This is about your mother..

The adipose tissue in your female parent is so abundant that when she dons elevated footwear, she is able to unearth reserves of petroleum. In other words, your mom is so fat that when she wears high heels, she strikes oil.

And uh, not to offend you or anything, but a yo mama joke is almost certain to crack people up... if you’re like, 7. Doesn’t matter what language you speak, chances are, some of the most popular slurs in your language have something to do with mothers. And it might surprise you how old this tradition of the maternal insult really is. According to some estimates, the oldest “yo mama” joke equivalent is 3,500 years old. Of course, unlike now, instead of awkward laughter, people who made those jokes got guillotined in return. 

Shakespeare, it turns out, also was quite the jokester. In the 2nd scene of the 4th act of his play, Titus Andronicus, he writes:

“Demetrius: Villain, what hast thou done?

Aaron: That which thou canst not undo… Villain, I have done thy mother.”

But, really, why? Why does so much cursing revolve around people’s mothers? It’s clearly not limited to English or Latin scripts, or any one culture for that matter. The ability of a maternal cuss to be deeply insulting is almost universal. Where does it get this power from? Well, some say it stems from the fact that filial piety, or the attitude of respect towards your parents, is as universal a value as it gets. And anything that encroaches on that sacred bond is immediately considered “crossing the line.” 

Even in the realm of combat sports, which essentially markets itself based on how well its athletes can insult each other at press conferences, commenting on someone’s mom is still a no-go. Take the recent press conference between Canelo Alvarez and Caleb Plant for example. The fighters quickly went from posing for pictures to swinging at each other, eventually having to be separated. In the aftermath, Canelo, who is usually not the type to get into these things outside the ring, said, “we say nasty things to each other, who cares, but he did something that crossed the line, he talked about my mom.”

Many have theorized what causes such a reaction across cultures. It seems quite sneaky to insult a loved one instead of the person right in front of them, because you can maybe swallow an insult or just laugh it off, but if it’s not even at you, you are almost left powerless. Unless of course, you choose to react physically, at which point, the insult has already done its job. I mean to be fair; they do refer you as the son of a... something. But, wait, even that makes no sense. For one, everyone loves dogs, but if you are the son of a female dog, which is the same exact animal, it’s bad, and yet when you meet a really nice friend, they are your “dawg?” 

Like, what the… Freud? 

Which brings me to one of the more interesting theories that has got to do with the maternal insult. It was by Sigmund Freud and his theory about psychoanalysis. More specifically, it pertains to Freud’s Oedipus Complex, a stage of the psychological development of a child, where the child wishes for the undivided attention of the parent of the opposite sex. 

According to Freud, this subconscious desire remains hidden in the depths of our psyche even as we grow older. It is this desire for “undivided attention” that gets violated when people, usually men, insult each other’s mothers. But isn’t it also so strange that a remark that is considered so outrageously insulting in one domain, can, in an instant, be turned into a more jocular way of addressing each other? That tends to be the case with swear words. 

Context is key. Who and where it is said, and in what tone it is said in can be the difference between a mischievous giggle or a punch in the jaw. Of course, it probably doesn't feel very good to be on the wrong end of a yo mama joke, whether it was by a friend or a foe, but you get the point. And it applies to other, more general, swear words as well. If anything, the tendency to target your slurs at some socially sacred bond is a testament to how dynamic a linguistic device like swear words can be. 

For example, the F-bomb is a noun, pronoun, adjective, adverb, verb, and everything else it can grammatically be all at the same time. It can be used to soothe, enrage, or simply state something. With just slight changes in the tonality of the word, it can mean so many different things. This probably goes against the grain of conventional wisdom regarding swear words in that they’re just considered “lazy vocabulary,” or the “drunk person’s English,” or that people that use a lot of swear words are considered illiterate or less educated. There’s plenty of arguments.

However, research by Timothy Jay, a professor emeritus of Linguistics at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, has shown that contrary to popular belief, people that can swear a lot also tend to have richer vocabularies. Participants were asked to name every non-swear word they could think of using the letters F, A, and S, and then later were asked to do the same but with swear words. It was seen that people who could name a lot of curses were also able to name a lot of other words with those letters in general, suggesting their increased usage of swear words was not motivated by a lack of relevant vocabulary. 

This is also where the now internet-famous idea “people who swear a lot are more intelligent” came from. Unfortunately, the link is not that clear. Having a richer general vocabulary is obviously associated with a better command over language, and that by extension, is associated with higher intelligence generally. But the evidence on that one is certainly not concrete. One thing’s for certain, however. If you curse a lot, it’s not because you’re stupid. Your mom, however, is. 

Back to more general swear words.

So apparently, there is a template for the quintessential swear word in English. It’s 4 letters on average and is a closed-syllable word, meaning it ends with a consonant, not a vowel. “Pee Pee,” as a result, doesn’t qualify as a swear word, and even if it does, it’s not a catchy one. Then there is the property of being sound symbolic. This pertains to words that sound like they mean. Swear words, perhaps by association, often carry an aggressive and harsh sound in congruence with their meanings. Children are more likely to learn these words at a young age, and remember them, which is unfortunate, but might as well explain why swear words are often at the tip of our tongues. The word “swyve” for example, is a 14th century swear. I can say it without bleeping it because nobody really knows what it means. I’ll let you Google the meaning, but one of the reasons why you and I don’t give each other a good “swyve” every once in a while is that it lacks sound symbolism, meaning it doesn’t really sound like a curse word. 

But, the understanding of that is a bit iffy. Do the traditional swear words sound bad because there is something intrinsically unique about their phonetics, or is it simply a case of long-term association?

However, the words which did survive are now a part and parcel of our daily vernaculars. It’s almost odd at how prevalent they are whilst simultaneously being so taboo. Everyone uses them; everyone knows what they mean, and yet, everyone still frowns at you when you use them publicly. Also, nobody tells you which words you’re not supposed to say before you’ve said them, which kinda defeats the purpose, but whatever. It makes you wonder why curses were created in the first place. Well, it turns out, swear words can offer an evolutionary advantage by preventing more physical and potentially more life-threatening altercations between people. 

If you can just flip people off without literally flipping people off, you probably reduce your chances of exchanging blows with that person. It is no wonder then that swearing helps you destress. It might seem counterintuitive considering swearing might be considered hurtful speech in some contexts, but often it is a lesser of the two evils. If indeed swearing was invented as simply a form of release, it would explain why censoring can actually end up making these words more powerful. Think about it, the more censored a word is, the more mischievous it is to swear, and the greater the exclusivity of the word, the greater the shock effect when it finally does get used, and therefore, the greater the feeling of release. 

Perhaps, an associated but not similarly popular reaction is that of increasing pain tolerance. Yes, swear words can increase your pain threshold. An experiment to test this idea was done where participants were told to put their hand in a bucket of freezing water. Some of the participants were allowed to swear, whilst some were not. Both groups were tested to see how long they could sustain keeping their hands submerged. People in the groups that were allowed to swear were able to keep their hands submerged for nearly 50% longer. Scientists hypothesize that swearing initiates the fight-or-flight response in people, and that this is what reduces their sensitivity to pain. It’s the same reason why even the least cussy people almost effortlessly blurt out their favorite profanity when they stub their toe on furniture.

A 2018 study also found that swearing a few times during a workout can make you stronger. Participants exhibited higher grip strength when they were allowed to swear. Then there is perhaps the more well-known aspect of swearing: its use as a gesture of openness. People feel more comfortable with each other when they know they can swear in their presence. The cathartic use of swear words can often be one of the ways in which people wind down. But it also signals to them, “you can be honest with me and I can be honest with you.” 

That was one of the tactics that 2018 U.S. Senate Candidate Beto O’Rourke used to appeal to the masses. Instead of the carefully chosen ties or the fabricated body language to seem more leader-like, Beto’s strategy was simply to swear. Instead of looking like the typical politicians, who are often hard to relate to, Beto wanted to look more like the average Joe and sound like one too. 

American culture has seen an increase in self-expression and individualism, both of which are associated with a higher use of swear words. Books published in the mid 2000s sometimes contained nearly 28 times as many profanities as their counterparts from the 1950s. Novelists and writers, whilst a tad surprised as just how much it has increased, are nonetheless not too taken aback by the trajectory themselves. It is perhaps an accurate reflection of how literature has moved away from being accessible only to the social elites to now being something that is more representative of reality: less polished, less formal, less choreographed, more authentic.

But that’s not the only use that we have for swear words. Turns out, automated call systems in America can recognize swear words. If you swear at them, they immediately redirect you to a person. Operators built this technology in 1970 to recognize when their customers are upset and are therefore most likely to leave for competitors. There is also this assumption that when a person is fuming, it may be because they have an issue that is not easily fixable, warranting the presence of a more qualified person rather than a robot. So next time you call a helpline and they are trying to sell you things you don’t wanna buy, just tell them to “swyve” off. 

If it doesn’t work, well, shi-

- MA, MM