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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Donald Trump swears a lot

We’re delighted to bring you a guest post by Michael Adams, Professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington and past president of the Dictionary Society of North America. Adams specializes in lexicography, slang, and the history of English. He is the author of Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon (2003), Slang: The People’s Poetry (2009), From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages (2011), and In Praise of Profanity (2016). You can expect that last one to reappear here sooner or later.

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Donald Trump swears a lot, perhaps more than any other major presidential candidate in history. I’m not sure that should bother us. Most Americans swear now and then and plenty of us swear more than Mr. Trump swears during his public appearances. I have no idea how much he swears in private; I’m pretty sure it’s none of my damned business.

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What gives ‘cunt’ its offensive power?

The following is a guest post by Kate Warwick.

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It’s definitely a hand grenade of a word, especially in speech. But is it just the literal meaning of cunt which makes it so offensive? Linguistically, there are other elements of the word which contribute to its force: connotative layers of meaning, its sound and the impact on the hearer.

From the 11th century’s rather off-puttingly named Godwin Clawecunte[1] to the 21st century’s complete cunt, the word has clearly undergone some meaning extension; from literal or denotative to abusive or connotative. It’s notoriously difficult to pinpoint change, of course, but the development of connotative meaning can be seen in Pepys’s 17th century use to mean a sexually active women, ‘he hath to sell such a pouder as should make all the cunts in town run after him’.[2] Later, in Manning’s First World War novel, his soldiers even refer to a man as a cunt, ‘A bloody cunt like you’s sufficient to demoralise a whole fuckin’ army corps’.[3]

So by the early 20th century cunt has acquired a layer of hatred in its meaning. Without going into detail about potential social causes, how did this happen? There are plenty of other words, like twat, which literally mean the same thing, but don’t have the sense of ‘despised, unpleasant, or annoying place, thing, or task’.[4]

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