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This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, take a screengrab of language mooning the Google Streetview cameras.
Coming up in today’s show is some GREAT NEWS! And also some swearing, so take whatever precautions you deem necessary. Wrap up the good china. Send the cats to the cattery. Lock your child in the panic room with a two week supply of Ribena and Judy Blume novels. Then put on your ceremonial swearing-robes and meet me back here in the time it takes to say *%$! !£$%.
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On with the show.
EMMA BYRNE: One of the fantastic things that I discovered during researching the book is that this idea that people who swear have less broad vocabularies, or are somehow less skilled with language, is completely false; and that people who have the broader vocabularies and the wider ability to express themselves also tend to use the wider vocabulary of swearing, and to express themselves liberally with swearing when it's appropriate.
HZ: One of my school teachers used to say disapprovingly, “Swearing is the sign of a small vocabulary.” Which I knew at the time doesn’t make sense, because if you cut out the swears, your vocabulary is at least ten to fifty words smaller. And now, some 25 years later, I’m glad to hear a scientist proving him wrong too.
EMMA BYRNE: I'm Dr Emma Byrne; I am the author of Swearing is Good for You.
HZ: Rejoice! Swearing is good for you!
HZ: So why is swearing good for you?
EMMA BYRNE: It's good for us socially, in that it is this really useful telegraph of our emotions; it's a good way of avoiding physical conflict. It's also a really good way of bonding, of saying "I hear you. I feel the strength of your emotions," like saying "Fuck that shit" when someone comes to you with something that's obviously upset them. Sometimes it needs to be something stronger than just putting your arm around their shoulder going, "Oh there, there". It's also really useful individually, both for a cathartic side of things when you do something painful or frustrating, letting it out there.
HZ: Another reason swearing is good for you: it relieves pain.
EMMA BYRNE: That is really potent and surprisingly well documented. When you stick your hands, for example, in freezing cold water, you can stand it for about half as long again if you’re using a single swear word than if you're using a single neutral word. Not only that: when afterwards you're asked about how painful that experience felt, you report that cold water as feeling much milder than the water that you had your hand in while you were using some neutral word. So we know that it's really handy for dealing with pain that's being inflicted on you. We also know that it's quite useful, for example, among people who are suffering from long term conditions - so not pain that's been inflicted in a lab, the pain that is ongoing. So managing particularly the emotional aspects of long term pain, a good swear can be cathartic.
HZ: Don’t undervalue that cathartic expletive. When you swear, complex processes are happening in your brain.
EMMA BYRNE: Swearing's a really great case study for how, actually, we need so many different parts of the brain to be working together in concert in order to do the stuff that we do. So it is a beautiful concert our brains are playing in order to create this particular part of language; and no other part of language seems to require so much input from so many different parts.
HZ: Swearing requires several different mental functions to be engaged simultaneously - summoning a word, using it correctly, assessing and expressing your emotional state, matching your choice of word for the reception of other people. All this in the time it takes to stub your toe. [Stubs toe.] Argh fucking ouch!
EMMA BYRNE: So if you're going to use it in a way that allows you to express yourself emotionally and deliberately, you need the left and right side of the brain to be working really well in concert. You need the part that's responsible for our planned and deliberate language - which tends in most of us to be concentrated on the left - and you also need stuff on the right that allows you to model your own emotions, but also the emotions of the people that you're talking to, and the likely emotional effect of swearing on them because if you don't have that good theory of mind, then your swearing will just fall flat.
HZ: You don’t just need to feel emotions to swear; you need to have a concept of emotions.
EMMA BYRNE: So if you have damage to the right hand side of the brain - to the bits where we usually fairly loosely say it's the emotional part the brain - if you damage that side, you can't understand jokes anymore, but also you completely lose the urge to swear. And you can't really tell whether or not, if you're questioned, would it be socially appropriate to swear here or what kind of word might be appropriate; you do no better than random guessing.
So we know that, even though it's linguistically very complex, if you take away the emotional component, your ability to swear effectively just goes out the window.
HZ: Absolute fucking nightmare.
EMMA BYRNE: But if you have damage on the left, you lose the ability to swear fluently or in a way that is deliberate. But you can still use swearing in that cathartic way or in that just purely emotionally driven way.
HZ: One of the most famous case studies in neuroscience examined the effects of damage to the left side of someone’s brain.
EMMA BYRNE: Oh, Phineas Gage, the hero of the American Railway!
HZ: And I have to warn you, the case of 25-year-old railway foreman Phineas Gage is a bit gory. Maybe sit out for a couple of minutes. One afternoon in September 1848, he was at work in Vermont, directing his team to blast through rock to prepare for a railway track to be laid, when some unfortunate combination of explosives and equipment resulted in a metre-long iron rod shooting right through Phineas Gage’s left cheek, past the back of his left eye, and out through the top of his head.
EMMA BYRNE: And when the physician who treated him turned up, he said he didn't believe that the pole could have gone through his head, because he saw Phineas sitting up talking to his friends. It's only when he leant over and vomited - the doctor wrote that this forced about a teacup of matter out of the cavity in his skull - that they realised quite how much damage had been done.
HZ: A local doctor, John Martyn Harlow, treated Gage. He wrote two papers about his case.
EMMA BYRNE: He made this amazing description of where he thought the damage had been done and which structures of the brain had gone, and he did this by literally pushing his finger inside Gage's brain and having a good feel around.
HZ: Modern reconstructions of Gage’s injuries agree with the diagnosis Dr Harlow made after explorating Gage’s skull with his fingers: that the patient had lost the left frontal lobe of his brain. That was the teacup-sized amount of matter that had fallen out of his head shortly after the injury.
EMMA BYRNE: And he also documents the changes in Phineas Gage's behaviour. So he becomes impulsive; he becomes much more likely to use profanity when he never had before. He becomes essentially just offensive. And this is one of the first bits of evidence we have that different parts of the brain are responsible for different things, and by taking away one part of the brain, you don't just lower your IQ by some fixed amount; you take away something very specific. The parts of the brain that help control emotional outbursts were the ones that had been so brutally damaged in Phineas Gage's experience.
And he learnt to control his emotions a bit over time, which just speaks to the incredible plasticity of the brain. But certainly he never regained the kind of - he was hardworking, temperate and reliable, and his bosses thought he was absolutely brilliant; until this impromptu lobotomy, at which point he completely loses his ability to essentially "behave himself" in inverted commas. He couldn't stop himself anymore; because he couldn't temper that emotionality, that his outbursts would be entirely uncensored and his ability to know when something was appropriate to say, or when a behaviour was appropriate in company, at least during his initial recovery, was completely shot.
And we know now that a lot of the structures that were destroyed are to do with suppressing some of the emotional content that comes out - so there are parts of the brain that suppress swearing, because it's such a deeply ingrained emotional response, that there are times you find yourself about to utter a swear word and something tells you now is socially risky time to do it so don't. And some of that control is in those frontal lobes, in stuff that we know is responsible for something called executive function - planning and delaying gratification and basically the things you need to do in order to get on with your fellow humans. And the damage that he did to that left him really sweary, basically, because he had no ability to turn off the tap.
HZ: Swearing is so lodged in the brain that it often survives when most other language is not accessible to the speaker. Lauren Marks, who talked in the Eclipse episode of this show about how a stroke wiped all but forty words from her vocabulary, told me that she could still swear torrentially. And this is quite common amongst people who have lost language from brain injuries or conditions like dementia.
EMMA BYRNE: You can damage quite a lot of the linguistic parts of the brain, and still be able to swear because it's so widely distributed - because there is this emotional component to it. So you can't propositionally swear; you can't plan your swearing out; but you can swear spontaneously when you see something that annoys you or frustrates you or excites you. So you have loads of people who are recovering from strokes or are suffering from dementia perhaps, who, the only thing they can do is swear; and they keep being discouraged from doing it, which is a shame because it's pretty much the only way they can express themselves, so the frustration only mounts, because the one form of communication that's left is closed off to them.
HZ: So, essentially, when the rest of their language has decayed, they can still swear grammatically correctly?
EMMA BYRNE: It is not just swearing that tends to be preserved in dementia, although it is one of the last parts of language to go. Anything that has a really emotional content, so things that you hear in childhood a lot, either they're endearments or being told off. And you'll find people with dementia tend to repeat certains phrase that have a real emotional content to them. The same reason underlies the preservation of swearing and the preservation of these other emotional words. That's because these terms in our mind, or these ways of expressing ourselves, these expressions that we've heard, are so widely distributed, they don't just draw on the language side of the brain; they draw on the emotional side of the brain. It's like having multiple backups distributed around the web of information that you have. They reside the longest in our brains because they have the most places to cling on to.
HZ: We may also have a pretty deeply rooted instinct to swear, as beings who combine consciousness with language.
EMMA BYRNE: Chimpanzees spontaneously invent swearing the same way that toddlers do.
HZ: This became apparent from studies of a chimpanzee named Washoe, the first chimp to acquire a human language - in her case, American Sign Language. In 1966, Washoe, then around two years old, was taken into the home of Drs Beatrix and Allen Gardner, who decided to raise her as if she were a deaf human child.
EMMA BYRNE: So in order to really properly teach chimpanzees to communicate, you need to have them come and live among you as a family. But in order to have chimpanzees come and live among you as family, the first you want to do is toilet train them, because they are fairly liberal poo-flingers in the wild. And once you've taught them both a sign that is to do with all things potty-related and taught them that things that are potty-related are taboo, they'll start to use that sign in exactly the same way that we use words like "shit". So the sign is usually rendered as "dirty", and it's made by smacking the underside of the jaw with the back of the wrist.
HZ: But as well as using the sign to refer to excrement, Washoe knew how to deploy it to insult her human company. If, for instance, her long-term researcher Roger Fouts displeased her, she would sign:
EMMA BYRNE: "Dirty Roger, dirty dirty" - because he won't let her go out and play, for example. But we know that ‘dirty’ is otherwise taboo, because if they have an accident somewhere, they'll lie about it; and if they are outside the home in and need to defecate, they'll look for somewhere private to do it even even out in the woods. Chimpanzees who are toilet-trained no longer shit in the woods...
HZ: They've learnt shame!
EMMA BYRNE: I know. We gave them language but we also gave them shame. Whereas they had no shame about copulation - there's a brilliant description of one of the chimpanzees mastirbating with a women's magazine, I think it was Playgirl, and she used to just sit there and masturbate with it - so we didn't give them shame about that. I guess because it's easier to live with a masturbating chimpanzee than it is to live with a shit-flinging chimpanzee; I am not sure, really... So yeah, that was never a swear word for them. You need that taboo element in order for it to have the power that you would have hurl it at somebody, so a chimpanzee is likely to call you a shit but they wouldn't call you a wanker, for example.
HZ: So is it that there are no taboos without shame?
EMMA BYRNE: Definitely: unless there is a reason why you are socially not meant to speak of this thing, it just has no power. So when people try to use these things, even with a similar sort of semantic content, but that aren't taboo terms, things like "bum" or "willy", to stop themselves from feeling pain in the ice water experiment, they just don't work. It absolutely has to be the real deal in order for it to be effective.
HZ: So if you want the health benefits of swearing, as aforementioned, you need to swear properly.
EMMA BYRNE: And it seems that we learn the power, the emotional intensity of swearing, really early on in life. So it's not just swearing, there's also things like childhood rote learning of prayers, or the kind of instructions you'd have heard from your parents - they tend to stay.
HZ: Remember: when swearing in front of children, do so responsibly. You’re moulding their impressionable young minds, so don’t mould them to be incompetent swearers.
EMMA BYRNE: And if you don't have it well-modeled for you, you will pick up swearing anyway. Pretty much from the time that you leave kindergarten, there are certain taboo words the kids start to use almost spontaneously among themselves. So for example, my niece at the moment delights in calling all of us "poo faces" if she's naughty, because she's just been potty trained. She knows that poo is a taboo thing and you can throw this word out quite powerfully, and kids learn that there is this emotion that they can invoke, essentially, by using certain words. But if you don't teach kids how to use it responsibly, either by modelling it or talking about the values they you about language, they will just learn it in the schoolyard and they are going to use it the same way that their peers use it, which is probably not in a way that I as a parent would want my daughter to swear. I'm quite happy for her to see me swearing out of frustration or sympathy or excitement, but she's never heard me swear for example at someone in anger, because that's not a way I want her to use it.
HZ: How old is she?
EMMA BYRNE: She's 2.
HZ: Is there the concern that she'll go to primary school and be quite sweary and the staff aren't going to be swayed by you saying "Well, I wanted her to be a competent swearer in adulthood, you have to start them early"?
EMMA BYRNE: I am a little bit worried that the lessons about context might not be quite as effective as the lessons on the breadth of vocabulary. That's the tricky bit. She might internalize the whole set of these words before she figures out where it is and is not right to use them. But it's really important to have the conversations with your kids about swearing, the same way it's important to have conversations about alcohol or safe sex. It's something that's so socially and emotionally powerful that, if we don't talk to them about pitfalls as well as the pleasures of doing it, they're just going to discover how much fun it is to swear and do it somewhere that it completely gets them into trouble, it's totally inappropriate.
HZ: So you'd rather they swore under your roof.
EMMA BYRNE: Absolutely, yes, where I know that they're safe and that they're only using sanctioned swearwords - because that's the thing, as well, I know that I'm naive in wanting her to take all my values about swearing, to use the ones to do with bodily functions. Because to me, those are great, those are unifying swear words. Everybody poops. But there is this thing that if your parent uses a swear word, by its very nature, it tends to seem less shocking or less powerful; so she'll develop her own taboos. And the thing that worries me is that there are an awful lot of slurs out there that are the big unsayables, and I really don't want those to take over. I want to talk to her about the difference between swearing about something that's a physical bodily taboo, and saying a word that's actually harmful to another person. The F word and the S word, I think, are great because they are basically common to the entire human condition, so I kind of want those to stay powerful.
HZ: Given how common the F and the S actions are, it's remarkable the words are still controversial.
EMMA BYRNE: It is, isn’t it? And there is something specifically about those words because we do have the words we use in, for example, the doctor's surgery. We still feel that emotional strangeness of having to talk about something very intimate with a stranger, but it's not the same emotional impact as the taboo form of the word that is swearing. Talking to the doctor about your bowel movements, for example, is not anything like as cathartic as just yelling "shit!" when you drop something, even though the subject’s ostensibly the same.
HZ: But a lot of people will still dismiss swearing as just crude and kneejerk and unsophisticated or unintelligent. Why would you argue that it is important?
EMMA BYRNE: I think because of its emotional role that it plays in society - that there is nothing else that plays that role. There's nothing that allows us to, essentially, telegraph our emotions quite so clearly. There is nothing that allows us to telegraph our emotions quite so clearly, there's nothing that we have, short of those parental reprimands, that really gets the heart beat going, and really gets the adrenaline racing. There's no part of language that helps us combat pain in quite the same way. If you try using something that sounds similar or that is a milder variant a swear word, it doesn't give you that pain relief, and there's nothing else that allows you to send these subtle social signals about "I'm on the same page as you. If I am prepared to throw out a form of swearing that I think you'll accept, then I'm guessing that you are basically on the same sort of social or emotional level as me.” So it has all of these important functions from painkilling to social bonding; and there is no other set of language that does the same thing.
HZ: You heard it from the doctor. And because being able to swear effectively is clearly so important, I called in an expert.
MATT FIDLER: My name is Matt Fidler and I am the host and creator of a podcast called Very Bad Words, where it's all about swearing and taboo language.
HZ: Do you think we need to be taught to swear properly, or do you think that would somehow spoil it?
MATT FIDLER: Well I don't think we should be taught necessarily as 4-year-olds how to swear. I don't think there should be necessarily pre-K swearing classes or anything like that. "Today we learn about the letter F, children." I don't know if that would necessarily be great. I understand about the spoiling of it because I have great memories sharing the swear words that I knew with my elementary school children. And that was a lot of fun, you know... I mean my friends when I was also in elementary school. I don't have elementary school kids that I hang out with and teach to swear, just to set the record straight. But yeah, I enjoyed that activity; but I think you should learn to swear properly and that's not necessarily something that parents should necessarily sit down and teach their kids to swear. But I think this whole time and place conversation is kind of a way you teach a kid to swear properly by pointing out when they're doing it right and wrong.
HZ: So become a pedant for children's swearing.
MATT FIDLER: Yeah, maybe, a little bit. I think it is maybe my duty to teach them the right way to do it, since I’ve kind of put myself in that position.
HZ: It's like you're the community ambassador for swearing.
MATT FIDLER: It would make sense for who my mother is; my mother was such an amazing swearer, and my grandmother was such an amazing swearer.
HZ: What was great about their swearing technique?
MATT FIDLER: Oh, very passionate and very funny and very off the wall - and very frequent.
HZ: So you really learnt from the best.
MATT FIDLER: I learned from some top notch swearers. And so yes, so maybe maybe I was born into into this.
HZ: Now I'm having a kind of mental vision of kids being taught swearing in schools like we were taught Latin verbs by reciting them and all the different parts of speech.
MATT FIDLER: All the different ways to conjugate the word fuck or something like that. Fucking, fuck, fucked, fuckingly,, or whatever, that kind of thing. Yeah, that's a good idea.
HZ: Maybe it would actually mean there was a whole generation that didn't swear at all because it was associated with something deeply uncool, which is rote learning in schools.
MATT FIDLER: Maybe that could be the way to kill it, like calligraphy or something
HZ: Or doing elaborate calligraphic swears. And selling them on Etsy.
MATT FIDLER: Yeah..
HZ: So if we are going to educate people to swear better, what would be your guidance for them, both as the swearing expert from Very Bad Words but also as a third generation swearer?
MATT FIDLER: What do you mean by ‘swearing better’? Do you mean more offensive or less offensive or more impactful?
HZ: More expressively, more satisfyingly.
MATT FIDLER: Well, I think it's actually similar to any sort of form of communication - is to know your audience, and know what kind of swearing this audience is going to like. I said the wrong kinds of swearing in front of the wrong people and it doesn't get the message across; it actually distracts from the message. So I think knowing your audience is extremely important. If it's a religious person maybe you shouldn't go “Jesus fucking Christ!” If it's an atheist, maybe you should! If it's someone who's really sensitive about shit and bodily functions, maybe you shouldn't say, you know, "holy shit bubbles" or something at people. But some people really like the word ‘fuck’. Some people really hate it. So yeah, know your audience. I think that's really the most important thing. But I also don't swear too often. The more you swear, the less effective it is.
HZ: He’s absolutely right. For instance, my grandmother was firmly anti-swearing. She’d even censor the word ‘blimey’. Except once, a few months before she died, we were having a chat and she said the word “fuck”. When you wait 87 years to drop a swear, it has impact. It was like a portal into another realm of granny’s personality, one that I would never have the opportunity or the permission to know.
Emma Byrne’s book Swearing is Good For You is out now. I learned a lot more than I ever expected there was to learn about swearing: not just about swearing’s pain relief effects, and what we’re doing sociolinguistically and neurologically while we swear, but also about swearing in various cultures, swearing in second languages, swearing for team-building, and how swearing can be advantageous or the opposite depending on the gender of the swearer. Find out more about Emma Byrne and Swearing Is Good For You at emmabyrne.net.
Matt Fidler is the host of the podcast Very Bad Words, a very very interesting and intelligent show about swearing and taboo language that will really get your brain working. Their new season starts on 14th March, so subscribe to Very Bad Words on your podblaster of choice; and you can catch up on previous episodes at verybadwords.com.
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This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with assistance from Martin Austwick, who also provides the music for this show. He’ll be in the house band playing on the Radiotopia tour I mentioned earlier - get your tickets at radiotopia.fm/live.
Follow the Allusionist on Facebook and Twitter, and there are a few other episodes from the archive that are relevant to today’s topic. Baby Talk is about how children acquire language, not just swears, and This Is Your Brain On Language is about how your brain processes language. Those processes going awry is discussed in Eclipse. And then there’s the fourth ever episode of the show, Detonating the C-Bomb, about the strongest swear.
You’ll find every episode of the Allusionist in Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, NPR One, RadioPublic, TuneIn, Spotify, and the many other pod-places, but not Soundcloud any more, so make alternative arrangements if that’s where you were getting this. And on the show’s website, you’ll find all the episodes plus additional reading about each one, and transcripts; you can see the full dictionary entries for every word of the day, and watch my TED talk about the typo on my grandmother’s gravestone - yes, you heard right, there was a typo on her gravestone, a really good one, too. You should watch. That’s all at theallusionist.org.