If we all arrived in some sort of post-racial Scandinavian atheist utopia with bum-jokes, would swear words simply cease to exist?by Sam Leith / April 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Swearwords: can they actually do you good? I was in Glasgow the other day, to talk about my book, Write to the Point,at the Aye Write literary festival. The event, roughly, was billed as “Good Language vs Bad Language.” I shared the stage with the cognitive scientist Emma Byrne, who recently published Swearing Is Good For You. Obviously, she stole the show. (The ******* ****.) Who wants to hear my thoughts about the possessive apostrophe when you can hear Emma tell you how effing and blinding like the proverbial sailor on shore leave can increase your resistance to pain? She recounted, for instance, the story of the so-called iced-water experiment—which found that people can spend one and a half times as long with their hands immersed in freezing water if they’re allowed to swear while they’re doing it. (A televised version of this, featuring Brian Blessed and his extensive repertoire of profanity, was deemed entertaining but not scientific. You’re supposed to stick to one swear word.) There are lots of interesting things about swearing. Various neurological injuries will leave higher speech impaired but their sufferers swearing articulately. Brain injuries that remove taboos and inhibitions also seem to impair the ability to get jokes. In other words (though I oversimplify) there seems to be the suggestion that swear words access a particular part of the brain—one with a marked somatic connection—to which other forms of language do not have access. And the phonetics of the words in question aren’t—as you might imagine—in the least important. Those plosives and fricatives, the mouthfeel of certain swear words, may make them sound sweary, but they only affect our brains in the way they do because of the taboos associated with them. A four-year-old, who thinks “poo” is the worst word in the world, would ace the iced-water experiment with that syllable alone; whereas an adult would need redder meat. Also, as has been widely noted, swearing comes in four categories, handily set out in the mnemonic “Holy ****ing Shit, N***er!”: religious profanity, sexual obscenity, the excremental and—a relatively new contender in most parts of the world but as they’d say on Top of the Pops, a climber—racial or identity-based slurs. In different cultures, these are differently calibrated. In pious Medieval England, “zounds” (for “God’s wounds”) would imperil your mortal soul; whereas the C-bomb would go off with only a muffled explosion (see the innocent bawdy of Chaucer). In Japan, there’s not much of a taboo on excrement (hence the cutesy poo emoji), but sexual swearing is very bad. Only Jamaica seems to have menstruation-related swearing (“bludclaat”). And it seems there are no societies (yet) in which the primary currency of offence is racial slurs. As cultures change, so do their primary taboos—and so do the words that help them win the iced-water challenge. So, I wonder: if swear words have deep neurological roots—if there’s a slot in the human brain that waits to be filled by the verbal expression of a taboo—would it be possible to extirpate them by altering the culture that gives them their power? Could you conceive of a society where we had no hang-ups about sanctity, defecating or making love, and no racial epithet had the power to offend? If we all arrived in some sort of post-racial Scandinavian atheist utopia with bum-jokes, in other words, would swear words simply cease to exist? Would the denizens of this society have nothing to say when they hit their thumbs with a hammer, plunge their hands into icy water, or find themselves sitting next to Piers Morgan at dinner? Or do we have an evolutionary need to have taboos—any taboos—to function? Emma had an answer for this, but it was, “I don’t know.” ****ing typical. The other question she couldn’t answer was: where’s the sweariest place on Earth? I thought: “My house at children’s bedtime,” but said “Glasgow” to flatter the home crowd. Until Billy Connolly left for LA, that might even have been right.