A celebration of expletives

February 23, 2021 by Alison Tunley

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A celebration of expletives

If the current state of the world is tempting you into expletive-laden outbursts, fear not, apparently this is entirely healthy. In her fascinating book, a true celebration of expletives, “Swearing Is Good For You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language”, Emma Byrne explores how swearing can be an effective stress management mechanism. “[Swearing] has been shown to make the heart beat faster and can prime people to think aggressive thoughts while, paradoxically, making us less likely to be physically violent”. Better to release the tension through a string of linguistic obscenities than to go out and punch someone in your frustration.

The book examines the many functions of swearing and begs to disagree with Stephen Pinker, who claimed swearing is distinct from language in general, coming instead from the sub-cortex and having more in common with physical movement, emotion and bodily functions. By contrast, Byrne emphasises the ways in which swearing is laden with linguistic and cultural significance. She reflects on different levels of swearing in various groups. Apparently left wingers on Twitter swear more than their right-wing counterparts! And, generally, men swear more than women, although a recent study of a British English corpus suggests the gap is rapidly closing even if the choice of swear words may not be identical across the two sexes.

Byrne also looks at our perception of swearing – it is still the case that swearing is culturally riskier for women than for men. In male-dominated workplaces, the risk of being perceived as inappropriate is offset by the benefit of being considered “part of the gang”. In a controlled study using transcripts including swear words, utterances were rated as “more offensive” when subjects were told that the speaker was female.

Cross-cultural differences are also examined. Apparently poo and excrement-related terms are less taboo in Japan than in other countries and Byrne suggests this may explain the cheerful poo emoji! Translation also gets a mention with an analysis of how the plethora of “fucks” in Pulp Fiction were handled in Spanish. Byrne documents how swearing reflects the change in society’s taboos over time, with our vocabulary adapting in response to these shifting cultural norms. She describes swearing rather wonderfully as “the foul-beaked canary in the coalmine”.

The chapter on neuroscience and swearing describes patients who have either entirely lost the capacity to swear, or whose linguistic abilities have been drastically impaired while their ability to curse is intact. Byrne examines the value of swearing as a pain control mechanism (it appears to work, by the way). The book is an entertaining read and provides you with useful ammunition to defend yourself next time you accidentally (or deliberately) let rip with a string of foul-mouthed profanities. I thoroughly recommend you treat yourselves to this celebration of expletives!


Emma Byrne “Swearing Is Good For You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language”, Profile Books (2017)

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