How can certain words be so inflammatory?

What, in evolution, was the benefit to humans to make certain words in languages trigger instinctively hostile reactions?

In English, for example, the f-word seems to automatically trigger an emotion if used in a certain manner. For example, while I use it all the time with certain friends, I’m careful not to use it around people I don’t know, or older people, or even people whom I’ve never heard say it (for example, I have a personal rule that if someone I have recently met hasn’t used it, I won’t either. I’ll only use it if they use it first.)

The other day I was watching a program about a US Navy veteran who had gone back to Guam, or one of those atolls which saw epic battles during WWII. He must have been in his 80s. He was talking about the battle and suddenly he used the f-word, very casually, and I was immediately offended. How could such a respected, honorable figure use the f-word?

Why was I offended? It’s just a word. What neurological mechanism prompted such a response, and again, why? What possible advantage can there be for humans to react so strongly to the mere hearing of a word? I would imagine this goes for all people and all languages.

Well, if the reaction only appears in certain contexts, then it’s not the word that is triggering it, it’s the cultural context. There is nothing “automatic” about it.

In evolutionary terms, words associated with sex, excretion, and other bodily functions provoke an emotional reaction because they trigger the emotion of disgust.

I wonder if cases of politically charged speech are a misplaced ‘fight or flight’ response. Political speech often characterizes opposing views in fear inducing terms.

Do you seriously believe this has any fucking thing to do with evolution? I mean, really. :rolleyes:

[Moderator Note]

panache45, I don’t see any reason for this level of hostility. Let’s dial it back. (Maybe you’re trying to make a point by using “fucking” here, but including the rolleyes kind of negates it.)

General Questions Moderator

I don’t know how much you can really chalk it up to evolution unless you want to make it a very general kind of idea. A big brain is good for all kinds things, and so is language. Pair the two up, and you’re likely to get all kinds of outcomes. Some may be directly related to survival and some may not.

In this case, I’d chalk it up to the pink elephant phenomena. In other words, if I say “Don’t think of pink elephants,” it’s too late - you’re already thinking about pink elephants. You can’t NOT think of them. Pink elephants are emotionally neutral for most people so you’re not going to be offended or afraid. But as Colibri points out, most swear words are designed to produce a disgust reaction. At the very least the reaction could be “If nice people don’t say fuck, then I’m clearly dealing with a not-nice person” and you can see how that would have its own emotional response as well.

Cursing is interesting as far as evolutionary biology is concerned. I don’t know about the role of the evocation of hostility, but the it has been demonstrated that in all languages cursing lessens the subjective experience of pain - and it seems clear that this may be a selected-for trait.

This quality is connected to the category of curse words - you can’t derive similar benefit from muttering “Teapot! Teapot!” in response to pain stimuli.

I was trying to give an example of the OP. Yes, shouldn’t have added the rolleyes.

Actually I should have put the word in brackets. Sorry.

However, some people get a benefit by saying “Sugar!” when “sugar” is not a curse word in English. But “sugar” has the first phoneme as “shit”, so just a single phoneme can give you the benefit of a curse word.

The reactions are not instinctive. There’s nothing biological or evolutionary about the sound of the word “shit” that provokes a different reaction from “ship”.

Profanity usually combines two things: short words, typically single syllables; and meanings that are considered inappropriate for polite company (which is of course a cultural thing) - bodily functions, blasphemy. Most English profanity has its roots in Anglo-Saxon and Norse words, which tend to be considered cruder than the more polite terms that are typically Latin or French in origin.

There’s a similar phenomenon with words for animals and food: compare sheep, cow, pig (from Anglo-Saxon and Norse), with mutton, beef, pork (from French). You tend to use the fancier French words for the bits you’re going to put on the dinner table and eat.

I remember hearing that swearwords are stored in their own compartnment of the brain, based on stroke survivors who have retained the ability to swear when other language is lost. It would be nice if someone who knows more about neurology could chime in.

Ok, then. I thought you might have been doing that, but it wasn’t entirely clear.