F*ck This Sh*t! Why Do So Many Book Titles Swear?
A polite word of warning before you start: this article discusses the use of swear words in book titles. Therefore, it contains many, many curse words. It is not our intention to offend you but to inform you — in the name of linguistics.
How would you react if someone called you “the biggest coward that ever pissed?” Or told you that you have “turd in your teeth?” Well, these useful phrases are nothing other than excerpts from a 16th-century children’s textbook designed to teach Latin. Isn’t that frickin’ awful?
Well, to be frank, the literary landscape hasn’t changed much.
Bookshelves and bestseller lists teem with books that carry offensive words or cusses in their titles. Be it Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Jen Sincero’s You Are a Badass or newer titles joining the ranks, like The Asshole Survival Guide and How to Get Sh*t Done – there are shitloads of books that make use of a linguistic delicacy way too long suppressed. And wrongly so, argues Melissa Mohr in her history of swearing, Holy Sh*t.
In fact, cursing and profanity aren’t new developments in human history. These practices have always been a big part of mankind’s linguistic environment. The use of swear words can be dated back to the beginnings of ancient Rome, although most of our contemporary curse words originated in the Medieval era. The only difference is that back then, these and other words relating to the body weren’t considered obscene at all, but a quite common feature of colloquial speech.
Fun fact: Romans shouted obscene language relating to genitalia and sex during wedding ceremonies to promote fertility.
But when industrialization took hold across the western world, swearing began to be perceived as crude and vulgar. As the middle and lower classes were becoming increasingly civilized, privacy was no longer a luxury of the rich – and therefore, bodily functions that were once carried out in public with total nonchalance were now hidden, only performed behind the closed doors that the population could now afford. All of a sudden, words like ‘bollocks’, ‘cunt’ and ‘shit’ were viewed as below the belt, quite literally.
However, this perception is currently shifting.
In the U.S., books have gotten a lot more profane over the last six decades, a recent study led by author and psychology professor Jean Twenge shows. Her team analyzed text from almost 1 million publications between 1950 and 2008 that were taken from the Google Books corpus of American English books. They found that modern books are 28 times more likely to contain curses and swear words than books published in the ‘50s, with the winner being ‘motherfucker’ — since the early 1950s, its usage in books has increased 678 times! Our beloved ‘fuck’ only appeared 168 times more frequently. That said, that number might have increased dramatically with the publication of The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck and How to be F*cking Awesome.
Twenge notes that this rise of fleeting expletives correlates with an increase in American individualism over the last several decades, and she suggests that “swearing is linked to personality traits such as extraversion, dominance, narcissism, and neuroticism,” which all increased by far among individuals in the West. And with a boost in confidence, an equal boost in swearing comes along.
“Individualism is a cultural system that emphasizes the self more and social rules less. So as social rules fell by the wayside, and people were told to express themselves, swearing became more common.”
But this is only half of the story. There must be another reason for authors’ and publishers’ decision to flood the market with titles that swear.
Fittingly, we find parts of the answer in Steven Pressfield’s 2016 book Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t. In his guide to good writing, he explains that you have to have a concept in your writing that attracts readers and keeps them engaged – an idea or image that turns a dull product into something special, surprising, or exciting. That way, marketers and publishers grab our attention, as Patrick Renvoisé and Christophe Morin illustrate in their book Neuromarketing.
That means, in using vivid and figurative language that elicits emotions, – just like these goddamn swear words – we give nudges to the brain’s decision-making center. The rest is quite simple for the brain: this product evoked a certain feeling in me, which makes it memorable – let’s buy it.
So, are all these cuss words are popping up everywhere because it’s a good marketing strategy?! Well, sort of, yes, but there’s also good news: swearing is good for you! At least that is what Emma Byrne’s book tells us. Enhanced swearing (which might be a result of surrounding yourself with books that swear a lot) has been shown to increase our tolerance to pain and to lower anxiety.
Fun fact: Researchers have found that you can keep your hand immersed in extremely cold water for an extra 40 seconds if you swear instead of using neutral words to express your discomfort.
But no matter if titles like The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck or Holy Sh*t help you overcome anxieties and trauma, or are just a fun read for you; it is certain that we expect to see more of them in our local bookstores.
As a little bonus, here’s a clip from Fry’s Planet Word in which actor Brian Blessed tests the theory that swearing can help you withstand discomfort.