Why A Good Old Swear Word Can’t Be Beat

By Ben Hamill - June 04 2020

Why A Good Old Swear Word Can’t Be Beat

Bad words go a long way to making us feel better when in a physically painful situation. Many would argue this to be a truth long known in the sphere of popular opinion, but even so, research now suggests that our feelings on the matter have been right and on the money all along: fake swear words simply aren’t cutting the mustard. Real expletives cannot be beat, we now know (for sure).

Lead researcher Olly Robertson, along with a team of her colleagues at the Swear Lab at the UK’s Keele University, really wanted to understand the science behind the pain-stilling effects of swear words on the human brain, along with whether ‘fake’ expletives have the potential of convincing our brains of the power of substitutes.

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On Sound And Humour

For the purpose of their swear-research, which incidentally is formally published in prominent journal Frontiers in Psychology, Robertson and fellow-researcher Richard Stephens came up with two fake swear words completely of their own construction: ‘fouch’ and ‘twizpipe’ – with both these words obviously ranking on the typical placebo end of the research spectrum.

As for the reasoning behind their choice of non-expletive alternatives, ‘fouch’ is closely connected in expressive sound to the good old real deal thanks to the beloved-familiar ‘FFF-CHH’ sound present at the end of the word, and ‘twizpipe’ picked for the comedic distraction value behind the popular hypothesis of why swearing actually works.

Heads up: neither words proved effective replacements for the ‘real deal’.

A Word Isn’t A Word Isn’t A Word

Robertson and Stephens put their analogies to the test by inviting 92 voluntary participants to fully immerse their hands in ice cold water for as long as what they considered personally tolerable. Ice water is of course as harmless an exercise as swear-inducing exercises go, but particularly painful – hence the efficacy of the medium.

The participants were instructed to repeat (at random) one of four words at the turn of every 3 seconds. The identified words included conventional swear words, the two made-up words, and also a completely neutral word (in this case, the word ‘solid’). The participants were furthermore instructed to all throughout the experience rate their levels of pain perceived, emotion, distraction levels and humour. The researchers also monitored vitals such as heart rates all throughout the experience.

Interestingly enough, albeit unsurprisingly, there appeared to be no difference in terms of an effect on the pain threshold between the neutral word and the two fake swear words. The good old trusted f-word however, proved on average 32% effective at increasing the human pain threshold, along with a 33% increase in physical pain tolerance.

Proof again that not all swears are created equal.

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