The science of bad language

I’d hazard that most of us are pretty familiar with swearing, right down to muttering “shirt” when accidentally tearing a page of reviewing notes (to avoid being told off, I’ve censored this review’s profanity in a similar way to the television programme The Good Place). As much a compulsive instinct to some as a carefully considered insult to others, swears might not seem like the most sophisticated form of communication – after all, there’s a reason so many of us tone it down to a “gosh” when visiting Gran – but Dr Byrne’s research and writing seeks to turn that assumption on its head. Taking in historical context, national attitudes and our primate ancestors, this guide to employing your ‘potty mouth’ weaves multiple themes and ideas into a commute-friendly format.

The emphasis in Swearing is Good for You isn’t on increasing your cursing frequency but instead on the impact of swearing across several environments. Byrne debunks a vision of the polished and polite past and re-educates her reader on the benefit of profanity in the workplace, as well as in moments of pain and its use in closing a gender gap.

Byrne’s writing comes from a scientific background, but with several personable and witty asides we’re given a candid insight into a series of social experiments. She offers us two windows to examine swearing (and by extension, communication as a whole) from the scientific and social perspectives simultaneously.

For instance, the impact of several ‘ice-water’ experiments to test the effect of cursing on the pain threshold is described in the book. We’re given the practical foundation for such an experiment, but it’s peppered with Byrne’s perspective as she highlights how bloody lucky we are as readers not to have been chosen to take part in this scientific investigation.

The quiet role that gendered swearing plays in the book intrigues the reader without being fully analysed

In terms of a feminist reading, Byrne touches occasionally on the topic of women swearing in public. There’s an noticeable lack of in-depth research on this subject, but the contrast between Byrne and one of her interview subjects, an anti-swearing advocate, demonstrates Byrne’s characteristically tongue-in-cheek approach to sociology and biology.

That said, the quiet role that gendered swearing plays in the book intrigues the reader without being fully analysed. Byrne herself admits that when she began swearing in the workplace it was initially to integrate as “one of the guys”. It’s an interesting and relatable example of gendered behaviour, especially considering Byrne’s background in the field of science (historically seen to be a male-dominated sphere), and yet this possibility of finer discussion on the perceived gender divide with swearing is never fully explored in the text.

It seems the question of if and if so, how, swearing is gendered is bigger than anything Byrne can answer within a chapter. During a segment in Chapter 6 (‘Gender and Language’) titled ‘Why Do Women Swear?’, Byrne asks the question: “Is there really a difference in the reasons why men and women swear?” Yet a lot of the speculated answers (speculated as there has not been much gendered research around the subject yet) return to the idea of women imitating men. It feels like an argument that, while initially plausible, fails to establish swearing outside of a male territory.

A major example of women ruling the roost when it comes to swearing appears in Chapter 4 (‘Disciplinary Offence: Swearing in the Workplace’) which is concerned with domination in a workplace where case study subject Ginette is lauded equally for her bolshy language and her multilingual approach to a diverse staff. Although Ginette’s swearing is never described as masculine, it’s noteworthy that her non-swearing nurturing side is seen as “more motherly” (this taken from an interview rather than Byrne’s own outlook).

It’s the fine line between social commentary and scientific exploration that makes Byrne’s writing so very readable

Another topic which Byrne explores is Tourette’s syndrome. The fact that the alternate name for this particular chapter is ‘Why This Chapter Shouldn’t Be in This Book’ immediately separates Byrne’s research from so many misguided stereotypes when it comes to people with Tourette’s. The careful consideration included in Byrne’s explanations shows that this is so much more than a cold, purely analytical approach to the syndrome. Byrne walks the line between illustrative and sympathetic, detailing the neurosis behind coprolalia whilst bearing in mind the humans behind the condition.

Touching on surveys carried out with young people with TS, Byrne paints a more mindful outlook on Tourette’s than has been previously often portrayed to the mainstream (for a great example of TS being portrayed positively see Touretteshero, co-founded by Jess Thom). Her understanding and in-depth explanation is a heartfelt plea to treat people with a little more compassion – which within the body of a book extolling the virtues of a swear here and there is something unexpected and pleasingly refreshing.

Perhaps it’s the fine line between social commentary and scientific exploration that makes Byrne’s writing so very readable and prompts so much discussion on whether we’ve done enough when it comes to opening out swearing to all genders and closing off ridicule for those who can’t help but swear. Regardless, the non-rigid approach to the themes of the book makes Swearing is Good for You a thoroughly engaging read and one which gave me countless anecdotes when meeting up with friends for a pint. It’s an irreverent look at an irreverent subject, the form mirrors the subject matter and the result is an undeniably smart book by an undeniably effervescent writer.

Swearing is Good for You by Dr Emma Byrne is published by Profile Books and is available to purchase here.

The image is the cover of the book Swearing Is Good for You by Emma Byrne, used with permission. It is a simple cover with bright yellow background and block capital text. The title appears in black font, punctuated with asterisks and exclamation marks. The sub-title ‘The Amazing Science of Bad Language’ appears the same way except in pink font. There is also a quote from Lucy Kellaway, who describes the book as ‘a gloriously uplifting read’.