If you go to Louisville, Kentucky — as my wife and I do as frequently as we can — you have to eat, so you’re always on the lookout for worthwhile restaurants. Frankly, we tend to eat at our favorite spots whenever we visit, but before our last weekend there, I checked the restaurant-tagged Google map for new places. There was one of our favorites, Doc Crow’s — oysters on the shell, exceptional pork rinds — and just behind it was a bar called The Troll Pub. I clicked over to its website and immediately exclaimed “What the fuck?” which was only partly an expression of my incredulity, because at The Troll Pub they have WTF happy hours — Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays — so I was also just reading what was in front of me. But what an offense! I stared in disbelief at WTF, a perfectly good profanity, brought down by a marketing pun. “How often are we taken in by this indirection?” I wondered. In fact, it happens more than you’d think, let alone hope. I learned this when shopping around for fun game night games, some of which perpetrate similar puns.
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’.