Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language

Swearing is salubrious. William Shakespeare applied it, Mark Twain advised it — but in Swearing Is Good for You, science journalist Emma Byrne makes the case anew with éclat and choice malediction.

Let Byrne count the ways: managing stress (ask any woman during childbirth) and pain (ask the man who missed the nail but not his thumb), team building. Swearing primes you for aggression and contrariwise tunes down the likelihood of physical violence. Swear words increase your linguistic repertoire. Swearing helps to both express and cover up feelings, to make an impact, to raise a laugh. It expresses a healthy disrespect for authority. But, critically, it can be a demonstration of power, which breaks a taboo as it asserts a social/gender hierarchy. Breaking taboos is what frequently gives each nation or group its particular vulgar lexicon. “In Japanese, where the excretory taboo is almost nonexistent (hence the friendly poo emoji), there’s no equivalent of ‘shit’ ” — just in case you were wondering.

In terms of our brains, however, the major types of cussing can be sorted beyond cultural boundaries. There are two — and a provisional third — distinct types of swearing: the “propositional,” which is deliberately chosen for effect and processed in the left hemisphere of the brain; the “nonpropositional,” an unintended outburst — two very different animals. For the most part, Byrne concerns herself with the propositional, though there is a long chapter on the mysterious “unpropositional” world of Tourette’s syndrome, the famous neurological disorder characterized by uncontrollable, often profane outbursts. That symptom may have a reputation that outweighs the reality: studies show that as few as 7 percent of Tourette’s sufferers blurt swears. “Yet for those patients who experience coprolalia, coprograhia, and copropraxis, the physically injurious motor tics” — tics are a common symptom of Tourette’s — “aren’t anywhere near as distressing as the socially inappropriate urges.”

Swearing, Byrne writes, is all tangled up with emotions. “Psychologists classify emotions along two axes: Valence and arousal. Valence simply refers to how pleasurable (or not) a feeling is . . . Arousal is a measure of how strong a feeling is.” Arousal is measured by heart rate and galvanic skin response (how sweaty your palms are). A number of experiments have shown that swearing, as it is thought to help us endure pain, does so through emotional arousal. You can imagine, such tests on human subjects skirt the line of ethics, and the experiments that were used are cunning in the extreme. There is no absolute proof yet, as the tests that suppress the perception of pain have yet to be replicated (indeed, some have refuted it. Still . . . ), but evidence is measurably there.

One fine chapter covers swearing and gender. Research shows we are much more judgmental of women who swear than we are of men. “Sometime around the early eighteenth century there was a significant change in culture” — that is, in Western Europe and the Americas. The shift in language was power for men and purity for women. Women were expected to adopt a “clean” language, while men retained the right to swear and its power of expression: “Those insisting that women’s language should be pure managed to rip the most powerful linguistic tool out of the hands (and mouths and minds) of women for centuries.”

As a student of swearing, Byrne knows whereof she speaks. Yet more research shows that women are swearing with greater effectiveness than ever, but it comes at “greater social risk for women: a man swearing is more likely to be seen as jocular and strong; women are likely to be seen as unstable and untrustworthy.” The double-binds of traditional gender norms become even more pronounced the more intense or “unfiltered” the language is.

But even though we see swearing as a kind of maximally authentic language, there is, Byrne teaches us, an art to swearing. Somebody who swears between each word is as artless as someone who says “like” or “uh” at every pause. But for swearing to be effective, it must have timing and tone. It must be artful to be cheeky or funny or outrageous or aggressive, and particularly in the level of aggression. Done right, it can help build trust, since “I respectfully disagree with your position?” Or “We call B.S.”?


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