Paul's Reviews > Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language

Swearing Is Good for You by Emma Byrne
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it was amazing

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.
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Reading Progress

April 3, 2018 – Started Reading
April 3, 2018 – Shelved
April 6, 2018 –
60.0% "Besides being a scream, this book has some real insights into swearing and men v. women. It's still a very sexist society, and the unwritten rules we live by were written down in the 1600s or 1700s. Some progress as women gain empowerment. Lots of social psychology test results, limited as they are."
April 6, 2018 – Finished Reading

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message 1: by Lorilin (new) - added it

Lorilin Interesting review, Paul. I've had a lot of experiences with people like that student in your class, so I know how frustrating it can be... This books looks good. I'm going to have to check it out!


Paul I think you'll like it.


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