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’.

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Making friends with “cunt”

This is a guest post by Michael Adams, Professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington, past president of the Dictionary Society of North America, and author of several books on language. Michael previously wrote here about Donald Trump’s swearing, and will be joining Strong Language as a contributor in the coming months.

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In a recent review of my book, In Praise of Profanity, on Strong Language, Stan Carey notes that I’m guilty of an “occasional lapse, such as the Americocentric suggestion that it’s ‘hard to imagine’ when the word cunt isn’t face-threatening — it quite often isn’t in Australia, Ireland, and parts of the UK, particularly Scotland.” Our language attitudes tether us to a time and place, and I must own my parochialism.

As if parochialism weren’t bad enough, I may have been wrong about the American status of cunt, too. I’ve come across evidence of cunt’s re-appropriation as a term of endearment — not unalloyed BFF endearment but a grudging, competitive willingness to get along well supported by a word all the riskier because it’s used in unfriendly ways against women.

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Book review: ‘In Praise of Profanity’ by Michael Adams

Swearing has long been disreputable and in many ways still is. But it has never gone away, and (at the risk of confirmation bias) it seems more visible than ever. We see and hear it not just among friends, family and neighbours but at work, on the news, and in cultural media from billboard ads to high literature – albeit often euphemised. Are we living in a capital-A, fuckin’-A Age of Profanity?

Michael Adams, in his new book In Praise of Profanity (OUP, 2016) makes a persuasive case that we are. Though not a book about the history or science of profanity, it draws on both in aiming more immediately to examine and celebrate the swearing performance itself – the feeling, the experience, the phenomenon of profanity.

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A cussed acrostic

One of the more entertaining literary spats of recent times was between two biographers of the poet John Betjeman (1906–84). It kicked off in earnest when A.N. Wilson, in a review at The Spectator in 2002, described Bevis Hillier’s biography of Betjeman as a ‘hopeless mishmash’:

Some reviewers would say that it was badly written, but the trouble is, it isn’t really written at all. It is hurled together, without any apparent distinction between what might or might not interest the reader. . . . Bevis Hillier was simply not up to the task which he set himself.

Hillier’s three-volume authorised work had taken him 25 years, and he was none too pleased to see it dismissed so. Years later he described Wilson as ‘despicable’. But harsh words were not enough: Hillier wanted retribution, and he got his chance when Wilson undertook to write his own biography of Betjeman.

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