The power of swearing: What we know and what we don’t

Karyn Stapleton, Kristy Beers Fägersten, Richard Stephens, Catherine Loveday

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Swearing produces effects that are not observed with other forms of language use. Thus, swearing is powerful. It generates a range of distinctive outcomes: physiological, cognitive, emotional, pain-relieving, interactional and rhetorical. However, we know that the power of swearing is not intrinsic to the words themselves. Hence, our starting question is: How does swearing get its power? In this Overview Paper, our aim is threefold. (1) We present an interdisciplinary analysis of the power of swearing (‘what we know’), drawing on insights from cognitive studies, pragmatics, communication, neuropsychology, and biophysiology. We identify specific effects of swearing, including, inter alia: emotional force and arousal; increased attention and memory; heightened autonomic activity, such as heart rate and skin conductance; hypoalgesia (pain relief); increased strength and stamina; and a range of distinctive interpersonal, relational and rhetorical outcomes. (2) We explore existing (possible) explanations for the power of swearing, including, in particular, the hypothesis that aversive classical conditioning takes place via childhood punishments for swearing. (3) We identify and explore a series of questions and issues that remain unanswered by current research/theorising (‘what we don’t know’), including the lack of direct empirical evidence for aversive classical conditioning; and we offer directions for future research.
Original languageEnglish
Article number103406
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
Early online date19 Aug 2022
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 31 Oct 2022


  • Swearing
  • Power
  • Cognition
  • Emotion
  • Pragmatics
  • Hypoalgesia


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