Book review: ‘What the F’, by Benjamin K. Bergen

Swear words are powerful things. We use them in anger, in passion, in unguarded moments of strong emotion. But because they’re taboo, we often skate over them and pretend, maybe even to ourselves, that they occurred in a moment of weakness – that they’re not part of who we ‘really’ are. That this is precisely what they are underlies the great appeal of, and need for, the book reviewed here.

Profanity historically has been under-studied, disparaged or ignored by mainstream academia. But some research on it is highly revealing or suggestive, and it is expertly presented in Benjamin Bergen’s What the F: What Swearing Reveals about Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves (publisher Basic Books kindly sent us a copy for review). Bergen is a professor of cognitive science in San Diego, and he describes his book winningly, and accurately, as ‘a coming-out party for the cognitive science of swearing’.

Bergen divides swears broadly into four categories: religion, sex, excretion, and slurs. Surveys in non-English languages confirm the pattern, though there is ample variation in the relative proportions and degrees of offensiveness. And other categories exist, like animals, malediction, death, and disease: in Dutch, ‘the severity of the illness communicates the strength of the profanity’.

Some cultures are extremely punitive towards profanity; others essentially lack it. Where taboo language exists, it tends to accrete around taboo acts and objects. But the taboo comes to inhere in the word itself: fuck remains proscribed regardless of whether sex is being referred to, which it often isn’t. This is a peculiar and stubbornly unresolved property of profanity:

We know that merely hearing or seeing a word stokes an internal mental representation of the things the word refers to. If the word shit causes people to “see” feces in their mind’s eye and “smell” it in their mind’s nose, then the impulse to limit the word’s use is understandable. Or it could be that people hold more metaphysical beliefs about words and their power—that they believe that using words associated with a particular taboo topic will being bad fortune.

benjamin-k-bergen-what-the-f-basic-booksOur hypersocial brains are very sensitive to swear words, having learned their power and special status at an early age. We often avoid them through the use of an ‘internal editor’ that monitors our speech and intervenes when inappropriate taboo language is imminent. Given a series of phrases to read, like kind tiger, calm time, cold tea, tool kits, the latent spoonerism cool tits activates our inner editor and we avoid the mistake more successfully than if the last phrase were tool kicks, where there’s no danger of offence.

One chapter explores the special grammar of profanity. What’s going on in Fuck you, for example? Profanities, Bergen writes, are ‘outliers, but not random ones. They form little coalitions that pattern alike among themselves but flout the rules that apply to nonprofane words.’ Another example is the squatitives, aka vulgar minimisers, like jack-shit. Why do They know jack-shit and They don’t know jack-shit mean the same thing? What the hell, profanity?

When we talk about grammar and try to understand how it works in the human mind, should we be talking about a single grammar or a patchwork of subgrammars specialized for particular purposes? The structure of the grammar seems to be shaped by what you’re trying to do with it.

Speaking of shapes, a bit on the origins of rude gestures leads to the question of their iconicity – do the Bird and Up Yours gestures encode representations of genitalia? Bergen ran an experiment to test this, and presents the results in graphic form. (No, I mean graphs.) It seems that if there is a connection, it’s pretty well buried in the daily rough and tumble of public interaction – though the image below struck me as alarmingly less improbable than it must have done at the time of writing:

Revealing an actual erect penis would probably be out of place in most situations where someone wants to exert dominance. You wouldn’t see that happening at the weigh-in before a mixed martial arts fight or in a presidential debate.

Profane words don’t normally resemble what they mean – but profane gestures often do. There is a brief but illuminating look at profanity in sign languages: how signs for fuck differ in ASL and BSL, how signs for pussy and vagina differ within ASL, and so on. Unlike spoken languages, unrelated sign languages show ‘striking similarities . . . due to iconicity’. Profane signs, in other words, are a lot less arbitrary than profane words.

People whose ability to produce language is impaired through brain injury may retain the ability to swear. Bergen clarifies what this means about how the brain processes different types of language. And of course there are different types of profanity, and slurs are a special case. Despite legal and other sanctions against swears in many cultures, there is no evidence that they cause direct harm. Several studies, however, have shown negative effects from slurs – which leads to ethical difficulties in studying them.

One chapter, on children’s first words, didn’t work so well for me inasmuch as it was structured as a series of reveals with which I was already familiar. But you can read an edited version of it in this post by Nancy Friedman. Elsewhere, a minor item that gave me pause was the claim that gadzooks comes from ‘God’s eyes’ – ‘God’s hooks’ seems far more likely.

Bergen has a flair for constructing arguments and discussing complex ideas in accessible language, helped by vivid examples and a splendid sense of humour. He clearly delights in the expressive and creative power of swearing, and, like Michael Adams’s In Praise of Profanity, happily highlights its benefits. He describes What the F as a ‘book-length love letter to profanity’; combine that with reams of fascinating science and analysis and you have an irresistible item for fans of fuck and friends.

You can order What the F from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or your preferred bookshop via Basic Books.

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