We’ve all done it. At some point a hammer has missed its mark, a box has landed on a foot or a head has been knocked by an open cabinet or car door. And then, oh then, without thought an obscenity flies out! Maybe just one word or two, but the word(s) are spoken with venom and spite. Though if one is unaccustomed to using coarse language the object of one’s wrath may be merely dammed. Whatever the word(s) we feel better by cursing.
Experiments have shown that test subjects are able to keep their hands in freezing water longer when they repeat a swearword. Scientists believe that swearwords occupy a different part of our brain than does polite language. Most speech is a “higher brain” function while swearwords are stored in the “lower brain” the Limbic system, which is responsible for our emotions and autonomic nervous system. Swearwords may activate endorphins, which in turn interact with the opiate receptors in the brain to reduce our perception of pain. This would be all well and good if we only used swearwords as automatic pain reducers but we do not. Over the centuries we have directed curses, oaths and obscenities to our fellow man, and we are not the better for it. It has become the lazy vocabulary of our culture. When we cannot come up with something clever to say, we resort to ignorant language.
The reason I bring this all up is because I’m reading Melissa Mohr’s book, Holy Sh*t. A brief history of swearing. In it she reminds us that linguistically, a swearword is one that” kidnaps our attention and forces us to consider its unpleasant connotations”. The connotation gives the word its emotional punch. The connotation of f*cking, could mean really, really bad or working hard at something, depending on its use. The word itself is only taboo because of its connotation.
We use swearwords for a variety of reasons but no matter the reason or connotation we want to get across, we are engaging our lower brain when we do so. The idea that we sometimes allow our Limbic system to take over when telling someone off leads to questions. Does the act of telling someone off itself activate our lower brain or is it the language that we use? Do we do a double stoop by not only resorting to course language but also by wanting to? These are the kinds of questions that keep me in the shower longer than I should or reading further into Mohr’s book. I started making some notes because I wanted to know if there was a better way to tell someone off, or describe a horrible person while still using our higher brain? Of course we could just stop saying bad things to and about people, but sometimes there is no better option. Sometimes people need to be told off and described in harsh honesty.
Luckily I came up with an answer, one that allows us to use our higher brain and stops us from using lazy and ignorant language. Of course the answer is Shakespeare! Our Will was a master of insults and barbs. Many of his plays would not work as well without them. Of course he threw in an Elizabethan swearword or two to get his point across, but overall he showed us that a witty turn of a phrase was just as effective. So the next time you are forced to mentally dual with someone, yell at a teammate for a bad play or have the last word, I give you
12 Shakespeare insults.
Each one was picked for how quickly it can be memorized and how seamlessly it fits into today’s language. *Modern spelling is an option.
As you like it
Let’s meet as little as we can
I do desire we may be better strangers
In civility thou seem’st so empty
All’s well that ends well
You show yourself highly fed and lowly taught
Henry VI part 2
That is too much presumption on thy part
Hell is empty and the devils are all here
You freckled whelp hag-born
Look, he is winding up the watch of his wit: by and by it will strike
You are living drollery
I have seen drunkards do more than this in sport
Love’s Labour Lost
Come, come, you talk greasily: your lips grow foul
O! thou monster Ignorance, how deform’d dost thou look