(Note from Mark: This post is part of VICE MONTH. Most of my posts deal with positive things like pets and and friendships and love, but many of the ways people pursue happiness are not so neat and clean. This month we’re focusing on some less ‘family-friendly’ approaches to the good life and whether they work or not.)
Our friend Dory (not her real name) is a data scientist, which means that she does complicated work analyzing millions of data points in order to figure out practical things like how to sell more ice to people in Alaska. Before ‘merica elected the Tweeter-in-Chief, Dory’s team worked on a project to analyze gazillions of tweets and figure out just what all that chatter meant (sort of like the US population is doing right now with the President’s tweets). Companies are excited about this kind of data, since Twitter is a direct window, in real time, into the souls of human beings. Granted, it has revealed the utter emptiness of some of these souls, but companies like knowing that too, since those empty souls are hungering to be filled, potentially by purchasing those companies’ products.
In 2008 Google began doing this sort of analysis for a very specific purpose: predicting outbreaks of seasonal flu. Google logically assumed that if lots of people in Plainview, Texas suddenly start searching for “flu symptoms” or “cold vs. flu,” it might be time to start mailing out coupons for Nyquil up there. Their model looked good, and their results were promising, right up until 2013, when they missed so spectacularly that the entire project was shelved and data scientists everywhere cried a cold, sad tear. Just one apiece–they are not emotional types.
Today this type of research continues, and Dory’s team was analyzing some massive collection of tweets, and when the time came to present their findings to the client they realized they had a problem. The data had been condensed into a word cloud, a picture composed of “words used in a particular text or subject, in which the size of each word indicates its frequency or importance.” You can probably guess which website generated this word cloud:
And here is one with the major terms from my recent post on the joy of pets:
The team’s problem was simple: the largest terms in the word cloud, the ones that really stood out in HUGE bold type, were all profanities. Not along the lines of ‘darn it I’m getting a cold’ or ‘aw shucks I feel bad,’ but mostly the words from George Carlin’s 1972 list of “Seven words you can never say on television,” several of which have been superseded by new words you can’t say. Of course today you can say anything you want on television, making the list largely irrelevant, but apparently people are pretty graphic in the language they use on Twitter, leaving Dory with this dilemma: do we throw this mostly obscene world cloud (which is the data our customers paid to see) up on the big screen or not? And they gritted their teeth and they showed the data, and people walking by outside the glass-walled conference room were left to figure out what the ___________ this presentation might possibly be about. Aw shucks. Darn it. Shoot!
Profanity is a strange thing: a list of words that by general mutual agreement are not to be said (sort of like “he who must not be named,” but without all the cool robes and Quidditch). My brother (we’ll call him Gill) lives in Cambodia, where few people speak English and most have clearly not read George Carlin’s list. Much of the English language education there comes from watching American movies, so it’s hardly surprising that words rated PG-13 or R here are often common there. After his initial shock, Gill has had some interesting conversations with the natives about their vocabulary choices, since they had not been notified of the unwritten mutual agreement on the use of these words.
Why do people curse, or cuss, or swear, or drop the f-bomb? Of course some researcher somewhere has asked this question, since it would hardly be my blog if they hadn’t. In this case the work was done in the UK, where I assumed profanity was along the lines of, “Oh poopy on you, old chap,” but apparently the Brits also watch American television and have learned to cuss like American sailors. People curse to efficiently express feelings or emotions; one good solid curse, delivered with gusto, can convey volumes in a single word. But more significantly people use profanity because it creates a physical reaction, not just in the hearer but in the speaker. In one really unpleasant experiment, subjects placed their hands in ice-cold water and kept them there as long as possible. Subjects who were instructed to swear in response to the pain reported less intense discomfort and kept their hands in the water an average of 40 seconds longer than those who said something milder (like “Oh poopy on you, old chap”). For some odd reason, cursing made the pain more bearable, which may help why we tend to let ‘er rip when we smash our thumbs with a hammer.
Launching a string of really good ones can actually reduce physical pain and make you feel better, but like most other treatments that reduce pain and don’t cure the cause, this fix is temporary. The more you use this trick, the less impact it has. In other words, the magic power of these forbidden words is limited, and you can only get so many jolts from them before the battery goes dead and you’re just cussing out of habit, and not for any real benefit. And you may be annoying the people around you.
The most interesting thing about profanity is how it morphs and evolves over time. Our rude potty word “sh*t” was commonly used in Old English medical texts, and the modern crude term for a breast (t*t) was originally a polite term for a young woman, before adopting its new meaning in the early twentieth century and joining George Carlin’s list a few decades later. Further complicating things, today’s public discourse includes terms (one huge one in particular) that are perfectly acceptable for some ethnic groups and utterly forbidden for others. I suspect an alien visiting Earth for the first time (we’ll call him Moby) would struggle to understand (and we would struggle to explain) the complex, unwritten rules that separate profane from non-profane words. We might even find that some of our common words like apple or crayon or funambulist are considered profane on Moby’s planet, and now we would have one heck of a problem (pardon my french).
I try to avoid using words on the ‘naughty list,’ with a fairly high success rate. I do share with my students the most startling course evaluation I ever got, in which one of my young charges admonished me to stop behaving like a “horse’s a**” whenever the mood struck me. This seemed like reasonable advice and I have tried to apply it, again with a fairly high success rate.
This is the part of the post where I wrap this all up and put a neat bow on it and deliver some kind of nice life lesson. All I can tell you today is that words have power, sometimes to help and often to harm. Words are often the outer symptoms of inner conditions and your words provide profound insights into issues you may need to address. If you are going the profanity route very often, it may be a sign of something bigger, since cursing reduces pain, but ignores the underlying ill. And for most of us, these kinds of words may make us feel better in the short run, but are probably a pointless choice in the long run.
And if the ice water is causing you pain, by all means quit cussing about it and take your blanking hand out!
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