click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

Four-Letter Words

Four-Letter Words

Is there anything wrong with swearing?


Danny finally sank into bed at 2 AM. He was exhausted from a hard day mowing lawns in the merciless sun, dinner and bedtime rituals with his three little ones, topped off with hours in front of a computer doing online courses. Just as he was drifting off into a blissful sleep, he remembered, "I left the cell phone on the counter and need it charged for tomorrow."

Stumbling through the dark house to the kitchen, he slammed his toe into the foot of a chair someone had carelessly left in middle of the hallway. A searing arc of pain shot from his foot to his brain, exploding somewhere above his left eye.

The pain was excruciating, but he remembered the advice of the good doctor. "#%@^!" He began to swear repeatedly, feeling the pain drain away. He got caught up in the cathartic exercise and continued a little bit louder. By now the pain had almost subsided, but suddenly he heard a voice behind him. "Daddy why are you saying bathroom words?"

How was he supposed to explain to his seven-year-old daughter that it was actually medicinal? She probably wouldn't understand the logic advocated by Keele University psychologist Richard Stephens who, after intensive research, said, "I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear." She had no idea that dozens of prestigious newspapers and journals positively bubbled about the brilliance of this landmark study. TIME, the Scientific American, Reuters, Science News, US News and World Report -- the therapeutic benefits of swearing was practically a worldwide consensus.

Swearing out loud enabled them to keep their hands in the freezing water for 40 seconds longer, and experience less pain, fear, and anxiety.

The study involved a group of college students who put their hands in ice water to see how they tolerated the pain. When they were allowed to shout out their favorite swearword, they were able to keep their hands in the freezing water for 40 seconds longer, and reported experiencing less pain, fear, and anxiety than when they did the identical experiment without swearing. Interestingly, women had a more favorable response to swearing than men, which the researchers explained was based on the fact that men curse more than women, reducing some of its curative powers.

Based on this idea, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker said, "That's one of the reasons that I think people shouldn't overuse profanity. It's not because I'm a prude, but because it blunts swearwords of their power when you do need them. You should save them for just the right occasions."

The ice-water study is based on the presupposition that there is nothing morally wrong or harmful with swearing. I'm sure we could do studies to show that people who smash crystal vases against the wall or slap someone across the face feel less pain when putting their hands in ice-water. We don't because we all know they're harmful.

Is there anything wrong with swearing?

In Jewish thought, words are not just words; they are our very essence. When the Torah describes God blowing a neshama, a soul, into man, Onkelos, the Torah’s primary translator, reads, "And He blew into him a speaking spirit." Our speech is our soul, the gift that separates us from the animal. It is through speech that we can express our Godly image inside of us.

Speech can elevate us to the divine, or bring us down to the profane.

But the higher something can take you, the lower it can drag you. Speech can elevate us to the divine, or bring us down to the profane, lower than the animal that never profanes itself. (There's a good reason swearing is called profanity.) When a person mouths swearwords, he is using powerful words, as seen by the pain relieving effects they have, but do they belong with the myriad other things that feel good, but are bad for you? Are they words that elevate us or deprecate us?

Potty words for kids remain potty words for adults. They still have the same dirty connotations, coarse insinuations, and base message. When a person swears, they are lowering themselves through abusing and sullying the greatest gift we have, our neshama, our speech.

In Hebrew the word for mouth is 'peh.' This is almost identically to the word for 'here,' 'poh,' which is spelled the same, but with different vowels. If you want to know where someone is, all you need to do is watch what comes out of his mouth. Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, a great sage living in Jerusalem, points out that the lips are the only part of the body in which the inner skin actually turns outwards; it is through that portal that you can tell what someone's inside looks like.

Anger Management

Secondly, Judaism has a very different approach to dealing with pain or anger. The Talmud tells us, "He who rends his garments in his anger, he who breaks his vessels in his anger, and he who scatters his money in his anger -- regard him as an idol-worshipper" (Shabbos, 105b). The Sages explain that when we act in a negative way in response to anger, we are listening to the destructive pole of our psyche, instead of ignoring it. Each time we listen to it, it gets a bit more powerful, until he can get us to do things we never dreamt of doing, such as idol worship (interestingly, people who swear often say "God damn," which may not be idol-worship but is pretty close to it).

The healthier way to deal with pain and anger is to learn to control ourselves, and learn to soothe ourselves in a way that we would not be embarrassed to do in front of our seven-year-old. Instead of swearing when stubbing a toe, a person can exchange a string of epithets with a repeated declaration of “I’m stronger than that,” and focus on his strength in controlling himself instead of on the pain. Breathing slowly and deeply, and focused thinking/meditation techniques also help one focus away from pain.

A student of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the greatest leaders of 20th century American Jewry, inadvertently slammed the car door on his hand. Reb Moshe didn't utter a sound so that the boy wouldn't realize what he had done, which would have surely mortified and traumatized him.

Somehow, that type of response to pain seems to be much further along the evolutionary line than someone screaming out a stream of four-letter words.

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 23

(23) Adina, June 16, 2011 10:44 PM

Express Gratitude, Don't Swear

If you stub your toe or something else similar, you should say Baruch Hashem--Thank G-d! According to Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer: "The Talmud cites numerous examples of minor discomforts which may serve as Divine retribution. They include: commissioning a tailor to sew a suit and disliking it, asking for a hot drink and being served a cold one, and reaching into one's pocket to take out three coins but coming up with two. The Talmud concludes: If a person goes through forty days without experiencing any pain or slight discomfort he should be concerned, lest he receive all his reward and pleasure in This World and suffering awaits him in the future. Even these apparent trivial discomforts are meaningful. They are indeed God's bittersweet gifts."--A Letter for the Ages

(22) Jules E Beuck, June 16, 2011 5:27 PM

I do not agree

Profanity in and of itself has no power but what we give it. Profane epitaphs are some of the most fun to pronounce due to the hard consonants, K for example, that are associated with them. I consider myself a decent person but I also prefer to use profanity. I do not use it around children as I believe it is their responsibility to learn the words from their friends as I did in my youth and I use them judiciously such as not using them at work because of the negative feelings of others concerning the words. However, I believe there is no harm in using them and it brings me pleasure without damaging anyone else.

(21) Bryan, June 16, 2011 1:38 PM

Mishlei 18:21

Mishlei 18:21 Death and life are in the power of the tongue; and they that indulge it shall eat the fruit thereof.

(20) David, June 16, 2011 10:38 AM

Vulgarity is in the mind of the beholder

I find it fascinating that in the article itself and in all of the comments so far, no one has made the effort to define what a swear word actually is. Most swear words have commonly accepted meanings (though a few are so generic and used in so many ways that they seem to have lost all meaning), but it is not the meaning of the words that we find offensive since there are polite alternatives for all of them. Rather, these words themselves have assumed a connotation that we believe should not be included in civil discourse. Some of these words probably did not possess this connotation at their inception, but they have acquired it over time. Other words are considered offensive in some English speaking countries while they are innocuous in different locales. The obvious conclusion is that “polite” society has arbitrarily defined some words as offensive, and it regards the employers of these words as somehow more vulgar than itself. Once upon a time, the uncouth practitioners of loutish language mostly came from lower socio-economic classes, but today’s egalitarianism and mass media has brought it into contact with us all. Some of us use to foul words to shock, others to express strong emotion, and a few just don’t understand the weight that these words carry. The real offense in using offensive language is the distress it causes others. If this concerns you, mind your mouth. If you wish to cause discomfort to others, consider your motivation.

(19) Moshe, August 27, 2009 12:16 PM

well written...

I for the most part must agree with this article and would in fact add that most of the times that people swear, the words don't even make sense in regards to what is taking place. A part of me wonders whether this is comparable to when a parrot speaks. One might say that HaShem gave parrots the power of speech, but in truth, it's merely a power to say words, not to understand and use them. When a human stoops to the level of not only using profanity, but using it in a way that doesn't even make sense, it is all the easier to understand how that individual is lowering his or herself to an animalistic level. On a related note of understanding words, I must disagree with the article's statement of: "people who swear often say "God damn," which may not be idol-worship but is pretty close to it." I do not understand how this expression even related to idol worship, when the words merely mean that G-d SHOULD damn whatever it is that the speaker is referencing. (Not that this makes it any nicer to say!) The expression is not one (G' forbid) "damning" G-d! In fact, some people find it better to replace this expression with the word "Gosh" which alone connotes something far worse, as its origin is a shortened version of "G' should be in ashes." Words have powerful effects and meanings and it would do us all well to understand what we say, and only speak in gentle, loving, and respectable ways!

See All Comments

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment