"Byrne, who likes a good swear, relishes her subject and her study of its various forms—bodily, copulatory, excretory and slur based—is playfully astute."
Sydney Morning Herald - Steven Carroll
"Byrne makes a strong case.… Perhaps more than swearing’s power to help one withstand pain or even bond, it’s Byrne’s revelations about swearing and gender that make me want to try just a little bit harder to curse."
New York Magazine - Danielle Friedman
"An impressive catalogue of research showing how effing and blinding helps us deal with pain, bond with others, is associated with intelligence and makes us more inclined to trust each other.… A glorious, uplifting read."
Financial Times - Lucy Kellaway
"Science and language writer Emma Byrne… offers up data in
Swearing Is Good for You to prove that cussing—in moderation—can help lower anxiety and even curb physical and emotional pain."
"Shit, this book is fascinating."
Refinery29 - Elena Nicolaou
"A good book about bad language by a trash-talking woman? Sign me up!
Swearing Is Good for You makes science feel downright celebratory."
"A chatty, humorously informative narrative that rummages through the science of bad language, grabbing at sociology, psychology, neuroscience and anthropology."
Mail on Sunday - Hephzibah Anderson
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."? Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at writesformoney.com.
Reviewer: Peter Lewis
The Barnes & Noble Review
…entertaining and thought-provoking…Byrne's enthusiasm for her esoteric subject is contagious, damn it.
The New York Times Book Review - Melissa Dahl
Science writer Byrne aims to give the practice of swearing “the respect it fucking deserves” in this shallow study, but doesn’t quite hit the mark. Attempting to show how swearing has evolved from a linguistic “shortcut” into a “powerful instrument” with physiological benefits, Byrne describes a number of experiments in neuroscience, psychology, and animal behaviorism. In one such experiment, volunteers were asked to hold their hands in buckets of ice water and researchers found that swearing enabled the participants to endure the pain for a longer period of time. Byrne suggests that swearing can help lessen both physical and social suffering, and that “stronger swear words are stronger painkillers.” She also begins to discuss the topics of women’s use of foul-language and swearing in the workplace, but fizzles out. (“Swearing really can break down barriers,” she writes. “But of course, even among workmates, swearing and abuse aren’t always taken well.”) Readers probably won’t be surprised to find out that British women are as likely to swear as British men, that women’s use of fuck has increased fivefold since 1990, and that swearing helps people “communicate emotions.” Given the book’s subtitle, the science here underwhelms and the flippant way that Byrne handles it may have readers employing their own choice vocabularies. Agent: Carrie Plitt, Felicity Bryan Associates (U.K.). (Jan.)
"Shit, this book is fascinating."
"Byrne crafts an enthusiastic case for bad language. . . . [Her] immensely readable first outing will be a real fucking treat."
"A poppy, comprehensive look at an often taboo topic."
"An entertaining and often enlightening book. . . Byrne’s readers are sure to come away with a fresh appreciation of language at its most foul."
Swearing Is Good for You, Emma Byrne unearths an unorthodox body of research to reveal how swearing helps reduce pain and anxiety and can even bring people together. This fascinating debut is perfect for fans of Mary Roach."
In this engaging and often irreverent work, scientist and freelance writer Byrne explores swearing and the many ways that it is actually good for us. She describes why and how we swear and presents an interdisciplinary view of swearing using a variety of lenses: historical, psychological, physical, anthropological, social, and linguistic. This book includes fascinating details on the effects of swearing on pain tolerance, profanity in the workplace and by women, chimpanzees who were taught to swear, and cussing in a second language. (Byrne also thoroughly explains why her chapter on Tourette's syndrome does not actually belong in this book.) Each chapter includes historical context on the topic, up-to-date research findings, and illuminating case studies, all focused on the many benefits of using foul language. The chapter on the workplace shows that swearing can encourage collaboration and unity. Byrne's style is conversational, entertaining, and appropriate for the general public. However, since the work is well researched and documented, it will also be valuable to scholars. VERDICT A thoroughly enjoyable option for readers from a variety of disciplines, including neuroscience and communications.—Theresa Muraski, Univ. of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Lib.
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 then "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."