Notorious pottymouth Adele has cursed in a lot of places, but none have been quite as public as the Grammy Awards. On Sunday night, she exclaimed “I fucked up!” right before she restarted her rendition of George Michael’s “Fastlove.” While there’s no doubt that some of the 24.95 million Americans watching were appalled at her language, recent psychological research suggests that we should rethink our attitudes toward swear words: Cursing, science shows, is a natural outlet for emotions that run high.
In a study published recently in Psycholinguist Research, Keele University psychologist Stephen Richards, Ph.D., argues that the stereotypes about foul-mouthed folks — they’re thought to be crude and generally offensive and have poor vocabularies — don’t tell the full story about people who swear. While these traits may describe some people who curse, they don’t apply to everyone: His study showed that swearing, more generally, is a way for people to deal with overwhelming emotions.
“These psychology studies demonstrate that there is more to swearing than routine offense-causing or a lack of linguistic hygiene,” Richards wrote in an article in The Conversation, referring to the series of studies he has conducted on swearing. “Language is a sophisticated toolkit and swearing is a useful component.”
In his most recent study, he describes what happened to the swearing patterns of his participants after he stressed them out using video games. Hypothesizing that people who are emotionally aroused will have better “swearing fluency” that those who are calm, he had some of his 60 volunteers play a slow-paced, gently dull round of video game golf, and he had others play an aggression-rousing first-person shooter video game. Then he asked them to spout off as many swear words as they could in one minute. It came as no surprise that people with raised “hostility” had fouler mouths than their peaceful counterparts, which led him to conclude that emotional arousal leads to “swearing fluency.” He admits that it is obvious that people swear more when they are very emotional, but he’s the first scientist to quantify this effect. This is important because it means we now have scientific data to back up the claim that our attitudes toward swearing are unnatural and obsolete.
Swearing must be important, Richards wrote in The Conversation, “given its prominence in matters of life and death.” In his previous research, he has found that pilots who are killed in airplane crashes often utter a string of expletives before they die. If swear words are a useful tool for expressing really intense feelings, then it doesn’t make much sense to curtail their use; we don’t look down upon people who scream into a pillow or go for a run when they are emotionally riled up, so why should we judge people like Adele, who curse to mitigate their anxieties?
You can’t blame her; screwing up a George Michael tribute in front of millions of viewers and fearing that the “Grammy curse” of technical difficulties had struck for the second year in a row would cause even the most puritanical linguist to utter an f-bomb. Even though she apologized for cursing, she soon proved Richards’s theory correct again when, overwhelmed with emotion when she beat Beyoncé for the Grammy’s biggest prize, she asked, “What the fuck does she have to do to win album of the year? That’s how I feel.”