, the use of profanity accomplishes none of these things. Yes, it will get you noticed for a moment on the playground of life, but I ask you, to what useful end does it really serve our long-term prosperity?

  • Perhaps you should visit SE Interpersonal Skills, and ask how a parent should approach the topic of swearing with young children. All the best. – Mari-Lou A Oct 21 '17 at 5:53
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Yes. At times, it shows contempt. Cf.

She's a prostitute = She has sex for money She's a wh--e = She has sex for money, and I don't like it.

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