Day 6

'Swearing is Good for You': The evolutionary advantages of f-bombs

In her new book, computational neuroscientist Emma Byrne says there are scientific rationales for swearing. Also, it's kinda fun.
Emma Byrne is a computational neuroscientist. Her new book, 'Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language,' reveals why we swear and the good that comes of it. (Anansi Press)

Sailors, chimpanzees and rowdy teenagers have one vocal tick that unites them: a love of swearing.

Computational neuroscientist Emma Byrne loves foul language too, and she says there's a strong scientific defense for letting the f-bombs fly. 

"One of the amazing things about swearing that's different to the rest of our language is how much it pulls on the emotional centres of the brain," Byrne tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

"If people have strokes that pretty much decimate their ability to use language at all, they can still swear in a really fluent and effective manner."

Byrne's new book is called Swearing Is Good For You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language. In it, she examines how swearing evolved from the earliest days of human language and how we've honed it into an essential part of our culture.

And as you might expect, she has a favourite curse word.

Click the listen button below if you'd like to hear it.

Computational neuroscientist Emma Byrne wrote a book called "Swearing Is Good For You," and this is her favourite swear word. 0:19


Swear words are more than just words

Byrne says that one of the most important things about swearing is that it's often performative.

When a person is in pain, they may conjure a blue streak to demonstrate their agony to others. Another person might swear to show that they understand the suffering that has taken place.

In Pulp Fiction, the characters swear 429 times, Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), left, and Vincent Vega (John Travolta), right, amongst them. (Jersey Films/Miramax Films)

"You're not just using that emotional part of your own brain," Byrne says. "You're modelling what someone else's emotions are likely to be. So when you're doing swearing in a sort of deliberate and for-effect kind of way, it's actually using so many different parts of the brain at once."


"[Chimps] will use [the dirty sign] in the same way that we use our taboo terms," - Emma Byrne author of Swearing is Good for You


Literally talking $#*!

Our evolutionary cousins, the chimpanzees, also swear when given the opportunity, and they do it in a way that's similar to humans.

Chimps express a significant amount of their displeasure with one another by throwing their feces.

That's a problem for scientists who want to teach chimps sign language, and want to bring chimps into a facility to live with them in order to do that.

To keep the feces from flying, the researchers potty train the chimps, and they've found that the chimps soon become ashamed if they screw up the process.

Washoe died on Oct. 30, 2007 of natural causes at the research institute in Ellensburg, Wash. where she was kept, according to The Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute at Central Washington University. (Central Washington University/Associated Press)

The chimps use the sign for 'dirty' as a stand-in for the word 'feces', and Byrne says they get creative with it.

"They will use [the dirty sign] in the same way that we use our taboo terms," she says.

"And not only that, they'll inflect it either by repeating it or by doing it more violently to the point that, if they're really angry, you can hear the teeth clicking together across the entirety of the compound."

Among chimps, the term 'dirty' can also be used as an insult or a slur, according to Roger Fouts, co-author of Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees. 

In the book, Fouts relates the story of a chimp named Washoe, who would cuss out the researchers whenever they did things she didn't like.

When Fouts declined to give her more cake at a party, she signed "dirty Roger." She did the same thing when Fouts wouldn't let her out of her cage.  

The swearing would even extend to other primates. Washoe signed "dirty monkey" to a macaque that frightened her. 

"It's kind of how we would use the phrase 'dumbass,'" Byrne says, adding that Washoe ended up using "dirty monkey" for any primate who couldn't sign.  

Children follow a similar pattern.

Soon after they are toilet trained, their more outwardly violent behaviour, such as hitting or throwing massive temper tantrums, will often start to diminish, replaced by potty language, Byrne explains.

"That switch to something that is linguistically powerful rather than physically harmful is a huge advantage to us as a society."


Benefits of swearing

(Anansi Press)

If swearing is built into our biology, it might be to our benefit.

Byrne cites a 2009 study about the effect of swearing on pain tolerance, which found that many people could keep their hand in a bucket of ice water longer if they swore repeatedly.

But even with all of these benefits, Byrne isn't convinced we should give in to the urge to gleefully spew out curses at every opportunity.

"The problem with that," she says, "is that taboos wear out."

"For example, my grandparents would not have liked me using any words that were remotely blasphemous. But they would have used certain words that I cannot bring myself to say now, in nursery rhymes or in children's books." 

"And I really don't want slurs to be the taboos that we end up using. Whereas the things to do with copulation and excretion, let's say, tend to bring us together in the human experience."

"We're all the result of some copulative activity in one way or another," Byrne says.

"And everybody poops."  

To hear the full interview with Emma Byrne, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.