Why You Should Swear Less
Give offensive words their power back and it might just save humanity, says Dr Emma Byrne.
I'm not here to tell you off or anything, but: you're swearing too much and you're ruining it for all of us. And fuck it, so am I.
Swear words thrive on taboo – on being able to draw out a strong emotional response – and unlike your Victorian ancestors, who would need a hit on the smelling salts at any rogue mention of underwear, we're just not as easy to shock. Take "shit", for example, long-time bronze medal holder in the most offensive English swear words, now relegated to being an unremarkable synonym for the word "stuff". That's no way to treat a member of the Big Three.
The past couple of generations have come up through life peppering "cunts" and "fucks" into most every conversation. Cafe's run out of coffee? Bastard. Can't connect to the WiFi? Fuck sake. A mate brings the wrong drink back from the bar? Useless cunt.
As it turns out, swearing is even more useful than any of us previously thought. Those little linguistic hand grenades have all kinds of benefits for us, including reducing pain, increasing empathy, helping us deal with anger and reducing the likelihood of violence. So what makes those spiky little words so special, and why should we care that swearing is losing its sting?
I spoke to Dr Emma Byrne, author of Swearing Is Good For You, and found out how a well-placed fuck it all to hell jesus fucking christ can literally save your life.
VICE: Hi Emma. So, it's been said that swearing's processed differently in the brain to regular words, more like a grunt or a yell than sets of morphemes and phonemes. Is that how you see it?
Dr Emma Byrne: There is that kind of reflex swearing, when the hammer hits the thumb – we don't do a lot of cognition and it's not particularly sophisticated. But when you do it deliberately it's called propositional swearing, and that can be incredibly nuanced.
It's a bit like joking and sarcasm, in that you have to model the mindset of the person you're talking to and get an accurate sense of the payload of emotion you're sending in their direction. It's this class of language that talks about things that we ordinarily can't talk about without a degree of embarrassment or shame or dread. Something that has an emotional resonance – which is where the taboos come in.
Do those things tend to crop up more – say, those to do with bodily functions – because everyone shares that taboo?
Most of the taboos we use in this country are to do with bodily functions. Like that Tarō Gomi book, Everybody Poops. Shit is a great leveller; we all do it. We are all, in one way or another, the product of a fuck. I like those swear words because they bring us together.
They are the most widely used by every demographic in the UK, but they're not universal internationally. If you really want to cause maximum offence in French-speaking Canada, you go with religious swearing – on the tabernacle or the holy sacrament – whereas, in France, that same swearing is not remotely offensive. It's really interesting how culturally-laden it is.
Do you think it's to do with breaking taboos together?
Exactly, it's this in-group versus out-group thing. It's a kind of tribalism. Swearing is a little bit like flirting, in that you increasingly reveal more and more of yourself until you find the level that you're both comfortable with. It's a bit high-risk, exposing a part of yourself. It's a dance of reveal and counter-reveal. You're building to things that are ever naughtier or ever more taboo, and discovering whether you find the same things palatable or unpalatable, emotional or not emotional. It is a really good way of sounding out who is in your tribe. And then, of bonding and maintaining that relationship.
Can you give us an example of how swearing can be used to increase empathy and bring people together?
So, for example, they've found – particularly for guys who were suffering from things like cancer or long-term chronic pain – that swearing both helps them deal with their own negative emotions and also helps their friends talk with them about their illness. It's possibly because it is the only kind of emotional language that's really generally encouraged for some men. It's like a vent or safety valve, and it can quite genuinely be a lifesaver to someone who hasn't been given the social tools to talk about their emotions in any other way.
And that safety valve also works for syphoning off anger?
Yes, and especially if you are particularly well-versed in the emotional nuances of swearing, you can get through conflict much more easily. Chimpanzees that have been taught to sign tend to use the sign "dirty", which refers to everything scatological, and it's really like the way we use the word "shit". Which is great, because chimpanzees in the wild will actually throw their shit when they're angry. It's a good idea to have them throw the idea around rather than the actual stuff.
With the early hominids, those tribes that learnt to manage their anger verbally rather than physically may well have done much better. You can fling your feelings at someone without having to physically endanger either of you.
Now that it is fairly commonplace, less shocking, do you think swearing is more likely to fall out of use? Swearing has been around for as long as we've got any kind of recorded written history, and in every society, so I don't think it's something we'd easily do without. If we did we'd have to somehow train ourselves to be far better at relating to one another, so that we don't resort to acts of physical violence.
But in today's society, it feels like so many old taboos are becoming normalised – religion, sex, bodily fluids. Certainly, it doesn't feel at all dangerous to swear in front of, say, your parents, any more. Is that going to soften the benefits of swearing?
That is my worry, because the last taboos that I think remain particularly in British and American English are the ones that are to do with othering people. They are slurs based on race, gender or sexuality, and those are pretty obviously harmful.
That's one of the reasons I'm against swearing-bans at work or on Twitter: it is possible to be outrageously racist, misogynist or homophobic without using a single swear word, and it is possible to be a splendid ally while swearing your head off. It's not the swearing that's the problem.
I want us to not overuse swearing – the kind of swearing that's to do with the common bodily functions – because I would like that to retain its power.
So if we carry on swearing too casually and too often, people will start to resort to spitting in each other's' faces, or being racist or homophobic?
Totally. I think writing this book certainly changed my opinion. I was one of those people who used it like punctuation. But I've changed that completely. It's the realisation that it's good for you in the way that, say, fibre is good for you. Fibre is brilliant for you, but you wouldn't want it to be your entire diet.
So I think it's about using it more judiciously, listening to it more openly and understanding what the emotional meaning is. Even when it is a bit scary, when it's coming from a place of anger or fear or desperation, because it's sometimes the only way in which those feelings could be expressed.
Before I let you go, what's your favourite swear word?
I really like cockwomble, and I don't know why. I like the inclusion of those warm and friendly childhood memories of the Wombles. That's a really good one.