The power of words:

Jacob Schor, ND, FABNO

June 29, 2014



The words, which we choose to communicate a thought, in themselves, impart meaning to the idea in ways we are unaware of.


Let us start with an extreme example of word choices and start with the words that we consider profane, the obscenities and curses.


Little scientific research has focused on swear words but, as Tiffany O'Callaghan pointed out in New Scientist   last year, how these words act in our brains may answer some fundamental questions about words and thought [1].  


Swear words are processed differently in the brain than our polite vocabulary.  The ability to swear be preserved even in advanced neurodegenerative disease or after signifiant brain injury, even when aspects of higher cognitive function are lost.  This is because swear words are stored in a different part of the brain from common speech, in the amygdala and basal ganglia.  In evolutionary terms, these areas are the older more primitive parts of the brain.  If you stimulate these areas in a cat, the animal howls.  If you stimulate them in people, they curse.  Cursing is a good way to get attention.


Schrerer and Sagarin reported in 2006 that simply adding the word ‘damn’ one time during the course a speech increased the persuasive effect on the listening audience significantly [2].


Swearing increases our tolerance to pain. In one experiment, Richard Stephens had participants hold their hand in painfully cold ice water while reading words from one of two lists; one list polite descriptive words, the second rather rude exclamations.  The participants could keep their hands in the ice water significantly longer while reading the swear words; use of these words increases pain tolerance.  The theory is that these words trigger our fight or flight response.  Playing violent video games also builds up the capacity to endure pain, stimulating the same primitive areas of the brain as swearing [3].


Swearing in our native language has a stronger effect on physical biomarkers of stress, in particular skin conductance, than if we swear in a learned second-language [4] .  Using stand in phrases, euphemisms, for swear words, takes some of the sting out of the real words; euphemisms trigger similar physical reactions as the real phrases, but the magnitude of the response is much diminished [5]. 



This is important as it disproves the common notion that language is just a ‘mental algebra’ for ideas.  Words are not interchangeable.  Swear words work in ways that polite words do not, even if the meaning is the same.


Charles Darwin had a theory that our earliest vocalizations expressed hostility or lust, the two emotions we still express through profanities.  Perhaps he was right and it was the reaction to a mastodon stepping on somebody’s foot that triggered the first burst of language.


Perhaps describing humor as ‘low brow’ or Neanderthal has its basis in evolutionary neurobiology.  Our language does sink or elevate within the brain depending on our vocabulary.


Profanities are often what are called “exocentric constructions”, in linguistic terms a combination of a noun plus a verb that creates a new term, without one term being an obvious modifier to the other.  One example would the term ‘shithead’, two words that would not necessarily be attached in common usage but joined together create a stronger specific impact.


These exocentric constructions are thought to be ‘linguistic fossils‘ that go far back into the evolutionary past, possibly the products of verbal duels our ancestors competed in, inventing creative curses for each other, an evolutionary step up from the grunts great apes make when attempting to win mating partners [6]. 


In a roundabout way, this brings me to William Shakespeare, this year being the 450th anniversary of his birth.  An article by David Robson suggests that the enduring quality of Shakespeare’s writing is in a way related to these primitive constructions of speech [7] .  Scientists have been using all sorts of sophisticated software to analyze Shakespeare’s writing and word patterns and have come up with an interesting explanation for his lasting popularity.


For a while it was thought that Shakespeare had a larger vocabulary than his peers in the play-writing world.  This turns out not to be true, Shakespeare’s vocabulary was comparable to Marlowe, Middleton and Johnson’s, though I can’t recall reading any of their work. He was about equal with these other writers for coining new words or phrases.


One characteristic of Shakespeare’s writing does stands out.  Shakespeare frequently uses what are called  “function shifts” (FS) in his sentences; he changes the grammatical class of words to fit his own purpose.


“It happens when one part of speech is suddenly transformed into another with a different function but hardly any change of form. It sounds dull but in performance is almost electrically exciting in its sudden simple reach for a word. For example: an adjective is made a verb when in The Winter's Tale heavy thoughts are said to 'thick my blood'. A pronoun is made into a noun when Olivia in Twelfth Night is called 'the cruellest she alive'. ….. can "happy" your friend, "malice" or "foot" your enemy, or "fall" axe on his head.' Richard II is not merely deposed …. he is unkinged.” [8]


Another example is when Iago is convincing Othello of Desdemona's infidelity, he tells him "'tis the spite of hell... to lip a wanton in a secure couch", replacing the verb "kiss" with the noun "lip" while using "wanton", an adjective, as a noun.



Two modern day researchers, Davis and Thierry have looked at this idea closely, watching the brains of subjects on EEGs and functional MRIs while being exposed to Shakespeare’s functional shifts. Shakespeare’s,  “functional shift triggered greater activity in areas of the brain normally associated with emotion and autobiographical memory, as well as in the basal ganglia, an area sparked when bilinguals switch between languages”


“…neuroimaging results showed that sentences featuring FS elicited significant activation beyond regions classically activated by typical language tasks, including the left caudate nucleus, the right inferior frontal gyrus and the right inferior temporal gyrus. These findings show how Shakespeare’s grammatical exploration forces the listener to take a more active role in integrating the meaning of what is said.” This shift in neural activity lingered long after the sentence had finished; Shakespeare often uses functional shift at a scene's turning point [9].  


Thus the words we choose to use can significantly change what parts of the brain are involved in a thought.  Profanities will awaken our primitive brain, the part that lusts, hungers, defecates and fights.  The language of Shakespeare and in particular his functional shifts can draw a wide compass drawing in a wider circle of brain areas, somewhat akin to what happens when we shift the brain into a second language.  Hold that last thought.  Thinking in a second language changes the way we see the world in another surprising way.


Our interpretation of moral issues varies with whether the issues are presented in our native tongue or in a second language according to a recent study.


The researchers used this famous philosophical thought experiment:

“Imagine you are standing on a footbridge over rail tracks. An approaching trolley is about to kill five people farther down the tracks. The only way to stop it is to push a large man off the footbridge and onto the tracks below. This will save the five people but kill the man. (It will not help if you jump; you are not large enough.) Do you push him?”


There is no right answer:  killing an innocent person is wrong, so is letting other people die when you might have saved them. It turns out that people will pick a different answer depending on which language they hear this story in.


 “…when people are presented with the trolley problem in a foreign language, they are more willing to sacrifice one person to save five than when they are presented with the dilemma in their native tongue.” [10]


The study combined the results of two independent research teams. One team recruited native Spanish speakers in Barcelona who were studying English (and vice versa) and randomly assigned them to read this dilemma in either English or Spanish. In their native tongue, only 18 percent said they would push the man, but in a foreign language, almost half (44 percent) would do so.


The second team, found similar results in Chicago, with languages as diverse as Korean, Hebrew, Japanese, English and Spanish. Here too, in a group of over 1,000 participants, moral choice was influenced by whether the language was native or foreign.


Our moral codes may be more flexible than we would have guessed [11].    


“Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher, suggests that there are two types of people: those who order their lives through feelings and those who approach life using sekhel, intellect.” [12] 


Of course we might also say there are two types of people, those who think in their native language and those who think in a second language.  Maimonides wrote his commentaries on the Hebrew Talmud in Aramaic, while living in Spain.  He may have thought in third and fourth languages.


Speaking of second languages, let’s talk about Latin for a moment.  Latin is now pretty much a dead language; the Roman Empire is long gone. Latin was once the ‘lingua franca’ for scientists, but now has been replaced by English. Perhaps communicating science in Latin led to more dispassionate objective thought? Until recently Latin was still the language of the Catholic liturgy.  This brings me toward Quebec, the place where I have been trying to direct this rumination from the start.


Native French speakers in Quebec have an odd and peculiar way of expressing profanity.  Rather than resorting to typical profane words, they use Latin phrases from the Catholic Church’s liturgy.  Even the term for profanities in Quebec French, “sacres”, is peculiar when you think about it. The “sacres” are considered far stronger expressions than standard French phrases that, like profanities the world over, involve sex and excrement.  The sacres originated with the term ‘sacrament’ whose literal translation is just that, sacrament, but in Quebecois is more like saying, ‘goddam it’.  What follows is a list of fairly horrible terms when spoken in French in Quebec, my apologies to the few French Canadians on my mailing list:  baptism, chalice, Calvary, votive candle, ciborium, Sacrament, tabernacle (possibly the worst), and Virgin Mary [13] .



This is really peculiar; one might think that religious terms, sacred terms, if they are localized anywhere in the brain, could not reside in the primitive regions where profanities normally live, but rather, they would circulate in some area of recent development and ‘higher thought’, an idea for which there is actually some published evidence in support [14] .  I can think of no equivalent in our American English.  This would, if anything, be parallel to using lines from our founding documents, say the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as profanities.  It is hard to imagine, “We the People” or “Inalienable Rights” as profanities.


Thus when French Canadians swear, it may be that something unusual occurs in their brains, something akin to Shakespeare’s functional shifts. Might these French Canadians better enlist more of their brains in a wide-ranging interplay of complex and primitive functions while swearing than the rest of us? Feeling less pain, engaging more of their brains, could this be why Canadians seem so interesting and mentally engaged? 

I’ll be dammed if I know the answer. 


The phrase below is one of the most nasty:





1. O'Callaghan T.  Rude awakenings: How swearing made us human. New Scientist. 12-30-2013. issue 2948.




3. Stephens R, Allsop C. Effect of manipulated state aggression on pain tolerance. Psychol Rep. 2012 Aug;111(1):311-21.


4. Harris CL, Aycicegi A, Gleason JB. Taboo words and reprimands elicit greater autonomic reactivity in a first language than in a second language.

Applied Psycholinguistics / Volume 24 / Issue 04 / December 2003, pp 561- DOI:


5. Bowers JS, Pleydell-Pearce CW. Swearing, euphemisms, and linguistic relativity. PLoS One. 2011;6(7):e22341. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0022341. Epub 2011 Jul 20.  Free PMC Article


6. O'Callaghan T.  Rude awakenings: How swearing made us human, New Scientist. issue 2948.


7. David Robson.  Shakespeare: Unleashing a tempest in the brain. New Scientist21 April 2014



Craig H. Shakespeare's Vocabulary: Myth and Reality. Shakespeare Quarterly. Volume 62, Number 1, Spring 2011 pp. 53-74 | 10.1353/shq.2011.0002


9.  Keidela, Corres, Davisb, Gonzalez-Diazb, Martinc, Thierry. How Shakespeare tempests the brain: Neuroimaging insights. Cortex. Volume 49, Issue 4, April 2013, Pages 913–919


10. BOAZ KEYSAR and ALBERT COSTA. Our Moral Tongue: Moral Judgments Depend on What Language We’re Speaking. NY Times June 20, 2014.


11. Costa A, Foucart A, Hayakawa S, Aparici M, Apesteguia J, et al. (2014) Your Morals Depend on Language. PLoS ONE 9(4): e94842. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0094842


12. Joseph Lowin. Hadassah Magazine, June 2014 pg 37.




14.  Harris S, Kaplan JT, Curiel A, Bookheimer SY, Iacoboni M, et al. (2009) The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief. PLoS ONE 4(10): e7272. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007272