The need for insults in languages

All languages have them. All societies use them. Even at the earliest age, insults form an integral part of any language’s vocabulary. All parents hate them, but all parents use them as well (sometimes, quite well).

As a person interested in multiculturalism, one of the first things people ask about, once a level of trust is established, is how to say “x” insult in your language. Most of the time, this is followed by general laughter.

Insults, curse words, bad language, swearing… If you wish to become really fluent in any particular language, off-color words are an important part of the “unspoken” rules which separate an advanced student from true fluency. Some teachers will agree to this, after much looking around and quietly closing the door.

But why? Why insults? Why do they exist? How are they legitimately used?

Insults are as old as human language, if not more. They are ways to express displeasure, vent frustration, challenge opponents, intimidate underlings, underscore approval and to generally put emphasis on otherwise mundane situations. And, it seems, they are also evolutionary tools that allowed our ancestors to better endure pain and to establish social status without resorting to potentially fatal confrontation.

Recent studies performed at the Keele University in Staffordshire, England show ( that, when asked to put their hand in icy water for as long as they could bear, participants in the study were able to withstand the freezing feeling for as much as 3 times longer! A similar, and very funny, study was conducted by the famous Mythbusters in one of their programs (go check them out!). In evolutionary terms, being able to swear your way through a sabertooth tiger attack or a twisted ankle from chasing mammoths might have meant, literally, the difference between life and death.

So, it seems, being able to name the collective family tree of a hapless subject (this works on inanimate objects, too…) will allow you to better handle physical and psychological pain, as anyone who has ever used a nail and hammer can readily attest. But insults, like any other kind of painkiller, do have consequences, both psychological and social.

As mentioned before, insults and swear words are ways to establish the pecking order in many societies, and not just human societies. Wolves and dog packs will decide who’s boss through initial intimidation. If that doesn’t work, real battle ensues, with potentially serious results for the packs in question. Losing a fit member to internal fighting is never a sound survival strategy. Other animal species decide social order and mating rights through intimidation, and for the same reasons as stated above.

But what about humans, with our so-called highly evolved intelligence? Anyone who has ever seen, or been in, a school playground can attest to the fluency that children have with insulting language. It is a way to establish social hierarchies, command attention, and vent anger. As we grow up and develop in society, the use of insults acquire nuance, each one having a very specific connotation, not always derogatory, and usually with a very specific conduct or target in mind.

It is no coincidence, thus, that one of the English words for “insult” is “curse”; that is, to wish evil upon someone else. Physical, psychological and spiritual. And here is where it gets dark and dicy. It seems that philosophers, all the way back to antiquity ( have been pondering the use and the endurance of insults. Our brains are wired to feel empowered by victory, and to be depressed by defeat. Social standing, personal pride and your own good name and reputation have always been precious commodities, and even more so in the digital age, where your only real online bona fide is your reputation. Not so very long ago, insults and slander were legally resolved by duels to the death.

In our current society, this is forbidden, but it still happens behind closed curtains. Vengeance, grudges, intrigues of all sorts… But in less aggressive environments, such as offices, family homes and schools, insults still leave their scars. All sorts of psychological maladies, conditions and traumas can be unleashed by seemingly pedestrian swearing. But if repeated often enough, people will start to believe them, and a change of conduct might ensue, with unpredictable results. Just try and remember how often school shootings, disgruntled employee reactions and conyugal brawls still happen.

To wrap things up, insults are an integral part of society and of any language, but like any other weapon, if you intend to use them, be prepared to receive as well as to dish out, and to face the consequences of your actions, legal and otherwise.

So please always remember to respect your fellow humans. You never know when, and in what circumstances, you will meet again.

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