Swearing: A biopsychosocial perspective

A.J.J.M. Vingerhoets, L. Bylsma, C. de Vlam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

65 Citations (Scopus)
652 Downloads (Pure)


Swearing, also known as cursing, can be best described as a form of linguistic activity utilizing taboo words to convey the expression of strong emotions. Although swearing and cursing are frequently occurring behaviors, the actual functions of swearing remain largely unknown. Since swearing typically includes taboo words, these words can be more powerful than non-swear words. Therefore, people who swear are often judged negatively, because the uttered swearwords can shock and disturb others, though the comments of others are strongly dependent on contextual factors. In this review, we provide an insight into the current state of the literature with respect to the interpersonal functions of swearing. In addition, we briefly discuss neurological, psychosocial and contextual factors that may contribute to person’s swearing behavior. Swearing is hypothesized to produce a catharsis-effect, which results in a relief of stress or pain. Swearing also influences the perceived credibility, intensity, and persuasiveness of the swearer. Additionally, swearing can have a variety of interpersonal consequences, including promoting group bonding and solidarity, inhibiting aggression, eliciting humor, and causing emotional pain to others. This paper further presents a hypothetical model of swearing that draws from basic emotion research in an attempt to provide a scaffolding for future research.
Keywords: swearing; cursing; taboo; emotion; emotional expression; catharsis; interpersonal context
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)287-304
JournalPsychological Topics
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2013


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