Friday September 22, 2017

Expletive Repeated: Why swearing matters

A sculpture officially titled "L.O.V.E." but popularly known as "The Middle Finger" - by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan.

A sculpture officially titled "L.O.V.E." but popularly known as "The Middle Finger" - by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan. ( GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

Listen to Full Episode 53:58

Profanity was once considered rude and crude — a linguistic last resort. Not so these days. Younger generations use swearing as everyday slang, and academics study it as an ever-evolving form of creative and cultural expression. Cognitive scientist, linguist, and author Benjamin K. Bergen (What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves) explains why cursing is so %$#* fascinating. Also featured: writer Roxana Robinson, who traces the subversive path of a sexist slur against women, and performer/activist Jess Thom explains what it's like to live with coprolalia — involuntarily swearing out loud. **This episode originally aired March 16, 2017.


 Benjamin K. Bergen

Benjamin K. Bergen author of "What the F", published by Basic Books, 2016.

Swearing: it's not just for those special, toe-stubbing occasions anymore. These days, we're cursing casually. And all over the place. You can hear swearing in award-winning TV shows and music, in the wild west of social media, and at the workplace. But profanity is becoming so normalized that we scarcely think about it — except to admonish kids not to do it.

That's where scientist Benjamin K. Bergen comes in. His book "What the F"  looks at swearing and the brain. It also takes the study of swearing seriously, as a particularly charged form of language, and an artifact of our time and place. Dr. Bergen explains:

  • The four basic categories of profanity, across all languages.
  • The evidence that swearing helps alleviate pain or discomfort.
  • Whether it's actually true that Japanese contains no swearing.
  • The f-word of Shakespeare's era... and why no one blinked when Chaucer dropped the c-bomb.
  • How to invent new swear words. (Hint: lots of consonants.)

He also looks at why formerly extreme words like "fuck" and "shit" do not offend younger generations, and how identity slurs have replaced them in the pantheon of disgust.

"I think we're getting more casual about swearing when the words themselves have low stakes, but I think we're getting less casual about profanity of the slur type...There's a little bit more apathy toward profanity in general, but when the stakes are high, because people perceive those words as causing harm, that's where the debates happen." (Ben Bergen)

That view resonates with New York writer Roxana Robinson, who traces the recent debate around the term "pussy". The leaked video of Donald Trump using the term in a sexually aggressive manner led to an international backlash from women. The term was then appropriated by the very social group it insulted, and went from political scandal to feminist rallying cry at the Women's March in D.C., in the space of months.

"I think everybody understands what Donald Trump meant when he used it. It still has that charge. But now it has another layer, which is that of humour. Everybody knows what those hats look like. Everybody knows that the word has two meanings. And that women can choose to use it the way they want." (Roxana Robinson)

If intention is key to how we perceive swearing, no one should be offended by people like Jess Thom. She's a London artist and activist with Tourette's syndrome, and one of a minority of those with the condition who deals with an obscene language tic.

"Sometimes people say, ah, it must be great having Tourette's, because you can get away with swearing whenever you like. But they clearly haven't met my dad. He listens to some [of my] really obscene tics… but can always tell if something is involuntary or not. (Jess Thom)

​Jess Thom lives with her tics, and even makes creative use of them in her work. But she worries that her brain could at some point seize on swear words and slurs that do not reflect her humane values.

Scientist Benjamin Bergen sees such words — attacks on sexual, racial, and ethnic identity — being called out on college campuses. Instead of decrying censorship from above, as students did in the past, "bad language" is being criticized from the ground up.

Guests in this episode:

  • Benjamin K Bergen is a cognitive scientist and linguist at the University of California, San Diego. He's the author of What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves.
  • Roxana Robinson is a novelist and essayist. She also wrote the biography, Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life.
  • Jess Thom is the performer and activist behind, and the internationally-touring stage show, Backstage in Biscuitland.

Further reading: 

More related websites: 

**This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.