It just feels really good to say "fuck!" Everyone's favorite four-letter word can be an expression of anger, frustration, or celebration. Cursing isn't actually crude at all—it's a complex mix of social signals, emotional expression, and cultural significance, argues Emma Byrne in her new book Swearing Is Good For You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language.
Our love of dirty words is part nurture—shared vulgarities build social cohesion, she posits, whether in an office or a stadium—and part nature. Unlike other aspects of language, swearing triggers a reaction in the subcortex, a more primitive part of the brain that's also responsible for emotions and bodily functions. That connection explains why polyglots generally prefer to curse in their native tongue, even if they rarely use it otherwise, and why swearing has been shown to help deaden pain.
An academic text it is not, but Byrne's entertaining skim through more than a century of research on linguistics, psychology, and other social sciences achieves her goal of giving profanity "the respect it fucking deserves."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Swearing Is Good for You".