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Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language

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In a sparkling debut in the entertaining pop science vein of Mary Roach, scientist Emma Byrne examines the latest research to show how swearing can be good for you. She reveals how swearing has been around since the earliest humans began to communicate, and has been shown to reduce physical pain, to lower anxiety, to prevent physical violence, to help trauma victims recover language, and to promote human cooperation. Packed with the results of unlikely and often hilarious scientific studies— from the “ice bucket test” for coping with pain, to the connection between Tourette’s and swearing, to a chimpanzee who curses at her handler in sign language—Swearing Is Good for You presents a lighthearted but convincing case for the foulmouthed.

240 pages, Hardcover

First published November 17, 2017

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Emma Byrne

2 books8 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 255 reviews
Profile Image for Jesica DeHart.
241 reviews6 followers
December 5, 2017
Hell yeah! Finally some fucking proof to what my gut has been declaring for years. There is something exuberantly cathartic and empowering about releasing tension, frustration and any emotion with a string of some salty expletives! Thank you for making it official.
Profile Image for Debbie W..
709 reviews453 followers
November 26, 2019
BORING! I was hoping to see how beneficial swearing is to one's health (especially my husband's - ha! ha!). Instead, I got the feeling that the author wanted to intersperse the research with swear words just for the fun of it. Got through about 50% of the book before tossing it aside.
Profile Image for Stacee.
2,694 reviews702 followers
December 11, 2017
As someone who loves the f-word, I was instantly intrigued by this book.

I enjoyed getting various bits of the history of swearing and seeing different scientific experiments and team building activities. I especially enjoyed the chapter on ladies who swear.

There were a few sections that did get a little dry, but there was a lot of humor and the science wasn’t too overly science-y.

Overall, it was an interesting topic and learning a few new words was an added bonus.

**Huge thanks to WW Norton & Company for providing the arc free of charge**
January 31, 2018
I picked up this book because I honestly talk like a sailor. I say ‘fuck’ too much and it’s like a second language to me. I was raised in The South and we are taught ladies should not use foul language. Well I say, “Fuck that shit!” I loved this book because it had history and proof that swearing is good for you. I read this non fiction book in a few sittings and it was fun. To cut to the chase, this book was the shit!
Profile Image for Ashley.
2,601 reviews1,669 followers
March 29, 2018
So firstly, this was fun and liked it and I admire its enthusiasm. Any book that tries to break down the taboo veil surrounding swearing is good in my book. I do not understand the fixation that some people have about swearing, and I probably never will. But this book does a really good job laying out a general overview of, as the title tells you, why swearing is good for you.

This is actually why I'm only giving it three and a half stars, because as always seems to be the case with these pop science books, I wanted more detail, more oomph. More evidence. More science and psychology. But really it's just an overview of other people's science; so as long as you know that going in, you'll have a good time. And Emma Byrne is a fun author! She swears while she's telling us about swearing and the history of studying swearing in neuroscience, psychology, animal studies, foreign languages, etc.

To overview an overview, we learn that: Swearing is a natural pain reliever, prevents violence in societies that use it (both human and animal), varies from culture to culture depending on the taboos of that culture, and is very often the only remnants of language in people with brain damage because our urge to swear comes from a different place in our brains. We also learn that in other primates that learn language, they spontaneously develop swearing on their own. This was the most fascinating part of the book to me. Washoe the chimpanzee developed a taboo around being dirty (related to excretion) and began using the word dirty as a way to demean or tease others. She also developed slurs! She used the word "monkey" to refer to primates who couldn't sign. They once documented her calling a macaque she didn't like "dirty monkey," which was Very Bad to her. I find this fascinating. Those words do not have much impact to English speakers, but to her they were the equivalent of calling someone a stupid shithead.

There was also a chapter in the book covering Tourette's, which was subtitled "Why this chapter shouldn't be in this book," that I also found fascinating. She included it because the perceptions people generally hold about people with the syndrome are linked directly with swearing, but really the two are tangentially related. Only about 25% of people with TS develop tics related to swearing, along with other physical and verbal tics, and the importance of those tics has nothing do with the way non-TS people use swearing. There's also a chapter about gender and swearing, and swearing in the workplace (often used to develop camaraderie! and people who can't learn the lingo are often excluded and don't remain at that workplace for long).

All in all, would recommend, but it most just whetted my appetite for other books about swearing and language and science and shit. Maybe I should finally get to that audiobook copy of What the F I downloaded a couple of years ago . . . (a book which she cites as one of her sources).

[3.5 stars]

Read Harder Challenge 2018: A book of social science.
Profile Image for Paul.
815 reviews44 followers
April 6, 2018
This book is both screamingly funny in parts, a social science observation in parts, and compares swear words in other languages besides English. I found the chapter on Tourette's the most interesting, even if the author says it shouldn't be in the book.

I've always had a really liberal vocabulary, except I will not say words that are hurtful, racist, or sexist. For 30 years I taught magazine writing at the university level, and I could never stop saying "the f-ing table of contents is buried after the first article." I have a slight case of Tourette's, so swearing never bothers me unless it's mean. While I was teaching, I generally got favorable reviews, except someone on Rate My Professor said, "Beware! Curses a lot!" along with a generally favorable review.

My wife always told me it wasn't smart to swear in front of classes, but I had real trouble stopping. Just about all I ever did was use "f-ing" as an adjective or adverb, never to address someone. I thought it was collegial and jocular. Once I tried to specifically stop swearing in my class, and I would get into difficulties like, "This article is an f- f-f -f really bad article." It was very hard to stop. In the chapter on Tourette's the author says it's better to let fly than trying to suppress one's tics, because then they come out in great bunches. So I'd always tell my classes that I had a slight case of Tourette's. That went along fine for about 27 years until I had a student in my class send an anonymous email to the chairman of the journalism dept., the chairman of the college, and the president of the university. The dept. chairman called me in and said he would never say "fuck" in front of a class. He let me read the student's anonymous complaint about me always using the F word and how scandalized she was. The chairman couldn't tell me her name.

So I was very careful to see who in this class had outed me. I found out when one girl wrote her personal experience on when she discovered Jesus. This girl's first assignment about a vividly remembered subjective experience was, "I was in high school when I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior." Later, on her next assignment, she interviewed Fred Farkington, of whom she said, "Fred didn't have Jesus come into his life until he was 22." Now, I happen to be a personal friend of Jesus, but I don't think He gives a flying F about how you talk unless you are mean to people or lie to them. So I ask, is it worse to say the F word in a class, or is it worse to be a passive-aggressive religious fundamentalist who tries to get people in trouble by projecting her righteousness on the world and pointing out where others' is lacking?

I would call the religious bigot someone whom Jesus would probably like a lot less than one who says the F word in class. What if I'd been Muslim or Jewish or Hindu? I don't think that any of the major religions condemn casual swearing as much as they do murder or f-f-f-f-f-f-f---having sex with someone's wife.

Anyway, this book is a great sociologist/psychologist primer on "swear" words and their relative content and context in various societies. It's really enlightening in that regard. I thought the best chapter was how sexism still prevailed in the area of swearing, and the norms were nearly always unwritten. The author traces some judgments about swearing to a couple of highly self-principled (in their eyes) essayists from 1600 or 1700. The main residue as a cultural tradition is that women are soft and fragile and can't bear to hear swear words without fainting, whereas men just by god tell it as they see it. This is a highly artificial standard, and one that is only encouraged by the patriarchal society.

The author details research about the incidence of swearing among men and women, and found it fairly close to equal, except women were outed and implied to be sluts and "loose women" if they indulged in it. A woman could never swear to a superior in business, whereas for men it's just considered part of doing business. A lot of that continues today, which has nothing to do with religion and much to do with sociology: groups in power always try to maximize their power before groups who are not in power. Men have always been the power holders in American and perhaps even Western society, and they have historically liked women to be chattel or certainly weaker and lesser than themselves. No one said it had to be this way; there's no reason it should continue this way. The author points this out nicely through experiments in which the subjects are assessed for their idea of "proper" words to use in society. The women generally chose modified or softer words to negatively describe a person or situation, whereas the men just generally swore randomly without thinking.

This was valuable to know, as well as several situations of chimpanzees signing words like "dirty" when they were mad at someone or another signing monkey. This seemingly natural evocation of what humans would consider swear words shows to a degree that, anthropologically, swearing just erupts.

The whole book is both hilarious and fascinating. I would recommend it to anyone with an open mind.
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,007 followers
December 4, 2018
Reviewed for the Bibliophibian.

Yes, really, and this really is a serious book, referring to studies and discussing them in a sober and mostly non-profane fashion. At times the casual swearing seemed a little much (a bit of a gimmick, rather than me feeling bad about swearing at all), but there’s a lot of fascinating stuff in here. There’s a chapter on Tourette’s, for example: although Byrne explains that it doesn’t really belong in a book about swearing being good for you, because in the case of Tourette’s it ends up being alienating and awful, but it goes into what causes people with Tourette’s to swear, and a little bit about what that tells us about swearing in general.

There’s also a really horrifying (to me) discussion of the fact that women with cancer who swear (due to their cancer but not necessarily about their cancer) tend to lose the support of the people around them, even their close female friends. They’re dealing with something fucking horrifying, they’re probably in pain and exhausted, but they’ve got to watch their language too? I hope Byrne’s hypothesis that this effect will fade with more recent generations is correct.

There’s also discussion of swearing and gender, and my favourite bit, the discussion of swearing in toilet trained chimps. (Teach a chimp that poop is dirty and it will see it as such, act ashamed if caught pooping somewhere it shouldn’t, and start using dirtiness as an insult!)

It’s all pretty fascinating, and while I’m not a major swearer unless I’m doing the final missions in Mass Effect, at which point the brain to mouth filter drops out of the picture, I’m glad to acknowledge that sometimes, it turns out it really is good for you — helping you to bear pain and stress, bonding you with teammates, etc, etc.
Profile Image for Kevin.
50 reviews5 followers
January 8, 2018
I hate it when I start a book that I'm looking forward too only to run into intellectually questionable assertions with no explanation of what the author means. She really ought to stick to robot science rather than delve into generalisations about culture, history, neurology, etc. I put the book down after the section entitled "The Case of the Disappearing Cock and Ass: Notes on Transatlantic Swearing." In this section she asserts that North Americans have trouble understanding UK swearing because of "Genetic drift" between "the two cultures." For me this assertion demands explanation because in context of the book it sounds like she is saying that culture is the result of biology. A most questionable assertion, and combined with the smugness of her hypocritical (considering that this entire book has nothing to do with her field) reply to critics detailed on page 4, as well as a few other 'wtf' type moments, I was left disinclined to finish the book. She claims to be a scientist, but takes an approach to her subject that lacks rigorous study or even a basic familiarity with what she is talking about. (ie. in her estimation, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Republic of Ireland are one culture when it comes to swearing, while the US and Canada are another. As a Canadian, to the author I say pick up a fucking history book. As a North American I say have you even noted the exponentially larger population of the USA compared to all the other nations she identified? As someone who graduated high school science I say stop taking your personal experience as an example of a general condition). Utter trash. Two stars because it has some interesting bits too, but can the author be trusted? I don't think so.

Note: I didn't buy the book, it was a gift. I expressed interest after hearing bits of a radio interview promoting the book.
45 reviews1 follower
February 5, 2020
Save yourself the bother. Here's all you need to know:

- Swearing increases tolerance to pain.
- Swearing can be triggered by damage to specific parts of the brain.
- Swearing can help teams to bond.
- Chimpanzees swear.
- Swearing is subtley different between males and females.
- Swearing is differently nuanced in other languages.

Everything else is padding and repetition.
Other than that, fuck all.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Kristina.
1,210 reviews469 followers
June 28, 2018
Surprisingly, I found Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language by Emma Byrne to be a bit of a slog. The subject matter is near and dear to my heart and the introduction is funny and promised a good read but this skinny book (201 pages minus the notes and bibliography) took forever to get through. It’s not as funny nor as interesting as I thought it would be.

Byrne’s book sets out to disprove all the shit that profanity-users like myself hear about profanity: only people with low intelligence, loose morals and no imagination use “bad” words. Bullshit. I didn’t really need her book to tell me this is all nonsense because I myself am extremely intelligent, have too much imagination (usually at 3 am when the house is creaking), and my morals are just fine. The author addresses the use of profanity as a strong emotional response to pain, stress, anger, fear, joy, etc. People who have had strokes or other illnesses that damaged the brain can sometimes still communicate through swearing (even though they’re usually encouraged not to) even when all other words have left them. Profanity is also used as a way of bonding in the workplace, and not just by men. Casual insults and swearing are a sign of good teamwork; of coworkers who are comfortable with each other and work well together. The best (and by far the most fascinating for me) chapter is “You damn dirty ape”: (other) primates that swear. Byrne discusses chimpanzees who were taught sign language and created their own swear words based on what they (the chimpanzees) knew to be taboos or bad behavior. Not only did these chimpanzees create swear words, but they knew when to use them and they also passed along the sign language to younger chimpanzees who joined the family.

I think my problem with this book was that, once I got into it, none of it really surprised me. Not that I’m a genius or anything, I just mean that it all seems reasonable to me. Profanity (which arises from taboo words/oaths) is extremely emotional? Well, yeah. That if you hit your thumb with a hammer instead of the nail and scream, “oh fuck!” you actually feel better because expressing your pain via emotions lessens the physical pain? Hell yeah. Why else would I yell “oh fuck!” when I’ve hurt myself? The notion that swearing in the workplace can bond you to your coworkers or is a way of gaining acceptance in the workplace culture (assuming the workplace culture enjoys a good “fuck/hell/shit/dick” once in a while) or that only colleagues who trust each other and like each other engage in casual insults and cursing is not a newsflash. At least, I don’t think so. The last chapter in the book deals with profanity and translations and how you can’t simply translate a curse word in English into the same word in, say, Italian. Taboos are a product of their culture and what may be taboo in one culture is not in another. So a powerful American English profanity may mean nothing in say, German or Japanese. The author uses the example of the movie Pulp Fiction and the problem translators had with all the “fucks” (1.74 per minute). Spanish speakers don’t use “fuck” the same way Americans do, so the translators often had to use other taboo/swear words (“Go to the devil!”). This is a great example but Byrne (weirdly) doesn’t mention if this is for Mexican Spanish speakers or Spain Spanish. The cultures are different, thus I would guess that the kind of profanity used is also different. I remember when the movie Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me came out. I read an article about how the British were somewhat taken aback by the casual American use of a word, that to them, is a fairly strong curse word. It’s like we had title the movie: The Spy Who Fucked Me. But the word “shagged” means nothing to us (unless you mean shag rugs or Shaggy of Scooby-Doo fame) so the MPAA (those censorship assholes) gave the film title a big thumbs up. But none of this is a revelation to me. It’s not that I’ve ever sat down and deliberately pondered it, it’s just that (like much of the book) when I’m reading it I’m thinking, well, duh, yeah.

Generally the book is informative and interesting, but not surprising (except for the chimpanzees—that was an eye-opener and I want to read more on the subject). Maybe it’s because I’ve taken classes in linguistics and this knowledge was just sitting in my brain waiting to be revived? Or because it all seems so reasonable that I’ve never really thought about it? I will bitch about some stuff that irritated me. One thing to remember for the American reader is that this is a British author discussing (mostly) British culture and (a lot of) British culture-based research. If this were a book about chemistry, that possibly wouldn’t matter but as she often uses examples based on (British) culture, it is relevant. American culture and British culture are very different. When she makes somewhat generic statements about profanity and taboos and culture, does she mean only British culture? That’s difficult to know. In her chapter on gender and swearing, Byrne writes: “Sometime around the early eighteenth century there was a significant change in culture” (145). Does she mean ONLY British culture? It’s not clear, but as she is British, I’d guess that’s so. Does this mean her statement (hell, the whole chapter) is accurate for ONLY British culture? Tough to know. She also writes sentences like this: “Some words make for terrific indicators of social difference: think of the class and age distinctions in England that underlie the difference between ‘mum’ and ‘mummy’” (155). Um…I’m American. I have no fucking clue. I mention this only because the book was sold without it being identified as a British book, which makes a difference for American (and probably other cultures) readers. However (and I find this really weird), the American (?) publishers changed any mention of “football” to “soccer,” even though the whole book itself is very British-y.

I disliked the entire chapter about Tourette’s Syndrome which she subtitled “Why This Chapter Shouldn’t be in This Book.” She’s right, it shouldn’t be. People afflicted with TS use profanity against their will; they do not have involuntary movements or sounds, those outbursts are unvoluntary—that is, they don’t want to make them but can’t control them. Profanity is shouted because it is deeply emotional, but the person shouting does not want to use the profanity at all. So while I could understand her briefly mentioning TS, it doesn’t deserve a whole chapter. She included it as an excuse to lecture readers about TS and how awful it is and how we (the ignorant, unfeeling public) should not mock or abuse someone afflicted with TS. I agree with what she’s saying but how she says it pisses me off. The last paragraph is very “let’s shame the reader into being more tolerant” and condescending.

The only major mention of American swearing culture is a trip she took to Illinois to interview some pursed lip, tight-assed, prissy misogynist named James V. O’Connor, founder of the Cuss Control Academy. This linguistic Puritan delivers speeches around the country to corporations and schools about how not to swear. Why is swearing such an epidemic now (vs. being an ongoing problem)? Guess…c’mon…who’s the culprit here? Why, women of course! His list: the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, women’s liberation, women entering the workplace…really, the guy is no different than any other old white guy bigot misogynist. His nostalgia for a “simpler” and more “respectable” time is when white men ruled and nothing stood in their way. And isn’t that the point? The author is a chicken and does not call him out on his clean-talking campaign for what it is (she “scurries” home) and not only that, she doesn’t even call him out in her own fucking book. Byrne, you’re a wuss. She also overuses the word “jocular.” It’s everywhere. Maybe it’s a favorite of the British, but every time I read it I thought of Father Mulcahy of M*A*S*H: “Jocularity! Jocularity!”

My only other complaint (I guess I had a lot of them) is the section dividers. For a book about profanity, you’d think the design department could come up with something more creative than a single exclamation mark (!) to separate sections. How boring. At least use all of the profanity symbols: #$!&@.

Swearing is Good For You but I don’t need this book to tell me so. This is mildly interesting and somewhat amusing, but Emma Byrne is a poor woman’s Mary Roach. Go find a Mary Roach book (she’s a science writer) and I’m sure you’ll agree.
Profile Image for Molly.
1,202 reviews52 followers
April 26, 2018
I received access to this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

If you are looking for exciting new swears to use, this is not the book for you - especially since researchers are apparently hesitant to use the *actual* swear words patients employ when writing studies, something that is slowly turning around (thank goodness).

If you are interested in how swearing helps you to withstand or alleviate pain, strengthens bonds between colleagues and teammates, or how it disparately affects men and women in social situations, though, then this *is* the book for you! I learned a lot here, and there was a bonus chapter on Tourette's syndrome that really opened my eyes to that particular condition and corrected some previous assumptions I had about its relationship to unprompted cursing.

Byrne writes very accessible prose, even when she is reporting on academic studies, and that made this title much more fun than it might otherwise have been. Next time someone scolds me about my occasionally sailor-esque vocabulary, I'm hoping to have a copy of this book on hand to chuck at them. Or I'll just ramp up my swearing.
56 reviews
February 7, 2018
If you are going to "read" this book, I highly recommend the audiobook. I typically don't listen to audiobooks, except for the occasional 5+ hour car ride. Well let me just say, audiobook is the way to go with this one! The first half of the book was not only interesting, but was so much fun (probably more fun than I should admit) listening to a woman spewing cuss words in a British accent like it was nothing. She even eases smoothly back and forth from different languages. That alone was worth the listen.
The second half is a little slower and takes more effort to listen to, as it is more about the science and studies of language and not so many cuss words themselves. However, it was still interesting to hear about the studies. I've always been the type that felt cussing had its place. I don't cuss left and right like some people I know, but I do believe certain words used in specific ways and places in our language gives a more appropriate emphasis on what we are trying to say. Cuss words have their purpose.
Profile Image for Klaudia_p.
488 reviews81 followers
April 10, 2020
Przyznaję, w pierwszej chwili podchodziłam nieco sceptycznie. Naukowe podejście do bluzgów jest jak najbardziej zasadne. Aż sama zaczęłam się zastanawiać, w jakich sytuacjach najczęściej bluzgam. I jak to moje bluzganie postrzegają inni. Przeklinanie nadal jest mocno uwarunkowane płciowo i kulturowo, choć to akurat się zmienia. Właściwie to nawet należy "Jebać społeczne potępienie. Pozwólmy facetom płakać, dajmy kobietom bluzgać: wszyscy potrzebujemy tych środków wyrazu". Nie ma co zaprzeczać, "rzucać kurwami" też trzeba umieć.
Profile Image for Sarah.
314 reviews6 followers
January 21, 2023
A fun little bowl of potpourri about swearing! My favorite chapter was the one on chimpanzee swearing…SO FASCINATING! I also thought it was really interesting how aphasia from strokes affects swear words differently and how swearing in one’s mother tongue is more powerful than in a second language.
Profile Image for Becky.
108 reviews
May 27, 2018
This is the most hilarious book chock-full of f*cking awesome stories about swearing and human nature. Spontaneous swearing with chimps to a scary as h*ll brain injury this was a wild ride that I didn't want to put down.
Profile Image for Priya.
442 reviews
January 22, 2021
I am so annoyed with this book. There were some interesting bits in there, if you combed through a lot of scattered ideas. Cool things -
1. The idea that swearing is a way to bond with people
2. The idea that swearing actually reduces our physical response to pain!
3. The idea that even chimps can be trained to swear / a kind of swearing (and also taboo humour) exists in chimp communication too
What I didn't like - the book should not have existed at all. It could have been a couple of essays at best! There were so many random tangents that got in the way of what the book had actually set out to do. For instance, the whole chapter on gender roles and swearing did not really answer why "swearing is good for you," nor did anything the author had to share on swearing in other languages. Seriously; these patchwork chapters compiled from here and there - why did they exist in this book?

No, really - the reason I am so annoyed is because I do find the topic fascinating. I find it hilarious and interesting how swearing can elicit a range of responses from people, and very heartfelt responses at that, whether positive or negative. And though the author makes it a point to remind us now and then just how much she loves to swear, she doesn't even come close to achieving what she claims to do. I loved what Benjamin Bergen did in his book on the topic - What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains and Our Selves. So if you're looking for a book on swearing that talks about just 'why' it is so cathartic and compelling and taboo; the science and linguistics of it, go read that one instead.
Profile Image for Kat.
1,601 reviews27 followers
September 17, 2017
Thank you to Netgalley and W. W. Norton & Company for an E-ARC of this novel.
I must say I didn't give this book much credit before I read it because 1) new author (always skeptical) and 2) the title seemed a little hard to believe. Emma Byrne does an excellent job on making a case for the science behind bad language. The history of swearing and how is benefits our health is quite incredible. Byrne states in her novel that "swearing has helped to develop the field of neurosciences through studies of emotions and the human brain". It is a fascinating book filled with great history, swears, and information. I would recommend this read, but only to adults. ;) I think a lot of Christians will turn away from the title, as might I have, but I have a degree in Social Sciences. I found it thought provoking and insightful from a scholarly point of view. Emma Byrne has created a book for English, Psych, Sociology majors that is a great introspect to the human behavior. I think mainstream readers will like it because not only is it funny, but her history of swearing as a language is quite fascinating.
Profile Image for Emma Gerts.
291 reviews24 followers
January 12, 2020
This was a delightful and interesting read, as I had hoped. Byrne's fluent, friendly tone is easy to read without feeling patronising or less rigorously scientific for it. She's clearly passionate about the social and neurological implications of swearing, and this runs the gamut from swearing as relief for physical and mental pain, as a social lubricant and tool of bonding, to the social and cultural differences between swearing in different languages and cultures and what it says about us. Her chapter of gender-based swearing was particularly interesting, as were the experiments she discussed regarding the value of swearing as pain relief. I was also delighted by her break down of popular movies based on the 'fpm' or 'fucks per minute'. While this book could have easily been gratuitous, clikcbait style science, it was genuinely fun while also being engaging and informative. The lack of censorship of the various swears included was also a refreshing change from having everything bleeped out.
Overall this was a really interesting read! I can recommend for anyone who's interested in language and culture, as long as you aren't prudish about a few fucks.
Profile Image for Candice.
202 reviews
December 12, 2017
“Swearing is Good for You” surpasses simple humor or personal validation. Emma Byrne has included chapters on; neuroscience, pain perception, Tourette’s syndrome, workplace swearing, other primates that swear, gender differences and swearing in other languages. I found her book thorough and well-written. My favorite part of the book is her explanation of British cursing. I will now have a much greater appreciation for BBC television programs!
1 review
November 14, 2017
I really enjoyed reading this - it's a nice mix funny anecdotes and clear examples of recent research about swearing, from neuroscience, workplace studies, gender studies and so on. I loved the explanations of why we swear (such as avoiding violence, team-bonding) that go beyond just describing how people swear.
Profile Image for Perry.
1,170 reviews1 follower
December 23, 2017
Excellent book on the power and utility of swearing. I gave swearing up for awhile when I thought "go away" and "nonsense" were as good as F-off and BS, but there is power in the swears.
Profile Image for Anne.
472 reviews11 followers
February 28, 2018
Did not finish. I just got bored and switched to something else and never wanted to go back. It's unfair to Mary Roach to call Emma Byrne another Mary Roach.
Profile Image for Lis Carey.
2,150 reviews93 followers
March 3, 2021
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.
Profile Image for Davenport Public Library Iowa.
380 reviews42 followers
September 18, 2021
An overview of the scientific research around swearing, in many arenas of life. The author goes down a number of interesting pathways, all leading to the same conclusion: swearing is nothing new, and nothing to be ashamed of.

This book is a quick read with a lot of fun things to learn and an engaging writing style (that doesn't shy away from dropping f-bombs). If you're interested in the history of swear words, chimps learning sign language, how swearing helps with pain, international swearing, or how gender and swearing work, you'll love this book.
Profile Image for Simon Worrall.
25 reviews3 followers
January 29, 2018
This is a really funny, and clever, book. I recently had the pleasure to interview the author, Emma Byrne, for National Geographic's weekly column, Book Talk. And as Emma shows in her book, Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language, far from being simply lazy language or an abusive lapse in civility, new research reveals that profanity has many positive virtues, from promoting trust and teamwork in the office to increasing our tolerance to pain.
Profile Image for Carol.
199 reviews5 followers
February 27, 2018
Guard your delicate sensibilities and prepare to expand your vocabulary! Full of foul language and subtle British humor, this book takes an in depth look at swearing with studies I had no idea did or should ever exist. A little dry in the middle, but still amazing.
Profile Image for Janelle.
13 reviews
February 22, 2019
This book discusses and explores the history of swearing and topics like how swearing can diminish pain experienced, can bond people together or strengthen existing relationships, how it is learned/developed alongside language acquisition, and the traditional social gender roles of swearing (men = power/women = impure) and how they are beginning to change. Mostly, it validated my (occasional to moderate) swearing.
60 reviews1 follower
January 8, 2018
Funny to read, interesting, very well researched and yet easy to follow. Can't wait to read more from Emma.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 255 reviews

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