Book review: Swearing is Good For You by Emma Byrne

The Scotsman's monthly review of a book about health, promoted by Wellcome

Emma Byrne

About ten years ago I went to pick up my two year old daughter from nursery. When I arrived a staff member took me aside and said in solemn tones that she had something to tell me. ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘OK.’ I was led to a side room where she haltingly explained that my daughter had become frustrated when using their computer and had said, ‘For f***’s sake.’ The staff member was about to apologise – perhaps thinking it had been overheard while at nursery – when I told her, ‘Oh, she probably heard me saying that.’

I swear, and so do my kids (they are good bit older now). I do try to discourage them, but they just end up calling me a hypocrite. Sometimes with a swearword tagged on. I know: it’s not big and it’s not clever, but at least I now know that it doesn’t mean our vocabulary is lacking. As proof I will cite Emma Byrne’s Swearing is Good For You.

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It’s a short book, and Byrne begins by looking at the neuroscience. Many will be familiar with the story of Phineas Gage, the 19th century US railroad worker who became a different person (wilder, more sweary) after a large iron rod was accidentally shot through his head. At the time scientists didn’t know whether the brain was an undifferentiated mass, or was organised into different parts, each with separate functions; Gage’s behaviour suggested the latter. The debate is neatly summarised by Byrne as being whether the brain is “blancmange” or “trifle.” Amusingly she writes: “If you take away a third of a blancmange you still have blancmange. If you take away one of the layers of a trifle you end up with something even more depressing then trifle.” I wish my undergraduate neurology had been taught this way.

She then looks at swearing in particular contexts: how it helps when we’re in pain, the benefits of swearing in the workplace, swearing in primates, gender and swearing, and swearing in other languages.

The last left me rather wishing for lists of imaginative insults in other tongues, though Byrne admirably sticks to her brief and just considers curse-words.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that swearing helps to reduce pain. In the context of serious illness though, things turn out to be more nuanced. Byrne shows that men suffering from cancer can find swearing cathartic, whereas women with breast cancer who swore around their female friends “tended to lose those friends... and end up more depressed,” which could be helpful information for those working in palliative care.

Byrne makes a positive case for workplace swearing (good for team-building and fitting in), though I thought that the potential negative impacts of this were rather glossed over. I’m sure many people have had the experience of being made to feel uncomfortable by a boss using offensive or inappropriate language, but if there’s any research on the matter (which there surely must be) then it doesn’t get an airing here.

At times it feels as if some of the research presented is only partially about swearing. This isn’t always a bad thing – and in Byrne’s defence, her summary history of primate sign language is fascinating in its own right – yet it did sometimes give the impression that larger subjects were being included to broaden the scope. As for the hypothesis that swearing “was one of the things that motivated us to develop language in the first place”... I’m not so sure about that, though a scene of cavepeople trying this out would make a decent comedy sketch.

Throughout the book, Byrne is an enthusiastic swearer: I did like the way she casually drops in the f-bomb near the end of her chapters, although enjoyment of this will depend on your taste for casual obscenity. I would have liked a more detailed look at swearing in different parts of the English speaking world, and particularly in the UK; also, how swearing loses its shock potential and becomes something else entirely when used as mere sentence filler. “Swearing is like mustard; a great ingredient but a lousy meal,” Byrne writes, and by the end I felt she had got the curse word count just f***ing right.

Swearing is Good For You by Emma Byrne, Profile, 240pp, £12.99

Rob Ewing is an Edinburgh-based GP. His debut novel The Last of Us is published by Borough Press.