It’s f***ing good to meet you,” says Dr Emma Byrne, with a wide smile when we meet after one of her sessions at the recently-concluded Tata Lit Live! festival in Mumbai. There’s no reason to be offended, especially not after enjoying her immensely readable popular science debut, Swearing is Good For You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language (2017), a deep dive into not just the neuroscience behind swearing, but also the colourful history of the world’s most popular cuss words. The 44-year-old British scientist and writer is ball of energy as she discusses the context of ‘bad’ words, and how gendered profanity can be. Excerpts:
You were inspired to write this book after reading about a particular study carried out by Dr Richard Stephens. Could you tell us more?
Dr Stephens is a behavioural psychologist at Keele University, UK, and he’s interested in why we do the things that we’ve been told are bad for us. Initially, he’d conducted an experiment with 67 volunteers: They stuck their hands in ice water and he noted if they were using a swear word or a neutral word. The results showed that those who swore could keep their hands in the iced water for half as longer than others. Swearing really does allow you to withstand pain for longer.
What are three of your favourite rude words?
I really like the compound ones. There’s something about having a swear word that is then undercut by something that’s rather childish. We have cockwomble — womble is a fictional animal in the UK. My favourite is spunktrumpet. It’s what you call somebody who’s being an obnoxious jerk, a wanker. I grew up in Yorkshire, and we use wazzock, which also means an annoying person.
Your book begins with the memory of you being smacked for calling your younger brother a ‘twat’ — you’d thought it was a funny way of saying ‘twit’.
I said it in all innocence. But I realised that some words were more powerful than others, that you couldn’t say them without consequences. Later, as I grew up, I also discovered that some words were gendered. It differs from generation to generation, though. For example, the c-word was used by both men and women when I was growing up. But it’s sort of taboo now, especially in the generation of women who are about 10-15 years younger than me.
In 2011, a new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was published without the n-word, which appears 200 times in the original text. It polarised readers, academics and historians. How does one approach such a debate?
There’s a difference between speech that’s designed to intimidate and marginalise people, and swearing. Whenever anybody starts pleading for a single discourse, it comes from a position of immense privilege. It shouldn’t be about censorship, because that erases history and the stories of people who were oppressed.
When it comes to swearing, there’s a double standard when it comes to men and women.
Studies have shown us that women don’t swear less than men, but the consequences are very different. In a male-dominated setting, a woman who swears is likely to bond well with the boys. If she swears in front of other women, it could either be accepted or she could be dismissed, based on the kind of social conditioning those women have experienced.
In the last few years, women have really taken ownership of the word “bitch”. What do you make of that?
Yes! Look at what happens when you compound it with other words: ‘boss bitch’ or ‘badass bitch’. That usage is closely tied up to what we actually use swear words for: to express ourselves.
Then why is swearing considered bad?
I haven’t quite got to the bottom of it as yet. I think it’s because we’re trying to maintain the magic of swearing. When a word loses its taboo status, it ceases to be an effective swear word.