Prospero peruses the subject:
Taboo words can survive underlying social change. Church attendance has plummeted over the past few decades in Quebec, but a distinctive clutch of swear-words in the local variety of French are still some of the roughest words in the language: chalice (calisse!) and “host” (hosti), for example. The words remain powerfully charged partly because they are simply learnt as taboo words, and serve a special function divorced from their original context.
Swearing activates a bit of the brain that is used for other kinds of emotional responses like shouting and crying. The reason it is so hard not to swear in front of a child when you stub your toe is that you haven’t consciously processed the words through the same part of the language engine that you would use to explain a maths problem. Studies have even shown that swearing makes physical pain more bearable. …
A last class of words, though not quite as powerful, fill out the picture.
Retarded in America, and spastic in Britain, once respectable medical words, are now unutterable in polite company. Throw in complaints against gay and lame as all-purpose negative adjectives, and the picture is complete. Taboo words have moved from the religious through the sexual and excretory. But in the modern West, the last truly shocking words are those that refer to disadvantaged groups: women, gays, members of racial minorities and those with disabilities. Those liberal newspaper editors who proudly reprinted offensive Muhammad cartoons from Charlie Hebdo out of solidarity with the slain cartoonists would never dream of using the words that slur people from Muslim countries: towelhead, camel jockey, Paki or (take a slow breath) sand nigger. Western taboos now respect neither god nor sex, but they do respect individuals. And this is as it should be.
Except for barbra streisand:
Previous Dish on swearing here and here. Update from a reader:
Prospero didn’t mention Quebec’s finest churchly swear word, Tabarnac (Tabernacle). It has the virtue that it can be drawn out into three long syllables, in the same manner as Muuuu tha fuk. Read all about swearing in the Distinct Society at Wikipedia.