Why Curse Words Sound the Way They Do
Not all sounds are equally suitable for profanity
A swear word is like a linguistic punch in the nose. Virtually every language and culture has them—and virtually every language and culture formally disapproves of them. But that does not stop them from being used widely, loudly and lustily.
What gives a swear word its power is partly its meaning—typically referring coarsely to bodily parts and functions—and partly its sound. In English, for example, studies have shown that swear words contain a higher ratio of so-called plosive sounds—including P, T and K. Profane English monosyllables are especially likely to end in a plosive rather than begin with one. In German, profanity is also heavy on plosives, as well as on short vowel sounds.
What’s been less well explored is which sounds do not wind up in curses—which ones soften the sound of a word so that it can’t pack the angry, cathartic power that common curse words do. Now, a new study in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review has taken on that question and concluded that if you want to clean up the language, the best way is to lean on words that contain what are known as approximants—sounds that include the letters I, L, R, W and Y, formed by passing air between the lips and the tongue, which are not touching when the sound is pronounced. Across multiple languages, the new paper showed, words that contain approximants are broadly judged less profane than words that contain other, more aggressive sounds.
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