About this book
Swearing Is Good For You
The Amazing Science of Bad Language
Did you know that chimpanzees can swear? Or that we do most of our swearing in our first language? Have you ever noticed that swearing is an excellent painkiller?
In delightfully fun and accessible language, backed by riveting historical case studies and the latest cutting-edge research, Dr. Emma Byrne explores the science behind swearing and why bad language might actually be good for us. Swearing, it turns out, is socially and emotionally essential. Not only has some form of swearing been around since the earliest humans began to communicate, but it has been shown to reduce physical pain, prevent violence, help stroke victims recover their language, and help people work together as a team. Swearing Is Good For You is a fascinating and fun look at the new science of bad language.
[From the Introduction]
When I was about nine years old, I was smacked for calling my little brother a ‘twat.’ I had no idea what a twat was – I thought it was just a silly way of saying ‘twit’ – but that smack taught me that some words are more powerful than others and that I had to be careful how I used them.
But as you’ve no doubt gathered, that experience didn’t exactly cure me of swearing. In fact it probably went some way towards piquing my fascination with profanity. Since then I’ve had a certain pride in my knack for colourful and well-timed swearing: being a woman in a male-dominated field, I rely on it to camouflage myself as one of the guys. Calling some equipment a piece of shit is often a necessary rite of passage when I join a new team.
So when I discovered that other scientists have been taking swearing seriously for a long time – and that I’m not the only person who finds judicious profanity useful – I was fucking delighted! I first began to realise there was more to swearing than a bit of banter or blasphemy when I happened to read a study that involved 67 volunteers, a bucket of ice water, a swear word and a stopwatch. I was working in a neuroscience lab at the time and that study changed the course of my research. It set me on a quest to study swearing: why we do it, how we do it, and what it tells us about ourselves.
For example, I’m definitely not the only person who uses swearing as a way of fitting in at work. Research shows that swearing can help build teams in the work place. From the factory floor to the operating theatre, scientists have shown that teams who share the same lexicon of swearing tend to work more effectively together, feel closer, and be more productive than those that don’t. These same studies show that managing stress in the same way that we manage pain – with a fucking good swear – is more effective than any number of team building exercises.
Swearing has also helped to develop the field of neuroscience. By providing us with a useful emotional barometer, swearing has been used as a research tool for over 150 years. It has helped us to discover some fascinating things about the structure of the human brain, such as its division into left and right hemispheres, and the role of cerebral structures like the amygdala in the regulation of emotions.
Swearing has taught us a great deal about our minds, too. We know that people who learn a second language often find it less stressful to swear in their adopted tongue, which gives us an idea of the childhood developmental stages at which we learn emotions and taboos. Swearing also makes the heart beat faster, and primes us to think aggressive thoughts while, paradoxically, making us less likely to be physically violent.
And swearing is a surprisingly flexible part of our linguistic repertoire. It re-invents itself from generation to generation as taboos shift. Profanity has even become part of the way we express positive feelings – we know that football fans use ‘fuck’ just as frequently when they’re happy as when they are angry or frustrated.
That last finding is one of my own. With colleagues at City University, London, I’ve studied thousands of football fans and their bad language during big games. It’s no great surprise that football fans swear, and that they are particularly fond of ‘fuck’ and ‘shit.’ But we noticed something interesting about the ratio between these two swearwords. The ‘fuck-shit’ ratio is a reliable indicator of which team has scored because, it turns out that ‘shit’ is almost universally negative while ‘fuck’ can be a sign of something good or bad. Swearing amongst football fans also isn’t anywhere near as aggressive as you might think; fans on Twitter almost never swear about their opponents and reserve their outbursts for players on their own team.
Swearing is one of those things that comes so naturally, and seems so frivolous, that you might be surprised by the number of scientists who are studying it. But neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists and historians have long taken an interest in bad language, and for good reason. Although swearing might seem frivolous it teaches us a lot about how our brains, our minds and even our societies work.
This book won’t just look at swearing in isolation. One of the things that makes swearing so fucking amazing is the sheer breadth of connections it has with our lives. Throughout this book I’ll cover many different topics, some of which may seem like digressions. There are plenty of pages that contain no profanity whatsoever but, from the indirectness of Japanese speech patterns to the unintended consequences of potty training chimpanzees, everything relates back to the way that we use bad language.
Is this book simply an attempt to justify rudeness and aggression? Not at all. I certainly wouldn’t want profanities to become commonplace: swearing needs to maintain its emotional impact in order to work. We only need to look at the way that swearing has changed over the last 100 years to see that, as some swearwords become mild and ineffectual through over-use or shifting cultural values, we reach for other taboos to fill the gap. Where blasphemy was once the true obscenity, the modern unsayables include racist and sexist terms as swearwords. Depending on your point of view this is either a lamentable shift towards political correctness or timely recognition that bigotry is ugly and damaging.
About the Author
Dr. Emma Byrne is a research scientist at Queen Mary, University of London. She has a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence and an MRes in Visualization, Imaging, and Virtual Environments. Her research has been published in Science and The BMJ, and has been covered by the BBC, the Daily Mail, and the Scottish Daily Record. She has also written popular science articles for Forbes and the Financial Times. Dr. Byrne appears regularly on Sky News and the BBC as an expert on swearing and artificial intelligence. Swearing Is Good For You is her first book.
Awards and Praise
“A good book about bad language by a trash-talking woman? Sign me up! Swearing Is Good for You makes science feel downright celebratory.” — Mary Norris, bestselling author of Between You & Me
“Written in an engaging and conversational style . . . Byrne provides a refreshing, entertaining, instructive examination of a ‘surprisingly flexible part of a linguistic repertoire.’” — Kirkus
“[Swearing] deserves a closer, clinical look. And Emma Byrne, a scientist and a journalist who has done research in the field, is well qualified to be our guide.” — Toronto Star
“Lively . . . In exploring the universe of swearing, [Byrne] has lined up some nifty stories.” — Vancouver Sun