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The Amazing Science of Bad Language

by Emma Byrne

Pub Date: Jan. 23rd, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-324-00028-0
Publisher: Norton

In defense of swearing.

Written in an engaging and conversational style, BBC journalist Byrne’s first book touches many bases when it comes to her approach to swearing: sociology, history, psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, and more. Her quest is fairly ambitious: “Why we do it, how we do it and what it tells us about ourselves.” Swearing, she posits, is a “complex social signal that is laden with emotional and cultural significance.” Though the author is “not necessarily encouraging people to swear more…I do hope you might give it the respect it fucking deserves.” The book is divided into seven parts covering neuroscience, pain, a special look at Tourette’s syndrome (though she admits that most afflicted with the disease don’t swear), the workplace, primates, gender, and swearing in other languages. Years of medical research have demonstrated that many parts of the brain are involved in swearing, “either collaborating to help you produce swearing or working to suppress it when it isn’t wanted.” As far as the brain is concerned, swearing is a “sophisticated team effort.” Psychological research has definitively found that “swearing is a really important part of dealing with the shitty consequences of pain and illness.” Byrne’s exploration of the workplace is particularly illuminating; apparently, “the team that swears together stays together.” A group of chimpanzees who learned to sign also “learned to swear, as soon as they learned what a taboo was.” In 1673, Richard Allestree argued in The Ladies’ Calling that women who swear undergo a “metamorphosis” that makes them “affectedly masculine.” We’ve certainly come a long way, and current thinking, Byrne notes, argues that to be equal, we need to be equal in the way we express ourselves, dammit!

Although quite profane at times—understandably so—Byrne provides a refreshing, entertaining, instructive examination of a “surprisingly flexible part of a linguistic repertoire.”