Thursday, March 4, 2021

Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language, by Emma Byrne (author), Henrietta Meire (narrator)

Highbridge, January 2018 (original publication November 2017)

This is a lively, funny, informative book about foul language.

Emma Byrne, a computer scientist specializing in artificial intelligence, has always loved a good swear. In this book, she lays out, using peer-reviewed science, why swearing and foul language is really good for you, for work teams, and society as a whole.

A key "news you can use" bit is that swearing is a very effective pain reliever. Whether you've hit your thumb with a hammer, or are sticking your hand in a bucket of ice (part of a real study to test this effect), or being treated for cancer, swearing really, measurably, helps your ability to handle the pain. The bad news? If you're a woman, even if you're being treated for cancer, even your female friends will judge you for this, and may drift away.

Swearing also figures prominently in building and maintaining good teams in a work environment. It's used as banter, as a a form of in-group bonding, in expressing frustrations and irritations in a form that, despite conventional ideas about swearing, in actual use is often not seen as hostile or aggressive.

Gender differences show up in how women swear compared to men, what swear words they use, and in how people react to their swearing, but not really in how much women vs. men swear. 

Byrne also discusses swearing in other languages, changes in swearing over time, and, most fascinatingly, at least to me, swearing in chimpanzees, our closest relatives.

Chimpanzees, of course, don't use language on their own, but some chimpanzees, including Washoe and others raised among humans as part of the same project, have learned sign language. They learn it, they use it, they create new words, and they teach sign to younger chimps.

But to be raised with humans, they have to be potty trained. In the process of potty training, they learn that feces anywhere else is taboo--and the word they use for feces, in Washoe's case "dirty," comes to function for the chimpanzees the way a much larger variety of taboo-based swear words function for humans. This suggests, among other things, that swearing may go back to the origins of human language.

This is, unquestionably, a book that is better to read or listen to, than to just read my review. My account of it is not nearly as good.


I bought this audiobook.

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