Benjamin Bergen is a professor of cognitive science at UC San Diego and director of the Language and Cognition Lab, where he studies how our minds compute meaning and how talking interferes with safe driving—among many other things that don’t need to be bleeped. His latest book is What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves. He calls it “a book-length love letter to profanity.” You’ve been warned.
So, what the… heck? Why study profanity?
Language is changing. We’re exposed to a wider and wider swath of language than we might have been twenty years ago. That includes slang, it includes new vocabulary embraced by young people, and it includes profanity. We would be doing ourselves a disservice if we didn’t consider all these different types of language as part of our research purview. What people do with language tells us things about how humans learn language, how their brains process language, how they use language for social purposes.
Your book identifies four broad categories into which profanity seems to fall.
When you look across languages and cultures, the taboo words – the words people decide are inappropriate for formal contexts or inappropriate around kids, or inappropriate in general – tend to be drawn from four categories of human experience: from religious concepts; from sexual activities and sexual relations; from bodily functions and the body parts that perform those functions; and then, finally, from terms for groups of other people. You find in language after language that these tend to be the sources of taboo language. It’s not surprising because these, of course, are domains of human experience that themselves are quite taboo.
How have our taboo words changed over time?
If you look at surveys that have been conducted with native speakers of the various Englishes of the world, religious terminology has flipped pretty far down to the least offensive of those four categories. It wasn’t always. Three hundred years ago you would have found the strongest words in the language were names of deities and hell and so on: “zounds,” which comes from “God’s wounds” and “gadzooks,” which comes from “God’s eyes.” Those were replaced by sexual language, which came along with Victorian beliefs about sexuality. And nowadays, the strongest words of the language seem to have been replaced by this largely newer crop of slurs – terms of abuse for denigrating people based on their race, religion, ethnicity, sex, and so on.
Is there a generational difference, too, between who finds what most offensive?
A shift does seem to be happening. When you look at millennials and their attitudes towards the strongest words of their language, they don’t find most offensive the words that their parents and George Carlin, for example, listed as the most offensive. Nowadays, the strongest words of the language, at least for younger people, seem to be words that denigrate, disempower and so on – slurs, terms of abuse. You see this happening at college campuses to the point where many college students outright reject terms of abuse as protected by free speech. The idea of safe zones would not have been conceivable 30 years ago.
Is profanity becoming more acceptable? And why would you say this is?
When you look at surveys of American millennials, the f-word has fallen somewhere in the range of thirteenth to fifteenth worst word in the language. The sh-word doesn’t even show up in the top thirty. Most of Carlin’s words have been falling over the course of the last couple of decades. That’s probably because they’re just everywhere. We’re no longer subject to heavy censorship on the media that we’re exposed to. Most of the media we get pops up on our media device in our pocket, completely unfiltered. It’s straight from someone else’s thumbs. As a consequence of getting unfiltered language, the impact of the profanity lessens. We’re inured to it. It doesn’t seem as bad as it once was, and in large part that’s because there’s nothing intrinsically bad about it. It’s associated with taboos, social mores, but it’s not doing work to cause harm, unlike the slurs.
Is profanity harmful to kids?
There’s no convincing evidence that just those fleeting expletives – those four-letter words when you trip over a baby gate or step on a piece of Lego late at night, when you slam your thumb in the door – those fleeting expletives haven’t ever been shown to cause any harm to children by contrast with other lots of other types of language, some profane and some not. Slurs, we know, cause people to act in a more discriminatory manner towards people who are identified by those slurs. And we know that being called by slurs – homophobic slurs, for example – correlates with children displaying greater likelihood of depression, anxiety, detachment from school. And we know that verbal abuse causes similar effects; telling kids that they’re worthless or threatening them and so on. But there’s no similar evidence for those fleeting expletives.
The key difference, it seems to me, is the cry out in frustration or pain versus something directed at the child or at other people in general.
Right. Abuse can take up lots of forms. It can be physical, it can be verbal. When it’s verbal, it can include profanity. It doesn’t have to include profanity to be harmful, and there’s no evidence that including profanity makes it more harmful.
Let’s talk about the neuroscience of profanity. You’ve noted that in some people who’ve had half their brain removed, most language is wiped out but swearing stays.
One of the most amazing things is that people can incur massive trauma to the parts of the brain that are responsible for producing and understanding language but can nevertheless still spontaneously swear. So a person who looks at a picture of a cat and can’t say “cat” can still swear out of frustration. It appears that spontaneous, automatic, reflexive swearing is actually driven by a different system of the brain than the rest of language. This is a part of the brain that’s housed deep below the cerebral cortex, that’s evolutionarily old and that we share with other primates and actually other vertebrates. Other animals use it for producing vocalizations that signal others about their emotional state—cries of fear or anger, for example.
It seems we have two systems for producing language. One has a connection to our hot, emotional state. And the other is sort of built on top of all of the complicated machinery that humans have evolved, which is responsible for the reflective, intentional, rational expression of language. The same f-word, when produced reflexively, as part of a knee-jerk reaction, will be produced by this evolutionarily old system, but if you were to have to come into my lab and read it off a piece of paper, then it would be produced by that new, cortical language system.
That’s fascinating. You also note that “four-letter word” is not just a cute term. In English, profane words are often short and have particular sound features.
When you look at the raw statistics, you find that profane words, in English, are more likely to have four letters than you’d expect by chance. The number of letters is an artifact of much deeper explanation. It has to do with how those words sound. It turns out that the profane words of English have this particular tendency to use a particular type of syllable – a syllable that’s really heavy in consonants. It has consonants in the beginning, and it has more consonants at the end. You can think about the strongest words of the language and, almost without exception, they all end with consonants and not just any consonants but hard-stop consonants like “k,” “t” and so on.
When you hear a new word, and you don’t know whether it’s profane or not, if it ends with all these consonants, then you’re more likely to think it’s profane. This applies even to words that have no profane meaning at all. Many people find words like “moist” to be discomforting, for example, not because of the meaning of “moist” but at least in part because of the sound.
As I think of words for body parts, the ones that sound more profane are the ones that fit that pattern.
You can comparison shop for the level of offensiveness that you want. Do you want it to sound clinical and medical? Then it should be a long word with consonant, vowel, consonant, vowel, consonant, vowel. Do you want it to sound like a child-like word? Then just repeat the same syllable over and over: you know, “wee-wee,” “poo-poo.” If you want it to sound vulgar though, use one of these one-syllable words that end with some grungy consonants at the end.
So is swearing universal in every human language?
Just about, but not all. You almost always find that there are some taboos that cultures hold about particular words. What those specific words are differs from language to language, even from variety of the same language to the next. In American English, “wanker” is a silly word, if people know what it means at all. In Great Britain, it’s the fourth worst word in the language, worse than the f-word. So the specific words differ, while the categories of the words are quiet similar.
In some languages, however, there doesn’t appear to be anything quite like the idea that this particular word is a bad word that needs to be bleeped. The best studied example of that is in Japanese. There are certainly ways to insult people in Japanese, but you would be using run-of-the-mill words like “fool,” “grandfather,” “pig,” and so on – words that you could use in any context. So it doesn’t seem to be a cultural universal that there are certain words that are intrinsically bad themselves.
What is the effect of swearing? When people hear swearing, or use it, what happens?
For pretty much any profane word that’s considered to be strong, that a person has learned since childhood is a bad word, the body responds in very predictable ways. The heart rate increases, blood pressure increases, blood flows to the extremities, the palms start sweating, pupils dilate. It appears to be part of what we usually call the “fight-or-flight” response, and these effects are strongest in words that a person has learned since childhood are bad words. It doesn’t have as big an effect in a person’s second language. In general, profanity activates a heightened emotional arousal. But slurs in particular appear to have the potential to have other, bigger effects – including causing harm.
Is swearing good in any way?
I think of it like this: swearing is a powerful tool. Like all powerful tools, you can use it for positive or negative goals. On the positive side, we know that producing profanity is a way to decrease the experience of pain. There are experiments showing that when people are asked to submerge an open palm into nearly freezing water, they can hold their hand longer when they’re swearing than when they’re not; almost twice as long, in fact. They report that it hurts less. There’s also evidence that people are largely using it for positive social functions. The biggest study to date has found that the majority of the time swearing is used to be funny, to increase informality of an interaction, and to demonstrate comfort.
Has studying profanity changed how you swear? Are there any words left that shock you?
There is literally no word that shocks me anymore. There are still words that I prefer not to say, and lots of contexts that I don’t swear in. I’m not a proselytizer for swearing. If anything, my research has made me more cautious.
Well, you’ve made it this far without actually swearing, so when you’re utterly relaxed and around people who won’t be offended, do you have a favorite word?
If I’m going to mutter under my breath out of frustration, then the frustration word is “motherfucker.” But I think I’m most interested in the creative ones. In Australian English, they use “cunt” a lot, partially in a good way. So if you want to compliment someone, you could say “hey, you’re a good cunt.” That means “you’re a good guy” or “you’re a good gal.” But they also have a really creative combination of that word which mashes up one of the most offensive words of English—at least for Americans—with a very soft, delicious word. This expression is “cuntwaffle.” They seem to have been able to put together the best and the worst of the language in a really creative way.
What does that word mean?
A “cuntwaffle” is kind of like an asshole.
I don’t understand it, I gotta say.
Yeah, me neither.