"Our paper suggests a further function of swearing -- that the emotional aspect of swearing may be useful to individuals, to moderate their pain response," Stephens said.
Timothy Jay, a psychology professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, said the study furthers the understanding of why swearing has persisted across cultures.
"I have been urging researchers to look at swearing as a tool, to get beyond the construct of swearing as being a moral issue and look at why we do it and what it does for us," said Jay, author of "Why We Curse: A Neuro-Psycho-Social Theory of Speech."
Typically, taboo words arise from sex, excretion, religion, death, illness and social groups, such as racial or ethnic minorities.
Though sex and excretion get the most play in the United States, Stephens said, the Dutch have been reported to use such words as tering (tuberculosis) and kanker (cancer) as swear words, Stephens said.
In other contexts, swearing is sometimes used for humor or self-deprecation.
"Swearing allows you to emote, to express anger, fear, surprise, joy or frustration," Jay said. "It also allows you to get that anger out and express it unambiguously."
Stephen's interest in studying swearing began after he hit his finger with a hammer and swore in response. During labor, his wife also shouted a profanity or two.
"One of the midwives commented that she had heard much worse language in the maternity ward," he said. "This got me thinking about the relationship between pain and swearing."
The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more on pain.
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