Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Swearing Is Good for You by Emma Byrne

I've got a new formula for picking books: I don't know if it will help anyone else, but what the hell. When I hit those "I have no idea what to read next" moments, I grab the first plausible nonfiction book by a woman on my shelf.

Nonfiction because I'm a middle-aged man. I don't know exactly why, but those are just easier. My years in the fiction mines might explain part of that, but men of my age have a long and well-chronicled tropism for big fat books of factual stuff, too.

Women because I need to make some kind of choice, and a positive one in that direction at least gets me a little further out of my own head.

That formula got me this book, and it got me the thing I'm currently reading (pretty slowly, for a whole lot of reasons) digitally as well. Perhaps a similar formula (specifying a familiar genre or subgenre, plus something unfamiliar for the author) would work for others.

That's the random reason I read Swearing Is Good for You, a 2018 book from British researcher and journalist Emma Byrne. It's pretty good: another one of those "survey of the field" books, where every chapter is on a discrete subtopic and runs through a bunch of studies and other knowledge, focused on the role of bad language in society and brain chemistry.

It's a short book, and includes notes, a bibliography, and an index, so it's actually even shorter than its 232 pages seem to be. This is not a complaint: I appreciate books with the standard critical apparatus, even if I only rarely look up anything outside the book itself. And books should only be as long as they need to be: I'm not surprised there isn't more research on cursing.

So Good for You has seven chapters, covering the neuroscience of swearing, how pain affects cursing (and vice versa), Tourette's Syndrome, how cursing together bonds and breaks work teams, what language studies of chimpanzees have shown about their use of bad language, gender roles in cursing, and the tricky question of how to translate swears in fiction from one language to another. Each one is fairly discrete, but they do ladder together to form a coherent single book.

I realize I'm writing about a book about swearing, and haven't used any bad words here yet. Oh, fuck! I suppose that will do.

This was entertaining and interesting; it told me things I didn't already know and did that in a lively, authoritative voice. It was everything I look for in a nonfiction book: even the shortness was a big positive. If you're also looking for random nonfiction about random interesting word-related topics, I can recommend this one.

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