I have a bit of a problem with swearing. Actually, it’s not a problem – I’m really f*cking good at it. I can turn the air blue in anger, in joy, and for no reason at all than to wrap my tongue around one of those gorgeous words that I know make people laugh, gasp and occasionally, tut.
My problem is trying to edit these words out of my vocabulary to suit those around me. Like when we visit the in-laws. Or the time I gave birth in the hospital my husband works in and he begged me not to scream ‘c*nt’ within earshot of his boss.
Or – and this is the worst and hardest ask – anytime my five-year-old daughter is within earshot. I struggled not to smile when she said ‘shitbags’, because I personally find expletives flying out of her cherubic little mouth really entertaining.
I know, I know. There are so many words in the English language, surely swearing is unnecessary. It’s not big and it’s not clever.
But it turns out, that might not be the case after all. Scientist Emma Byrne has researched the ins and outs of swearing and found that perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to hate on a good expletive. Her book, Swearing Is Good For You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language (out now) gathers together all sorts of research in defence of a potty-mouth, starting with why it’s not a sign of a limited vocabulary.
“On the contrary, the more fluent you are at swearing, the more fluent you’re likely to be overall,” Emma explains. “Studies also show that swearing isn’t strongly correlated with having a particularly angry or miserable personality either – happy and confident people swear just as much as anyone else.”
According to some of the research, swearing can even improve you as a person. You hear that, mum?! I could be a better person for all the effing and blinding. “It’s true,” says Emma, “You need an extremely accurate theory of mind to swear effectively – a clear mental picture of how the other person is going to respond. That process of modelling what other people feel makes us more empathetic.”
So it might not be so bad after all, but still – why is it so alluring to me? Is it the risk of offence that makes me savour a good swear? That it feels a bit rebellious?
“That’s certainly part of the appeal,” says Emma, “Swearing relies on taboos. But it’s also cathartic and make us feel braver than we are. When we swear our heart rate tends to go up. It may be that this sort of ‘psyching up’ helps us stand pain for longer. It’s also a good bonding tool. Learning to swear is part of learning what your values are as an adult, and is part of identifying people who have the same values. We use swearing to identify our emotional ‘tribe’.”
I can definitely relate – the C-bomb has to be the ultimate social barometer going. Still, not everyone loves it. “Swearing is emotionally very powerful and some people might not be comfortable handling those emotions. I think it’s a shame though. It’s a very raw, human way of expressing ourselves and it’s always sad when someone misses out on that.”
I agree – it’s sad. But I would, wouldn’t I, because I f*cking love it.