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Member Research and Reports

Temple: Research into What Makes a Swear effective Could Lead to Advances in Treating Brain Injury

The way we might impulsively blurt out a profanity, in response to anger or surprise or hitting a thumb with a hammer, suggests curse words might have a special place in our brains, accessed a little bit differently than ordinary language.

The study of taboo words has been a little bit taboo itself. But there is legitimate academic and health rationale for studying profane language, says associate professor Dr. Jamie Reilly, who directs the Memory, Concepts and Cognition Lab at Temple University College of Public Health.

“I’ve seen lots of patients clinically who curse after they’ve had brain injuries,” Reilly says. “It just kind of comes out, and they really don’t want it to come out. Often they’ll say something harsh and then start crying and apologizing. There’s no treatment for it.”

So Dr. Reilly and his team have been conducting serious research on explicit language.

With their newly published paper “Building the perfect curse word: A psycholinguistic investigation of the form and meaning of taboo words” in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, Dr. Reilly’s team has produced an R-rated report containing language too explicit to be spoken on network television, at least without frequent bleeps. They also have pioneered research in the emergent phenomenon of compound swear words, which creatively connect time-tested profanities with inoffensive words to create novel­ and sometimes amusing expletives.

Their goal is to better understand how our minds process bad words, as a step toward helping people control unwanted behavior. There’s much that researchers still don’t know.

Read more at the College of Public Health.

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