F-bombs away

Neu­ro­sci­en­tist Emma Byrne says swear­ing is healthy — even in the work­place


LON­DON — Neu­ro­sci­en­tist Emma Byrne re­cently found her­self in front of a BBC au­di­ence with her hand plunged into freez­ing wa­ter.

She was re-en­act­ing an ex­per­i­ment that she and her work col­leagues had con­ducted in the lab­o­ra­tory. Its pur­pose: To demon­strate that you’ll last longer suf­fer­ing this or­deal if you al­low your­self to swear.

In other words, bad lan­guage can re­duce pain.

Mind you, Byrne did be­have her­self dur­ing the broad­cast. She didn’t scorch the del­i­cate ears of lis­ten­ers with an out­burst of pro­fan­ity. Well, at least there was noth­ing im­proper that the mi­cro­phones could pick up.

“This was the ven­er­a­ble BBC,” she says imp­ishly. “So one of the deals I made with the pro­ducer was that I would keep my lan­guage clean!”

How­ever, Byrne was un­der no such con­straints dur­ing the writ­ing of her new book, Swear­ing is Good For You: The Amaz­ing Sci­ence of Bad Lan­guage (Anansi In­ter­na­tional, 2017). Its lively pref­ace em­ploys the F-word so many times that read­ers will give up count­ing.

“No, it wasn’t cal­cu­lated,” Byrne says mer­rily be­fore she’s even asked the ob­vi­ous ques­tion. “I didn’t take a tally. My ed­i­tor and I prob­a­bly went back and forth about tak­ing some out, and I think she was more prone to keep­ing them in. She fig­ured they were more about my sense of hu­mour than about my swear­ing.”

Byrne is sip­ping a hot bev­er­age on a bustling pa­tio out­side the Bri­tish Li­brary, a ma­jes­tic land­mark where she spent many an hour do­ing se­ri­ous re­search on se­ri­ous sub­ject mat­ter.

She isn’t kid­ding here. The re­sult­ing book, pub­lished in Canada by Anansi and slated for re­lease Nov. 25, may not seem se­ri­ous, given its au­thor’s readi­ness to be funny in sup­port of her the­sis. But turn to the end and you find a lengthy bib­li­og­ra­phy and page af­ter page of learned ref­er­ences.

Still, there’s no sign of the stuffy aca­demic this af­ter­noon. Dark hair rest­less in an au­tumn breeze, eyes full of mis­chief, Byrne dis­solves into gig­gles when re­minded of New Yorker Mary Nor­ris’s ap­prov­ing de­scrip­tion of her as “a trash-talk­ing” woman. “I really love that,” Byrne grins. Be­sides, she fig­ures one needs a sense of hu­mour to write a book like this one.

“Swear­ing plays into the emo­tions in a way that an­other lan­guage doesn’t be­cause it in­volves var­i­ous taboos,” she says. “There are no al­ter­na­tive synonyms in the lex­i­con be­cause they don’t have the same emo­tional punch. But you have to nav­i­gate these emo­tions with a lit­tle bit of lev­ity.”

It’s Emma Byrne’s view that foul lan­guage was one of the first forms of hu­man lan­guage and re­mains es­sen­tial to in­ter­ac­tion. She also be­lieves the ev­i­dence is there to show that swear­ing can re­lieve pain, re­duce stress in the work­place, help cure stroke vic­tims, and im­prove the per­for­mance of ath­letes. And that’s only a few of its ben­e­fits.

In ex­plor­ing the uni­verse of swear­ing, she’s lined up some nifty sto­ries.

Early on, she takes us back to the year 1848 and the case of Phineas Gage whose head was pierced by a metal rod while blast­ing rock in Ver­mont. Gage mirac­u­lously sur­vived a hole that passed right through his skull — but the de­struc­tion of his left frontal lobe trig­gered a com­pul­sion to swear. Re­search into this neu­ro­log­i­cal mys­tery opened the door to spec­u­la­tion that the brain might have spe­cial­ized ar­eas — spec­u­la­tion that Byrne then links to pi­o­neer­ing Vic­to­rian stud­ies into the ubiq­ui­tous­ness of bad lan­guage.

In more re­cent times, there’s the case of a chim­panzee named Wa­hoe who had been taught sign lan­guage in the lab and used it to ex­press the word “dirty” when she wanted to swear at peo­ple. Byrne notes that this course of ac­tion is prefer­able to the chim­panzee’s wilder­ness habit of heav­ing hand­fuls of ex­cre­ment when en­raged.

“House-train­ing them is very im­por­tant be­cause you can’t study them oth­er­wise,” she says mat­terof-factly. “You’d be spend­ing all your time hos­ing down the lab.”

The book also gets into gen­der is­sues, with Byrne con­tend­ing that women swear as much as men.

“There’s still the preva­lent be­lief that swear­ing is a more mas­cu­line thing, and I al­ways be­lieved that, de­spite be­ing a woman who swears a lot,” she says. “The rea­son we had this be­lief that women swear less than men is that un­til re­cently the ma­jor­ity of psy­chol­ogy re­searchers have been male.”

And she’s firm in her be­lief that swear­ing is healthy — even in the work­place. “It’s really use­ful for low­er­ing ten­sion.” She cites her own ex­pe­ri­ence of re­cently start­ing a new job and work­ing in a room full of males who kept apol­o­giz­ing to her for their bad lan­guage.

“They kept say­ing sorry. And I said: ‘Dudes, I lit­er­ally wrote the book on swear­ing and it’s all right. You don’t have to not swear around me!’ ”

Byrne is also sat­is­fied that swear­ing pro­vides a re­lease valve for peo­ple suf­fer­ing from long-term pain or a ter­mi­nal con­di­tion. “It can be ther­a­peu­tic, es­pe­cially for those with im­pair­ments — swear­ing may be the only lan­guage they have left and it can be used to ex­press your­self so fully and roundly in ex­press­ing ex­cite­ment or joy, anger or frus­tra­tion. Telling them they can’t swear is telling them they can’t ex­press such feel­ings, which is cruel in the ex­treme.”

At this point, Byrne is re­minded of the birth of her daugh­ter 18 months ago. “I was very sur­prised that I didn’t swear at all — and I was ex­pect­ing to,” she con­fesses.

But what if a decade from now Byrne’s daugh­ter comes out with a word that shocks her mom?

“I’m not com­pletely un­shock­able,” she says cheer­fully. “I think she’ll be dis­ap­pointed if she doesn’t man­age to shock me. I think it’s a way of demon­strat­ing your dif­fer­ence from the gen­er­a­tion be­fore you.”

Byrne sees swear­ing as an evolv­ing thing. Words that caused of­fence a cen­tury ago no longer do so to­day.

“Any­thing that be­comes com­mon­place loses its im­pact. But such is the na­ture of swear­ing that it will rein­vent it­self. For ex­am­ple swear­ing as­so­ci­ated with sex­ual or re­li­gious taboos has be­come more com­mon­place, so as the taboos re­lated to them lose their power, the re­lated swear­ing loses its im­pact.”

“But be­cause we need swear­ing as a species, we’ll al­ways find an­other ta­boo.”

Emma Byrne

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