Friday, March 23, 2018

Blue Language Is Healthy

The Amazing Science of Bad Language
The New York Times b

The Amazing Science of Bad Language
by Emma Byrne
232 pp. Norton. $25.95

In the 1960s, a chimpanzee named Washoe learned how to sign. Shortly thereafter, as Byrne tells us in this entertaining and thought-provoking book, she learned how to swear.

Roger Fouts — now a respected primatologist; then a lowly research assistant — was tasked with potty-training Washoe, who lived with researchers almost as if she were a human member of their family. 

Eventually, Washoe internalized the notion that “dirty” (the sign for feces) was shameful outside of the toilet. Soon, “dirty” became her favorite insult. “Dirty monkey,” she signed at the macaque that scared her. “Dirty Roger,” she signed at Fouts when he refused to let her out of her cage.

The potty-mouthed Washoe may help us understand what happened when early humans learned to lob the idea of excrement at one another instead of the real thing. Swearing, Byrne argues, helped us begin to form stronger societies. Today, a well-placed curse word at work can help colleagues bond; studies have also found that swearing, curiously, often indicates that someone is less likely to become physically violent. Perhaps it’s a little like the way toddlers finally, blessedly, learn to use their words instead of their fists, or their teeth.

Your enjoyment of this book will be strongly correlated to your level of tolerance for summaries of psychological studies. (Mine is high.) Regardless, Byrne’s enthusiasm for her esoteric subject is contagious, damn it. A chapter toward the end explores the complications of swearing in a second language, endorsing the intriguing idea that you don’t truly know a foreign tongue unless you understand how to curse in it. Swearing suggests that you’ve absorbed a culture, including its taboos, a trickier accomplishment than it may seem. Consider, for example, the poor souls who translated “Pulp Fiction” into Spanish, a language in which there is no word quite as offensive and as adaptable as our beloved English F-word. “I’m not necessarily encouraging people to swear more,” Byrne writes, “but I do hope you might give it the respect it [expletive] deserves.”

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