It turns out your parents, teachers, principals and priest were all wrong. Swearing isn’t bad. In fact, it might even be helpful, and science is here to prove it.
These are just some of the surprising findings chronicled in “Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language” (W.W. Norton & Company), out Tuesday, by Emma Byrne, a London-based writer.
It’s a poppy, comprehensive look at an often taboo topic.
“We spend so much time saying, ‘Oh, you mustn’t swear in front of this person,’ or, ‘I hope my kids don’t swear,’ but at the same time, we all do it,” Byrne tells The Post. “We have this odd relationship of trying to cure ourselves of something that’s obviously so beneficial.”
One of the benefits of a well-timed expletive is that it may mitigate pain. Psychologist Richard Stephens conducted an experiment in which subjects were asked to stick their hand in ice water and hold it as long as they could.
The subjects conducted the chilling test once while being allowed to yell out a curse word and again while uttering a neutral word like “wooden.” It turns out, when swearing, the subjects could keep their hands submerged longer and their perception of pain went down.
The theory is that swearing utilizes a different part of the brain than everyday language. Bad words are inextricably bound with emotion. Hints of the differences come from studying stroke victims who have had damage to a single brain hemisphere.
“Propositional language, where you plan what you want to say and you have things you need to express — that’s mainly clustered on the left side of the brain,” Byrne says. “Even a small stroke on that side will hinder your ability to express yourself. But even patients who have had an enormous stroke on the left side, who can’t manage any form of propositional language, can still swear really fluently just by pulling on the other side of the brain that deals with emotion.”
Because of their emotionally loaded nature, it’s probably no surprise that four-letter words have a special power. Research conducted in the 1990s suggested that speakers who drop a well-timed “damn” were found to be more persuasive. What’s more, a 2017 study found that people who swear more were perceived to be more honest.
Foul language has also been shown to increase productivity in the workplace. S–t, yeah, you read that right.
“Research shows that swearing can help build teams,” Byrne writes. “From the factory floor to the operating room, scientists have shown that teams who share a vulgar lexicon tend to work more effectively together, feel closer, and be more productive than those who don’t.”
It’s unclear exactly when or how swearing developed, but it does seem pretty certain that dirty words have been with us almost as long as language has.
“That was the most surprising thing to me,” Byrne says, “the idea that you don’t have to wait very long in the invention of culture and language before swearing is just something we want to develop.”
Take our ancestor the chimpanzee. A group of the animals was taught sign language, and guess what happened? The apes quickly developed their own form of swearing. In this case, they hijacked the word “dirty,” which was used to refer to poop, and started signing it in front of their trainer’s name when they got angry — in effect calling their trainer a four letter word that begins with “s”.
Humans learning language are equally quick to figure out a curse.
“Toddlers get this idea that anything to do with the bathroom is taboo, and as soon as they’ve internalized the taboo, they spontaneously start to call people ‘poo faces’ or ‘wee heads’ or whatever,” Byrne says. “It’s just so universal.”
When those little poo-obsessed humans grow up, however, the rules for foul language change slightly. Men and women are held to different standards, Byrne says.
Although women have always sworn privately, they were discouraged — starting around the early 18th century — from expressing themselves so vulgarly in public. An impure mouth, the thinking went, indicated an impure heart and soul.
Nowadays, women are just as likely to curse as men. A 2018 analysis of recorded speech found that the use of the F bomb among females has increased five fold since the 1990s, whereas use among males has decreased. The sexes are now virtually even in their frequency of usage.
Swearing among women is still more socially risky, however, says Byrne, whose favorite swear word is “spunktrumpet.”
“If it backfires, it’s not just a judgment about a poor choice of tone, it’s still seen as being a reflection on your character in a way that it isn’t for male speakers,” the author says.
“Research shows we judge women more harshly, so they have to be careful when they do.”