“Based on the technology of a classic lie detector test, the high collar positioned with LEDs reflects onto the self for instant biofeedback and acts as a tele-display or external blush for the other.” 

Why we started swearing
by   /  May 28, 2013

“Four-letter words, expletives, obscenities, insults, curses and cusses—there are almost as many euphemisms for offensive language as there are swearwords. But why? How has bad language retained its emotional valence in an increasingly liberal and secular society? Why do people still cringe when someone drops an f-bomb in front of a grandmother, or, worse, a toddler? These questions form the basis for Melissa Mohr’s new book, Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing. Mohr traces the history of English swearing back to its Latinate roots, through the Middle Ages, Reformation and Victorian era in order to explain its modern-day instantiations. And she does so with good reason. Swearwords are now the most commonly used words in the English language—studies by psychologists such as Paul Cameron and Timothy Jay show that the average speaker uses expletives at least as often, if not more so, than pronouns and prepositions. In our language words like fucking, goddamn and bloody are unique in that they have a dual linguistic function. In addition to referring to specific objects and actions, they can also act as emotional intensifiers.

Mohr describes how swearwords “induce greater skin conductance responses than do other words, even emotionally evocative words such as death or cancer. (The skin conductance response indicates the extent of a person’s emotional arousal by measuring the degree to which his or her skin conducts electricity.)” Hearing obscene words is literally electrifying. A recent experiment led by the psychologist Richard Stephens found that swearing is also physically cathartic—people who repeat a swearword can keep their hands immersed in extremely cold water 40 seconds longer than if they say a neutral word. But why? One explanation for the physiological power of swearwords is that they are stored in a different portion of the brain. Obscene words occupy the lower brain, or limbic system, along with automatic speech acts like formalities, counting and song lyrics. This part of the brain is separated from the cerebral cortex, which controls voluntary actions and the kind of “higher” vocabulary that depends on syntactic construction. But although offensive language occupies its own, instinctive part of the human mind, the specific words that become associated with this region are entirely dependent on a given individual’s cultural context.

Holy Shit illuminates an intriguing divide in the history of English swearing by sorting expletives into two camps: “the holy” and “the shit.” Religious swearwords were initially far more offensive than those that refer to bodily functions. In medieval society, the most offensive language was that which violated the Third Commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” This could mean calling upon God to witness an untrue promise, but it also referred to words that invoked the individual parts of God’s body. Phrases like “by the blood of Christ” and “by God’s nails” were believed to physically tear apart the body of Christ in Heaven. Graphic descriptions of mortal bodies, on the other hand, were inoffensive. A Bible from 1370 includes passages like “Ye shall not offer to the Lord any beast whose bollocks are broken” and “the Lord … smote [the people of] Azothe and its coasts in the more secret part of the arses.” One of Mohr’s principle arguments about obscenity is that words can only become hidden away in language when what they refer to is hidden away in reality. In the Middle Ages private space was almost non-existent, and the public nature of bodily functions made it impossible for them to be obscene. Groups of people ate, slept, defecated and copulated openly in large rooms. Even wealthy, highborn individuals, who might be able to afford a separate atrium in which to sleep, would share their quarters and their beds with relatives, handmaidens and servants. Because bodily functions were all public, fucking, shitting and pissing were no more than banal signifiers of the everyday. It wasn’t until the “invention” of privacy in 16th century architecture, and of single-occupancy “privvys” (a name which refers to the unprecedented levels of privacy that could be found within), that bodily functions could become private, and therefore publically offensive.

The transition of obscenity from “the holy” to “the shit” was slow and depended on several factors. The first was the Protestant Reformation, which denied the Catholic correlation between words and God’s spiritual body. This new religious ideology was combined with a period of rapid alteration between Catholic and Protestant monarchs, all of whom forced their subjects to swear new oaths of loyalty to them and to their respective faiths. This constant oath swearing caused taking God’s name in vain to become an increasingly commonplace act. Perhaps more important was the transition from feudalism towards capitalism during the 17th and 18th centuries. As class boundaries became more fluid, the use of “civilising” language became an important signifier of one’s social position. A fundamental indicator of wealth was the ability to avoid the communal living practices of the poor; the privatisation of the physical body was paralleled by a privatisation of the body in language. Mohr argues that this new, polite language was “co-opted by the middle class as a way of differentiating themselves from the lower classes.” Under this construction, the obscenity of bodily functions is essentially a bourgeois invention.

By the Victorian era the body had become so offensive that innocuous words like “leg” were being euphemised as “limb” or “lower extremity.” An English captain describes a visit to America in 1839, where he witnessed the legs of pianos dressed “in modest little trousers, with frills at the bottom of them.” The captain, though, is writing like a coarse sailor—even the word “trouser” was taboo at the time. The Century Cyclopedia of 1889 defines trousers as “an article of dress not to be mentioned in polite circles”; they were normally referred to as “inexpressibles.” The most offensive language in contemporary English is defined by a different set of social taboos. The Victorians’ concern with the body declined in tandem with the visible boundaries between classes; now, discriminatory language is far more shocking than either “the holy” or “the shit.” Though Mohr discusses the recent provenance of many racial slurs, she neglects to mention the concurrent increase in homosexual epithets. Words like “faggot” and “dyke” compete with “nigger” and “paki” as the most offensive words available to the modern English speaker.

Mohr’s book is a masterwork of etymology, but the historical narrative of swearing is not as fascinating as one might expect. Several chapters of the work devolve into long, repetitive lists of words considered obscene in Rome and medieval England. The best portions of Holy Shit are those that combine the history of swearing with other histories, like the relation between oath-swearing and the development of Abrahamic religion, or the relation between obscene words and Freudian psychology. Ultimately, the most illuminating aspect of the book is how Mohr’s description of the physiological power of social taboo can be used to understand the furore that surrounds the cross-cultural obscenities of today—from the fatwahs excited by Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to the mass protests against Lars Vilks’ cartoons of Muhammad. Reconciling a respect for beliefs with freedom of speech is perhaps impossible—what is perceived to be obscene has always been, and will remain, the strongest limitation of language.”

Melissa Mohr / 13/06/12

“It was the last word my grandmother ever said to me. She was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease and didn’t speak at all as I helped her eat her lunch or even when I showed her family photos. I’m not sure she recognized me. When I took her for a walk outside in her wheelchair, though, she found her voice. I wheeled her over a crack in the sidewalk and her chair bumped. Out it came —“Sh-t!” This from a woman who, even when she was feeling particularly frustrated, had rarely gone further than “Nuts!” or “Darn it!” She relapsed into silence for the rest of my visit. In 1866, the French poet Charles Baudelaire was laid low by a stroke. He lost his ability to speak, except for one phrase he repeated so often that the nuns taking care of him threw him out of their hospital: “Cré nom!” — short for sacré nom de Dieu. Today, the English equivalent to this would be the mild goddamn or damn, but in 1866 “Cré nom!” so unforgivably offended the nuns that they could explain Baudelaire’s outbursts only as the result of satanic possession.

Embedded deep within the brains of Baudelaire and my grandmother, remaining even when other language had been stripped away, were swearwords. Baudelaire’s swearing was a violation of religious taboo, taking God’s name in vain. My grandmother’s violated taboos against mentioning certain body parts or bodily excretions and actions. Over the centuries these two spheres of the unsayable — the religious and the sexual/excremental, the Holy and the Sh-t, if you will — have given rise to all the other “four-letter words” with which we swear. A history of swearing is a history of their interaction and interplay. Sometimes the Holy has been the main source of swearwords, sometimes the Sh-t, and sometimes the two fields have joined in what we today would consider unusual combinations — obscene words shouted during religious rituals, for example. In the 21st century, we have an embarrassment of riches, and can choose words from both areas, as demonstrated by one precocious four-year-old at my son’s nursery school, who responded to something his mother had said with “Well, f-ck me, Jesus!”

Holy Sh*t is a history of swearing in English. It begins in a place where public buildings are covered with graffiti (“If you’re reading this, you’re a faggot”); where the most popular entertainers have the foulest mouths; where swearwords graphic enough to offend not very delicate sensibilities are heard on every street corner. This is not New York City. It is Rome, two thousand years ago. We start with ancient Latin, because the Roman idea of obscenitas guided the development of our own concept of obscenity— along with republicanism, the Julian calendar, and numerous literary classics, the Romans gave us a model for our use of obscene words. The Romans had a very different sexual schema than we do, however, which led to some fascinating differences between their obscene words and ours. The Bible, in turn, gave us the Holy, and a model for our oath swearing. Such swearing is very important to God, who demands again and again that believers swear by him and him alone. In the Old Testament, God is fighting a war for supremacy with other Near Eastern gods, and he wields oath swearing as one of his most powerful weapons.

The Middle Ages (a huge span of time, roughly 470–1500) was firmly under the sway of the Holy. Despite using plenty of words that we today would consider to be shocking and offensive, medieval English people were unconcerned about the Sh-t. Oath swearing instead was the most highly charged language — the truly obscene — thought to be able to injure God’s reputation and even assault Christ physically. In the Renaissance (c. 1500–1660), the Holy and the Sh-t were more in balance. The rise of Protestantism and its changing definition of people’s relationship to God, as well as the growing importance of “civility,” created conditions for the development of obscenity, one of the things that proper, polite behaviour is defined against. The 18th and 19th centuries saw the ascendancy of the Sh-t, what we today would recognize as fully developed obscenity. Obscenities possessed perhaps their greatest power to shock and offend during this age of euphemism, when even words such as leg and trousers were deemed too scandalous and vulgar for the public sphere. Today, all bets are off, and both obscenities and oaths are flourishing in public discourse, as any look at television, the Internet, or political debate will demonstrate.

For more than two thousand years, swearing has alternated between the twin poles of oaths and obscenities, between the Holy and the Sh-t. What makes a word a swearword, though? What distinguishes “f-ck” from “bonk” or “sleep with,” “Jesus Christ!” from “Heavens above!”? These questions can be approached from several different angles: physiological, linguistic and historical. Physiologically, swearwords have different effects on people than do other, superficially similar words. They induce greater skin conductance responses than do other words, even emotionally evocative words such as death or cancer. (The skin conductance response indicates the extent of a person’s emotional arousal by measuring the degree to which his or her skin conducts electricity.) Swearwords help us deal with physical pain. In a recent experiment, subjects were able to keep their hands immersed in very cold water longer when they repeated a swearword such as sh-t than when they repeated a neutral word such as shoot. Speaking swearwords increases your heart rate. It is also easier to remember taboo words than non-taboo ones in a word recall test. If you are given a list that includes a mix of obscenities and neutral words, you can bet that the one that stick in your mind will be f-ck, not kiss.

Scientists today believe that swearwords even occupy a different part of our brain. Most speech is a “higher-brain” function, the province of the cerebral cortex, which also controls voluntary actions and rational thought. Swearwords are stored in the “lower brain,” the limbic system, which, broadly, is responsible for emotion, the fight-or-flight response, and the autonomic nervous system, which regulates heart rate and blood pressure. This is why my grandmother and Charles Baudelaire could still come up with “Sh-t!” and “Cré nom!” even though their ability to speak had otherwise been eroded by disease.”

Using skin conductance in judgment and decision making research
by Figner, B., Murphy, R. O.

Electrodermal Activity and Skin Conductance: Terminology and Background
“Different terms have been used in the literature to refer to aspects of electrodermal activity and skin conductance, sometimes interchangeably, and therefore some clarification is in order. In 1967, the Society of Psychophysiological Research (Brown, 1967; see also Boucsein, 1992) published a proposal for a standardized terminology that has been widely accepted. The term electrodermal activity (EDA) was introduced by Johnson and Lubin (1966) and refers most generally to all (passive and active) electrical phenomena in the skin, while skin conductance is one form of EDA. Specifically, the term skin conductance refers to how well the skin conducts electricity when an external direct current of constant voltage is applied. Skin conductance is measured in microsiemens (µS).”

Physiological and Psychological Processes
“Changes in skin conductance are related to the activity of eccrine sweat glands, innervated by sympathetic nerves. Changes in skin conductance reflect secretion of sweat from these glands. As sweat is an electrolyte solution, the more the skin’s sweat ducts and pores are filled with sweat, the more conductive the skin becomes. The sympathetic branch of the ANS controls eccrine sweating, thus skin conductance reflects the arousal of the sympathetic ANS which accompanies various psychological processes. The mechanisms and pathways involved in the central nervous control of eccrine sweating are relatively complex (Boucsein, 1992; Critchley, 2002) and a recent fMRI study suggested that SCL and SCR are related to activity in different brain areas (Nagai et al., 2004).6 While the central origins of the ANS are within the hypothalamus and the brainstem, other parts of the brain such as the amygdala, the hippocampus, the basal ganglia, and the prefrontal cortex, have been found to be involved in the control of eccrine sweating. These “higher” areas are part of the limbic and paralimbic networks, which are crucially involved in affective processes. Thus it is not surprising that skin conductance is often used as an indicator of emotional arousal and other affective processes.

Interestingly, it has been shown that these higher brain areas are not necessary for reflex SCRs to non-emotional stimuli such as deep breaths and orienting stimuli such as a loud noise, but they are necessary for SCRs in response to stimuli that have acquired emotional value through experience, e.g. in classical conditioning (Naqvi & Bechara, 2006; Tranel & Damasio, 1989, 1994). Typically, skin conductance is measured from the volar7 surfaces of the fingers or the palms of the hand. For example, two electrodes are attached to the index and middle finger of the nondominant hand (thus allowing the participants to use their dominant hand to handle a computer mouse, fill out a questionnaire, etc.) and a small constant voltage is applied. The current is imperceptible to the participant. Differences in skin conductivity are revealed by the amount of current that passes between the electrodes.

As an alternative to measurement on the palms of the hands, skin conductance can also be recorded from the soles and inner sides of the feet; this method is called plantar skin conductance, in contrast to palmar skin conductance recorded from the inner surface of the hands. Plantar skin conductance is used, for example, when the participant needs both hands for the experiment or sometimes in fMRI studies when the electrodes or their leads might interfere with the scanner environment. The palms of hands and soles of the feet are best suited for measuring skin conductance as they are easily accessible and also have a high density of eccrine sweat glands. Importantly, eccrine sweating on the volar surfaces is different from other locations, as it has been suggested that sweating in these skin parts is strongly related to mental processes (emotional sweating, e.g., in response to both positive and negative events as well as for anticipated and experienced outcomes; Boucsein, 1992), rather than thermoregulation.”


“Electrodermal Response EDR is actually the medically preferred term for changing of electrical skin resistance due to psychological condition.  The term Galvanic Skin Response or GSR remarkably dates back to about 1900.  The change is caused by the degree to which a person’s sweat glands are active.  Psychological stress tends to make the glands more active and this lowers the skin’s resistance.

You can’t get more simple than the Galvanic Skin Response GSR sensor. It is just a cut 9V LEGO motor wire and some aluminum foil wrapped around your fingers with tape. I was inspired by talks by Mindfest panelists Karen Wilkinson and Mike Petrich who talked about using this type of sensor. I’ve also found out that the Media Lab at MIT has a program called the Affective Computing Research Project that also uses this sensor. It is popularly known as a lie detector or psychogalvanometer, but is also used in Biofeedback conditioning. The theory is that; the more relaxed you are, the dryer your skin will be and so the higher the skin’s electrical resistance. When you are under stress your hand sweats and then the resistance goes down.

Radio Shack sold a Lie Detector Kit that used similar dry electrodes.  The great thing about the instruction manual for this product is that it included 18 physiological and psychological experiments (and are repeated below). All of these experiments could be carried out using the MINDSTORMS version.”

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