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New Year's Resolution Help: NPR Seeks Your Alternatives To Swearing

Jan 1, 2018

Forget losing weight. How about a more achievable New Year's resolution, like cutting back on swearing?

People curse for a variety of reasons, including social: they want to fit in, or seem cool or accessible. "But largely, people curse for emotional reasons, when we experience strong transcient emotions: anger, fear, surprise, elation, arousal," said Benjamin Bergen, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego.

One reason it can be hard for people to stop using swear words has to do with the part of the brain that kicks in during super-charged moments. Bergen says most language is processed in the cerebral cortex, but when you're experiencing a strong emotion, the snail-shaped basal ganglia helps you decide what action to perform. For some people, it's to use taboo words.

But how to stop?

NPR's All Things Considered is looking for your ideas about how to curb this habit. Specifically, we need your substitutions for swear words. Do you have some go-to phrases that are just as satisfying – like "Biscuits!" "Butterball!" and "O, Columbo!"?

Send them to NPRcrowdsource@NPR.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It is a new year, which means it is time for a new you - or at least a better you. ALL THINGS CONSIDERED producer Melissa Gray is here to talk about what she wants to change.

MELISSA GRAY, BYLINE: I have a potty mouth.

MCEVERS: You have a potty mouth?

GRAY: I cursed a lot last year, Kelly. I don't know about you, but I need to rein it in.

MCEVERS: You want to do better. OK. Well, what's your plan? Like, what are you here to tell us about?

GRAY: I know I'm going to need help. But before it actually ask our listeners for help, I want to talk a little bit about why we curse. I mean, have you ever thought about why do we curse?

MCEVERS: Because it feels really good when you're mad.

GRAY: It does. It's a sort of release. And it can be fun. We need to be completely honest about that. There's a fellow I chatted up who studies this stuff. His name is Benjamin Bergen, and he's a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego. And he's written all about profanity in a book he titled "What The F." Great title. Professor Bergen told me people curse for a variety of reasons.

BENJAMIN BERGEN: People curse for social reasons, because they want to fit in or because they want to seem cool or accessible. But largely people curse for emotional reasons. When we experience strong, transient emotions - anger, fear, surprise, elation, arousal - our bodies reach a particular state in which we are primed to react.

GRAY: Primed to react. And for some people like me, that's verbally using some of these, like, you know, no-go words.

MCEVERS: Right. Cursing is about emotions.

GRAY: And it actually goes a little bit deeper than that in your brain. And that's why if you're someone who does routinely drop these verbal bombs it can be really hard to stop. Dr. Bergen told me the way our brains access curse words is different than how we access other words. Normally language is processed in the cerebral cortex. And that's that large - largest region of the brain. But, Kelly, say something like this happens - you're in traffic, someone cuts you off, and you yell something that rhymes with a common waterbird.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

GRAY: That response comes from another part of the brain.

BERGEN: The basal ganglia. That's a snail-shaped structure in there. And its job is to decide what action you should perform when you're experiencing a strong emotion. So it's your fight-or-flight system. One of the things that it allows you to do, that it triggers when you're experiencing strong emotions, is to use words.

GRAY: Blankety (ph) blankety blank words, which is also why some people who've had brain damage or stroke, why they might not be able to talk or use language the way they used to but they can still access curse words.

MCEVERS: OK. So that's really fascinating, but, I mean, you have not had any significant damage to your brain. Everything seems to be pretty intact. So what's the problem?

GRAY: I like how you qualify that significant.

(LAUGHTER)

GRAY: Yes. Yes. So my resolution for 2018 is to tone down my blue streak. I need better substitutions for my dirty words.

MCEVERS: Oh.

GRAY: Yeah. I have a few. I have a few go-tos like God bless America and shut the front door, but I need more. So I want people to send me their go-to no-swears.

MCEVERS: I'm just going to ask you - you know, we're already, like, part of the way into the new year, so, like, how's the project going so far?

GRAY: Oh, God, it's been awful. The spirit has moved me 11 times today.

MCEVERS: Today.

GRAY: Eleven times. And of those 11 times I was able to reel it in twice.

MCEVERS: Wow. OK, so this is not going well.

GRAY: It's not going well.

MCEVERS: So, listeners, reach out. She needs substitutions. How can people get in touch with you to make suggestions?

GRAY: They can do this by old-fashioned email - nprcrowdsource@npr.org, subject line no swear; Twitter - we are @npratc, and you can use the hashtag #noswear. But one thing we do ask - this is public, so please keep it clean. We're pretty smart. Our cerebral cortexes are intact. We can pretty much figure out what words you're substituting for.

MCEVERS: ALL THINGS CONSIDERED producer Melissa Gray, who I'm told earlier today used this substitution - Barnaby Jones - thank you very much.

GRAY: Oh, Columbo. You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.