'Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language' - Book Review

Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language
by Emma Byrne
Anansi Press, 232 pages

The title is stylized on the cover as Swear!ing is G*od f*r You: The Amaz!ng Sc!ence of Bad Language, which I thought was too clever by half and didn't do the book any favours, but I guess they hoped it would attract attention. And the book deserves attention from anyone with an interest in language: while Emma Byrne's primary area of study is Artificial Intelligence, this is a thoroughly researched and well written book about a form of language we all use in our more emotionally fraught moments.

The table of contents:

  • Introduction: What the Fuck is Swearing
  • The Bad Language Brain: Neuroscience and Swearing
  • 'Fuck! That hurts.' Pain and Swearing
  • Tourette's Syndrome, or Why This Chapter Shouldn't be in This Book
  • Disciplinary Offence: Swearing in the Workplace
  • 'You damn dirty ape.' (Other) Primates that Swear
  • No Language for a Lady: Gender and Swearing
  • Schie├če, Merde, Cachau: Swearing in Other Languages
  • Conclusion

The Introduction and first chapter were particularly good as an overview of the subject, but I happily went through the entire book. After the first chapter, my next favourite was probably the one about swearing in other languages. Something I noticed many, many years ago was that the Quebecois swear by blaspheming against the church, whereas the rest of North America swears by making reference to sex and bodily functions. The Dutch (or was it the Danish ... sorry) swear by naming diseases (really - it's very rude to say the translated version of "Cancer" aloud), and the Arabs use moustache-based insults ... Our world is very strange indeed. She also makes a compelling argument for the unavoidability of swearing, and its utility in day-to-day use. A great read.