A-Z of the Science of Swearing with author Emma Byrne
Ahead of her profound and profaine Oxford talk next week, Emma Byrne, author of Swearing Is Good For You, shares her titillating insights of the rise and fall of taking offence through the centuries.…
“In much of the English-speaking world, Oxford is synonymous with the dictionary. And while dictionaries are an information boon to readers and writers everywhere, they’re pretty useless when it comes to researching swearing.
That’s because dictionaries are both cultural and commercial products: the data they present is intended to be sufficient that the reader should be able to understand the core lexicon of a language, but by its very nature, swearing is often in the margins.
For the ease of the contemporary researcher, the current version of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has a wide range of swear words, with notes on their power and usage. However, at the height of Victorian prudery, the OED went so far as to offer the word ‘ineffables’ for trousers. The thought of defining and describing the attire that covered the lower half of a man’s body was just too steamy for words!
From the earliest compilations, lexicographers have been skirting around taboo language. For example, when he compiled his dictionary in 1538, Sir Thomas Elyot was in no doubt as to the kinds of people who look up dirty words and was having none of it. ‘If anyone wants obscene words with which to arouse dormant desire while reading, let him consult other dictionaries,’ he wrote. It was a matter of great regret during my research for Swearing is Good for You that I never did manage to track down one of these more obliging tomes!
I kept thinking of how Dr Johnson would have responded to my dogged pursuit of strong language – albeit for purely scientific purposes. When he was praised by two society ladies for having left ‘naughty words’ out of his dictionary, he reportedly replied, ‘What! My dears! Then you have been looking for them?’
But of course they had. Sometimes offensive, frequently shocking, always powerful, swearing is endlessly fascinating. “
Emma Byrne is an AI researcher with an interest in the neuroscience of swearing. She likes to explore methods for conducting unusual experiments to find out the weird and wonderful stuff in our minds.
Emma will be signing copies of her book ‘Swearing is Good For You’ which you can purchase on the night.
Tickets for Emma’s talk ‘Swearing Good for you’ on Thursday 16th November at the Story Museum, Oxford 7PM-8PM are available here – come along and have an ‘effing good time.