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What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves

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Nearly everyone swears—whether it’s over a few too many drinks, in reaction to a stubbed toe, or in flagrante delicto. And yet, we sit idly by as words are banned from television and censored in books. We insist that people excise profanity from their vocabularies and we punish children for yelling the very same dirty words that we’ll mutter in relief seconds after they fa Nearly everyone swears—whether it’s over a few too many drinks, in reaction to a stubbed toe, or in flagrante delicto. And yet, we sit idly by as words are banned from television and censored in books. We insist that people excise profanity from their vocabularies and we punish children for yelling the very same dirty words that we’ll mutter in relief seconds after they fall asleep. Swearing, it seems, is an intimate part of us that we have decided to selectively deny. That’s a damn shame. Swearing is useful. It can be funny, cathartic, or emotionally arousing. As linguist and cognitive scientist Benjamin K. Bergen shows us, it also opens a new window onto how our brains process language and why languages vary around the world and over time. In this groundbreaking yet ebullient romp through the linguistic muck, Bergen answers intriguing questions: How can patients left otherwise speechless after a stroke still shout Goddamn! when they get upset? When did a cock grow to be more than merely a rooster? Why is crap vulgar when poo is just childish? Do slurs make you treat people differently? Why is the first word that Samoan children say not mommy but eat shit? And why do we extend a middle finger to flip someone the bird? Smart as hell and funny as fuck, What the F is mandatory reading for anyone who wants to know how and why we swear.


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Nearly everyone swears—whether it’s over a few too many drinks, in reaction to a stubbed toe, or in flagrante delicto. And yet, we sit idly by as words are banned from television and censored in books. We insist that people excise profanity from their vocabularies and we punish children for yelling the very same dirty words that we’ll mutter in relief seconds after they fa Nearly everyone swears—whether it’s over a few too many drinks, in reaction to a stubbed toe, or in flagrante delicto. And yet, we sit idly by as words are banned from television and censored in books. We insist that people excise profanity from their vocabularies and we punish children for yelling the very same dirty words that we’ll mutter in relief seconds after they fall asleep. Swearing, it seems, is an intimate part of us that we have decided to selectively deny. That’s a damn shame. Swearing is useful. It can be funny, cathartic, or emotionally arousing. As linguist and cognitive scientist Benjamin K. Bergen shows us, it also opens a new window onto how our brains process language and why languages vary around the world and over time. In this groundbreaking yet ebullient romp through the linguistic muck, Bergen answers intriguing questions: How can patients left otherwise speechless after a stroke still shout Goddamn! when they get upset? When did a cock grow to be more than merely a rooster? Why is crap vulgar when poo is just childish? Do slurs make you treat people differently? Why is the first word that Samoan children say not mommy but eat shit? And why do we extend a middle finger to flip someone the bird? Smart as hell and funny as fuck, What the F is mandatory reading for anyone who wants to know how and why we swear.

30 review for What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves

  1. 5 out of 5

    Carlos

    Finally!!!! I finished this one ... not much to say after 6 days of no reading .... this book is mostly a study of how society perceives slurs and how the definition of slurs have changed over the years , this is not a study on swear words per se ... so a little too technical for a theme that I don't believe I wanted to read , but interesting study none the less. Finally!!!! I finished this one ... not much to say after 6 days of no reading .... this book is mostly a study of how society perceives slurs and how the definition of slurs have changed over the years , this is not a study on swear words per se ... so a little too technical for a theme that I don't believe I wanted to read , but interesting study none the less.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Petra

    A really interesting exploration of profanity. This is for anybody who is interested in language, cultural norms and differences, social psychology, or cognitive and neurosciences. Benjamin K. Bergen provides some remarkable evidence-based arguments. His examination of profanity's alleged harm to children was impressively analyzed, supported and outlined. The sections about American and British Sign Language and the global, cultural differences with regard to offensive language and gestures were A really interesting exploration of profanity. This is for anybody who is interested in language, cultural norms and differences, social psychology, or cognitive and neurosciences. Benjamin K. Bergen provides some remarkable evidence-based arguments. His examination of profanity's alleged harm to children was impressively analyzed, supported and outlined. The sections about American and British Sign Language and the global, cultural differences with regard to offensive language and gestures were really interesting and I enjoyed all the studies regarding how our brain reacts to profanity. I was actually fascinated by the extraordinary grammar of swearwords. Seriously, I loved that part. There were a lot of "huh, would have never thought of that"-moments. But I guess you might have to be a bit of a language/grammar nerd like me to get the same reaction. Some of this is very textbook style. At times, I felt like being back in the classroom plowing through research papers. But a very well-executed research paper. Mr. Bergen takes great care to explain concepts, theories and even some of the necessary statistics (relating to significance) and images, tables, and graphs are used to clarify his points. Even if you've never bothered with this sort of stuff before, his ideas and findings are easy to follow and his laid-back, humorous style makes this fun to read. Mr. Bergen had me laughing at some of his footnotes. I wish research had been made into this much fun during my rather dry and sober studies. I thought I was reasonably well-versed when it comes to my vocabulary (for a non-native speaker anyway) but I had to look up several of the "bad" words I'd never come across before. It's extremely unlikely I shall ever actively use them considering we're talking highly offensive language, but always good to learn something new. Overall, very informative, insightful and certainly unique. 3.5 stars. I received an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Diabolica

    Finally finished. It's taken me five months, but nevermind that. This book was well-written and had a good flow to it. The reasoning behind Bergen's claims made sense, and Bergen did a good job of showing both sides. Not to mention, there was quite a bit of well-placed humour throughout the book. My only qualm, is that I came to read the book wanting to find out why we swear, and on that note I discovered nothing new. Finally finished. It's taken me five months, but nevermind that. This book was well-written and had a good flow to it. The reasoning behind Bergen's claims made sense, and Bergen did a good job of showing both sides. Not to mention, there was quite a bit of well-placed humour throughout the book. My only qualm, is that I came to read the book wanting to find out why we swear, and on that note I discovered nothing new.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Ashley

    This was a fun, nerdy, sciencey book that takes something taboo and unserious and treats it seriously, which very much appeals to me. This is going to be a short review, because I read the book back in the beginning of April, and my memories of the specifics have mostly faded. I remember that for the most part, I found it HIGHLY enjoyable. Bergen is a linguist and cognitive scientist, so he's got all the good details. This book is basically everything I wanted from Swearing is Good For You (which This was a fun, nerdy, sciencey book that takes something taboo and unserious and treats it seriously, which very much appeals to me. This is going to be a short review, because I read the book back in the beginning of April, and my memories of the specifics have mostly faded. I remember that for the most part, I found it HIGHLY enjoyable. Bergen is a linguist and cognitive scientist, so he's got all the good details. This book is basically everything I wanted from Swearing is Good For You (which cites this book as one of its sources). That book turned out to be pop science, all overview, no details. This book lives in the details, but it is still highly readable, and funny in many places. I can't remember all the details, because again April, but he basically goes to town on profanity, covering the neuroscience of it, how swearing evolves over time (because language), what swearing is like in other countries, how slurs differ from other types of swearing, and my favorite chapter he spends basically the whole time explaining the weirdness of one single phrase, and it was so nerdy and amazing. There was a lot of other stuff, too. I'm definitely going to listen to this one again in the future so I can lock it in my memory. I would tentatively recommend the audiobook. Bergen is a talented narrator, and he brings a humor and energy to his own writing (probably all his practice as a lecturer). But, he spends quite a bit of time talking about the hows and whys of slurs, i.e. (don't click if you don't want to see them) (view spoiler)[faggot, nigger, retard, etc. (hide spoiler)] . And because this is a book more in the academic style, and he's discussing the linguistics and psychology and social science of those words, he does say them, and say them quite frequently. It was jarring every single time, especially the n-word. If that doesn't sound like a great time to you, don't do the audio. If you think you can brace yourself to hear them said pretty casually, do the audio. It's fun otherwise to listen to this one, like attending a rare fun lecture in school.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Charlene

    It took a few chapters to get into the book because the author set a less than serious tone from the offset. I thought he was going to try joking his way through a book about cursing, which didn't seem particularly interesting to me. However, when he finally got into the neuro and cognitive (linguistic) science of it, I ended up loving it! The key message of the book was that the utterances of curse words do not simply break the rules of polite society; they break the rules of typical brain beha It took a few chapters to get into the book because the author set a less than serious tone from the offset. I thought he was going to try joking his way through a book about cursing, which didn't seem particularly interesting to me. However, when he finally got into the neuro and cognitive (linguistic) science of it, I ended up loving it! The key message of the book was that the utterances of curse words do not simply break the rules of polite society; they break the rules of typical brain behavior and linguistics. For example, curse words like fuck and damn don't follow the rules of grammar. The phrase, "Fuck you," does not even have a subject, despite appearing to have one. It seems the subject is "you," but it is not. The authors related how figuring this out was akin to learning about matter and then finding out one form of matter doesn't follow the laws of physics. Despite having taken linguistic courses, I hadn't really thought much about this. It changed the way I saw language in general. Reviewing these breaks in the rules of sentence construction were the best parts of the book. It also appears that curse words, at least those related to impulsive language, don't follow the rules when it comes to where they should be located in the brain. If a person has a stroke or surgery that affects the parts of the brain responsible for understanding or speaking language, they will not be able to speak and/or understand language (depending on which region is affected). However, even for those individuals who have had entire hemispheres taken out, rendering them completely incapable of speaking any intelligible language, they can still spout out expletives. This convincingly demonstrated that cursing (or at least impulsive language) is an entirely different phenomenon from normal speech. The author tied all of this together with how one learns to speak the entirely different language of curse words. Really eye opening. The author provided some insights about why the FCC doesn't really have a set list of what words are unacceptable. He ended with a thoughtful discussion on whether cursing was morally ok. I personally could have done without this section, mostly because his arguments were not that great. I happen to agree with his point of view, but didn't love his logic. He was rightfully trashing bad studies (I love when authors engage in extreme critical thinking about studies with bad methods), but at the same time, the studies that he, himself, used to make his arguments didn't seem particularly solid. In any event, it was food for thought. For example, a woman was arrested for saying, "Fuck," in front of her children. Is that ok? Is hearing the word fuck come out of your mother's mouth more harmful than experiencing her being arrested? Are mere words really that powerful? Will they damage children?

  6. 4 out of 5

    11811 (Eleven)

    I'm giving up on this one. I've been trying to finish it for months even though some small part of me always suspected this might not be as awesome as I had hoped. It wasn't predetermined suspicion but I had to wonder why there should be a 288 page book covering this bit of trivia. The information seemed so much less than the content. And that's when shit went south for me. While never fascinating, the interesting stuff became less and less interesting until I found myself drowning in the minutae I'm giving up on this one. I've been trying to finish it for months even though some small part of me always suspected this might not be as awesome as I had hoped. It wasn't predetermined suspicion but I had to wonder why there should be a 288 page book covering this bit of trivia. The information seemed so much less than the content. And that's when shit went south for me. While never fascinating, the interesting stuff became less and less interesting until I found myself drowning in the minutae of things I don't care about. I'd give five stars if this were a one page article but that's the best I can do. If you are reading/listening to this, I wish you better luck than I had. 1.5 stars.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jay

    DISCLAIMER: This review contains profanities and offensive words. This is purely a part of a professional way of analysing language and by no means meant to offend anyone! Thank you for understanding! :) What the F by Benjamin Bergen is an excellent read for anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of language and its relation to humans. Words have power. We know that because WE are the ones giving them power. And I don't just mean power as in saying "stand up!", making people do just DISCLAIMER: This review contains profanities and offensive words. This is purely a part of a professional way of analysing language and by no means meant to offend anyone! Thank you for understanding! :) What the F by Benjamin Bergen is an excellent read for anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of language and its relation to humans. Words have power. We know that because WE are the ones giving them power. And I don't just mean power as in saying "stand up!", making people do just that. If I say "faggot" or "nigger", most of us will feel discomfort. As Bergen points it out, we could face psychical reactions such as increased pulse, sweaty palms or even changes to breathing. We understand that these words are one of the most powerful derogatory terms out there and therefore we do not use them. This (self-)censorship alone makes them even more unacceptable when used. If I say "bitch", the reaction is probably less intense than the examples above get. We use this word more freely, it can be seen in movies/books and I often refer to my best friend as such in a humorous way. This, of course, is personal and I would refrain calling a stranger bitch. For others, they wouldn't use it all. It also depends on the tone and the setting these words are used in. If I say "you bitch!" to someone I know while I'm laughing, then it doesn't register as something offensive. However, if I say "you bitch!", practically spitting the words after someone bumped into me, then everyone knows they were meant with a malicious intent. There are SO MANY, things that affect the way we view certain words, from society to geographical location, religion or age, tone or the century we're in, different factors contribute differently to the power and acceptance of words. And that is f****** awesome. Language is a very fascinating thing and if you enjoyed what you've just read, I would recommend you read Bergen's book as it is filled with this sh#t! :p Thank you NetGalley for the ARC!

  8. 5 out of 5

    Stacey Bookerworm

    Fascinating book for anyone interested in linguistics or sociology and social norms. This book takes an in depth look at why some words are socially unacceptable and how these words came to be considered profanities in the first place. I loved that this book examined the cultural differences that exist in terms of offensive language. For example, I was unaware that the Japanese language contains no profanities whereas the Russian state has a list of profane language which are banned from use in Fascinating book for anyone interested in linguistics or sociology and social norms. This book takes an in depth look at why some words are socially unacceptable and how these words came to be considered profanities in the first place. I loved that this book examined the cultural differences that exist in terms of offensive language. For example, I was unaware that the Japanese language contains no profanities whereas the Russian state has a list of profane language which are banned from use in the arts. I also enjoyed the section on body language and profane gestures around the globe. For me, as someone who rarely swears, the opening lines took my breath away slightly and made me wince a bit. "This book is about bad language. Not the tepid pseudoprofanities like damn and boob s that punctuate broadcast television. I mean the big hitters. Like fuck. and cunt. And nigger." As the author points out these words are used to express intense emotions but they can also inflict emotional pain and are the cause of numerous disputes. "In short, bad words are powerful emotionally, physiologically, psychologically, and socially." I would definitely recommend giving this book a read.

  9. 4 out of 5

    BAM Endlessly Booked

    Audio #58 This book is absolutely brilliant! I highly recommend the audiobook Like that one time I called myself a TILF on FB and I got fired Yeah like that

  10. 5 out of 5

    Barb

    Oh my gosh, this was so fun, English majors and other geeks with potty mouths will enjoy Benjamin K Bergen's enlightenment on the topic of swearing. There's so much interesting stuff packed into this book that I have a hard time focusing on what the highlights were. I listened to the audio book and now that I have, I want to buy the print version to share with my family and reread myself. The short title 'What the F' and and the cover with the big red F make it seem like the book will be a fun, Oh my gosh, this was so fun, English majors and other geeks with potty mouths will enjoy Benjamin K Bergen's enlightenment on the topic of swearing. There's so much interesting stuff packed into this book that I have a hard time focusing on what the highlights were. I listened to the audio book and now that I have, I want to buy the print version to share with my family and reread myself. The short title 'What the F' and and the cover with the big red F make it seem like the book will be a fun, silly lighthearted look at swearing. While there are many funny moments, this book takes a serious and scientific look at the naughty words we love as well as the ones we hate. I have to warn you that Bergen is a scientist, this book is focused on language so it follows logic that he would use the actual words he's discussing. In general I like curses and swears but there is one word that I hate to hear, I have a visceral reaction to it, it makes me wince. That particular word is used a fair amount and to me it was jarring. That aside, I thought the audio book was excellent, the author does a great job bringing his material to life and making it very accessible and funny. He talks about the specific reasons why the Pope might have dropped or at least rolled an F bomb into a speech he gave in Italian. He mentions President Obama's habit of scratching his nose with his middle finger. As well as why children today are no longer named Dick. Fun, funny and interesting stuff. I'm glad I gave this a try.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Douglas Wilson

    Not quite necessary, but still interesting. A study of obscenity, brain science, and their relationship.

  12. 4 out of 5

    JC

    There are very few books that I uave abandoned, this was one of them. The subject matter is fascinating, the discussions and theories compelling, and it was all easy to understand. That being said, it was very repetitive, so mch so that I started skimming each paragraph to see if new material was presented. Something else bothered me about the author's tone. It was light and jokey but it felt obvious that he was dumbing (and he knew it and reveled in it) down for people because he didn't think fo There are very few books that I uave abandoned, this was one of them. The subject matter is fascinating, the discussions and theories compelling, and it was all easy to understand. That being said, it was very repetitive, so mch so that I started skimming each paragraph to see if new material was presented. Something else bothered me about the author's tone. It was light and jokey but it felt obvious that he was dumbing (and he knew it and reveled in it) down for people because he didn't think folks interested in the subject could follow. Hence the repetition. His repeated use of the N word was also very off-putting. Yes, I know it is supposed to be, but his reasoning for it was, frankly, bullshit. Yes, it's a taboo word, and for very good reason. Other cusswords when used against someone are seen as rude and aggressive, but the N word? That word is used to violently oppress people. There is a difference in saying "fuck you!" to someone and calling someone a name that denies their humanity. So you don't get to lump that word in with the others and say the words have equal meaning in their offensivenessz

  13. 4 out of 5

    Orsolya

    Some of the most fascinating areas to ponder are those which break down and decimate the facets in life which we take for granted. These revelations demonstrate how remarkable the simplest of things can be. What is one of the most common day-to-day, minute-by-minute actions we brush aside? Language and speech. By extension, the ability to swear and cuss like a sailor. Benjamin K. Bergen, a profession of cognitive science working with language; attempts to foray into the world of ‘fuck’ and ‘damn Some of the most fascinating areas to ponder are those which break down and decimate the facets in life which we take for granted. These revelations demonstrate how remarkable the simplest of things can be. What is one of the most common day-to-day, minute-by-minute actions we brush aside? Language and speech. By extension, the ability to swear and cuss like a sailor. Benjamin K. Bergen, a profession of cognitive science working with language; attempts to foray into the world of ‘fuck’ and ‘damn it’ in, “What the F: What Swearing Reveals about Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves”. “What the F” is a very nuanced and complex work that is almost difficult to describe. Bergen’s pages are a mixture of pop psych, neuroscience, cognitive science, social behavioral studies, and linguistics. The issue therein is that these various aspects don’t necessarily combine in a seamless manner. “What the F” begins by discussing how swear words can be defined in the first place and whether or not they are culturally constrained before then exploring how swearing comes about, how our brains react, how swearing occurs in other mediums like sign language, etc. This is all very fascinating but the thesis isn’t clear which results in a scattered text that lacks proper direction. Also impacting this is the heavy technical jargon. At times, Bergen is conversational in his tone while other times he forgets that the average reader is not a language scientist and has no idea what the eff (see what I did there?) he is talking about. “What the F” is a piece which requires genuine reader attention to truly grasp the material and perhaps only a small section at a time. Otherwise, confusion can ensue. “What the F” is noticeably filled with much repetition and speculation. This is namely because the topic is not as notably researched and is difficult to define. Despite this, Bergen does include experimental results and studies which solidify the material (both primary and secondary studies). Approximately, halfway through, “What the F” becomes both easier to digest (Bergen finds his writing groove) and much more enthralling. The language science explored is sort of in the “Why didn’t I think of that?!”- realm but also mind-blowing at the same time. It is obvious that Bergen has conducted a lot of research (7 years according to the author) and really knows the material. The text applies not just to swearing but language studies, in general. There are clarity issues with charts/diagrams which can be a bit murky to decipher. Again, “What the F” isn’t necessarily always average-reader friendly. Bergen remedies this by ending every chapter with a summary wrap-up which some may deem as merely a page-filler; but it also helps review the latter pages. The concluding chapters of “What the F” are less powerful focusing more on theory and discussion. Bergen’s thesis and vision is once again obscured making for a light impact and less-than-memorable ending. Much of “What the F” at this stage can be skimmed. Bergen provides the reader with a ‘Notes’ section (although not annotated) and a list of sources which encourages further research and review. “What the F” is certainly a compelling topic which is also clever/novel in respect to its angle and absence of over-discussion on book shelves. However, it isn’t what it claims to be as it is more of a socio-linguist piece than a psychological or neuroscience one. Plus, it does embody flaws like tangents, repetition, and overly technical text. Regardless, “What the F” is an interesting read and suggested for those interested in language and its connection to both the brain and society. **Note:My rating was torn between a 3-star and 4. On first, standalone sight, I would be enticed to give “What the F” 3 stars but in comparison to other books on surrounding book shelves I have read and given 3 stars to… I went with a 4.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Melinda

    This book is as hilarious and well written as it is serious and interesting. Basically the author is a neuro-linguist, looking at the use of profanity in our language. Where did these words come from, how are they used, are they bad for us, how has the idea of profanity changed over time? He talks about the parts of speech and how profanity transcends normal grammar rules, how profanity is used in people who have had strokes or tourettes, and looks at brain function and things like cultural norm This book is as hilarious and well written as it is serious and interesting. Basically the author is a neuro-linguist, looking at the use of profanity in our language. Where did these words come from, how are they used, are they bad for us, how has the idea of profanity changed over time? He talks about the parts of speech and how profanity transcends normal grammar rules, how profanity is used in people who have had strokes or tourettes, and looks at brain function and things like cultural norms. Such a wide spanning book. Such a great read. Part of this book is hilarious because he comes out with 'shit, fuck, c*nt, tits, motherfucker, cocksucker, nigger and faggot' - all the time - and totally in context. Its just funny to hear these words uttered so matter-of-factly! So obviously, this book is not for you if profanity bothers you - but for the rest of you - this is well worth a listen. Some great insights into the workings of the brain and how language works and evolves. Well written and very informative!

  15. 5 out of 5

    miscmarilyn

    I read an interesting article promoting this book and checked it out from the library. The book itself was not as interesting as the article. The author is very repetitive, sometimes even repeating the same thing within 5 sentences. And the author couches many of his statements as speculation because there is little or no research to support his ideas. That's fine, but having to read over and over that he was speculating got annoying. I think the concept of this book was interesting but reading I read an interesting article promoting this book and checked it out from the library. The book itself was not as interesting as the article. The author is very repetitive, sometimes even repeating the same thing within 5 sentences. And the author couches many of his statements as speculation because there is little or no research to support his ideas. That's fine, but having to read over and over that he was speculating got annoying. I think the concept of this book was interesting but reading it sometimes felt like a chore. Let me save you some time: https://gizmodo.com/the-science-of-ho...

  16. 4 out of 5

    Kristen

    I gave up on this one almost halfway through. It was interesting while I was reading it, but I never felt any urge to pick it up once I set it down.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Mel

    A must-read for anyone interested in linguistics or neurology. Quite fascinating.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Leah

    Equal parts interesting and hilarious. I don't think it was mind shattering but some parts were definitely thought-provoking. However I'm really tired of white men excusing slurs as (at the end of the day) only words and that slurs can only cause harm if YOU let them. Once again putting the onus on the marginalized groups targeted rather than the provokers themselves. And the fact that Berger even quoted the comedian George Carlin (himself a white, presumably straight, man) to justify his reasoni Equal parts interesting and hilarious. I don't think it was mind shattering but some parts were definitely thought-provoking. However I'm really tired of white men excusing slurs as (at the end of the day) only words and that slurs can only cause harm if YOU let them. Once again putting the onus on the marginalized groups targeted rather than the provokers themselves. And the fact that Berger even quoted the comedian George Carlin (himself a white, presumably straight, man) to justify his reasoning is just the shitty cherry on top. This comes at the very end of the book so it was a rather disappointing ending to an otherwise great book. Also, Berger is very good at inserting jokes that are both contemporary and witty while also being not cringey. I was laughing almost every chapter.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    It got a little long winded in certain chapters, which may have been made worse by the fact that I've read a lot of his reference sources (like Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, for instance) but that didn't stop this book from being fascinating. CLEARLY not for those with with low tolerance for profanity or who one who is easily offended. If you can stomach it, though, it provides a decent understanding of the language we speak and WHY these words are/could be considered profane in the firs It got a little long winded in certain chapters, which may have been made worse by the fact that I've read a lot of his reference sources (like Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, for instance) but that didn't stop this book from being fascinating. CLEARLY not for those with with low tolerance for profanity or who one who is easily offended. If you can stomach it, though, it provides a decent understanding of the language we speak and WHY these words are/could be considered profane in the first place.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Carolyn

    This is a scientific examination of an aspect of linguistics. I had a course in linguistics once, and it was one of the toughest classes I ever took. The grammar of profanity is quite interesting (to me, anyway), and profanity also throws light on several aspects of sociology. Even though the book made me squirm a few times, I learned several new dirty words. Although parts of the book are quite technical, others are funny and just plain fascinating.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Laura Jean

    This was fascinating. I learned that there are 4 different types of profanity: religious, sexual, body part or effluvia, and slurs. My favorite chapters were the one on how curse words evolve over time.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Leslie Angel

    This was a fun read, interesting psychological and physiological info.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Becky

    Compelling cognitive science, laugh-out-loud wit, frivolous footnotes, well-described experimental design, AND graphed data? Sign me the f*ck up.

  24. 4 out of 5

    stormin

    This was a fairly interesting book, and it had at least one section that I found really interesting. According to Bergen, there's reasonable evidence (though less than absolute proof) that profanity--when used as profanity and not just when you're talking about profane words--arises from an independent, older neurological pathway than intentional speech. This has led some theorists to propose that swearing of both the aphasia and the coprolalia types is produced by different brain machinery than This was a fairly interesting book, and it had at least one section that I found really interesting. According to Bergen, there's reasonable evidence (though less than absolute proof) that profanity--when used as profanity and not just when you're talking about profane words--arises from an independent, older neurological pathway than intentional speech. This has led some theorists to propose that swearing of both the aphasia and the coprolalia types is produced by different brain machinery than the rest of language. As I mentioned earlier, it's possible that there's one pathway for producing a lot of language--the one that's been principally studied in humans and that in most people passes predominantly through the language centers of the left cerebral cortex and is used for the systematic, intentional composition of normal languages. The second purported pathway is evolutionarily far older and shared with other mammals who themselves are bereft of anything like human language. The limbic system, emotion generating regions deep in the brain, dominates this proposed, second circuit. The basal ganglia are directly adjacent to and tightly interconnected with brain structures that process emotions, like the anterior singulate, the hippocampus, and the amygdala. These ancient brain structures appear to play a role in generating emotional states that create motor impulses which the basal ganglia then have to regulate and selectively suppress. In the case of coprolalia, the basal ganglia are unable to suppress verbal impulses along this pathway which results in the characteristic expletives. Bergen goes on to compare profanity to emotional vocalizations from macaques and squirrel monkeys. This is interesting, and I'll come back to why in a second. A lot of the rest of the book was kind of tedious, however. Early on, Bergen goes through a really, really long series of tortuously obvious reasoning to argue for why so many English words have 4-letters. I mean, this is really obvious stuff. Obviously there's nothing about the # of letters that makes a word feel more profane. How would that even make sense? My intuition--having thought about this in the past idly--was that obviously it has to do with the sounds the words make, and that we prefer the kind of words that can be spoken with a kind of satisfying feel to them, specifically words that begin and end with constants, and probably the stronger the better. This is, basically, where Bergen ends up. Some of the experiments along the way are interesting, but mostly he just keeps saying, "Well, maybe it's X?" or "Maybe it's Y?" when X and Y such obviously stupid hypotheses that I'm like: why are you wasting my time with this? Another part that struck me as subpar was the section at the end where Bergen defends saying 'f---' around children. Yes, I edited it. I try not to swear, all though it's a hard habit to kick, and Bergen's attempt to convince me that my intuitions about swearing are wrong fell flat. Basically, Bergen takes the simplistic harm argument. In a nutshell his argument is that: 1. It's only wrong to swear around kids if it hurts them 2. There's no evidence that swearing around kids harms them (other than when swearing is part of abuse) C. So there's no reason to keep the number of f-bombs in G-rated movies low. So, remember how earlier Bergen argued that swearing is basically inarticulate, primal screeching with a thin veneer of socialization on top? Well, it's probably not harmful to act out on a lot of inarticulate, primal instincts but we define society precisely in terms of distance from such unmediated primal behavior. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that everything natural is bad. Far from it! What I'm saying is that there are a lot of reasons to take a dim view of swearing other than harm. If, for example, it the idea that swearing is a primitive form of automatic speech and if, adding one more premise, the brain is plastic and we tend to strengthen what we rehearse, is it possible that lots of swearing weakens the rational aspects of language? I don't know, and I wouldn't suggest anyone stop swearing based on this thin hypothesis, but the point is that Bergen never considers any possibility beyond the harm-rationale, and that makes his entire last section feel like a long straw-man attack. And one more thing: I strongly suspect that if we all decided dropping f-bombs in G-rated movies was fine and dandy then what we'd end up with is not some kind of libertine paradise, but a word were f--k had become the new "zounds", a once-profane epithet that has been nerfed into quaint hilarity. I read this book right after John McWhorter's Words on the Move: Why English Won't—and Can't—Sit Still, so I've got linguistic change on the brain, right? And if we define profanity as words that violate social convention, then the second you remove the social convention you don't suddenly free everyone to use that profane word, you instead neutralize it. If you start saying f--k in front of all audiences, it will cease to have any utility as a swear word. Breaking down the social convention against using f--k that way won't liberate the word; it will annihilate it. Which makes the entire last argument not only weak, but also weirdly irrelevant. Why would you want to have everyone say the f-word in all contexts and situations? It seems like someone like Bergen--clearly a connoisseur of crass--would have a vested interest in preserving the language. Although--citing McWhorter again--if we did defang f--k, we'd just end up with a replacement that we wouldn' want our kids to hear/say. All in all, it's just a morally shallow and uninteresting line of reasoning any time someone acts as though harm is the only moral dimension.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    I enjoyed this a lot. That said, I read this because I needed to change it up, and read some nonfiction to decompress my brain after reading a lot of fiction, some of it heavy. I realize that the book is a bit dry, especially during the parts in which the author recounts his and others' research and methodology. I personally found this interesting, because, as a researcher, I know how important methodology is, but I was mostly unfamiliar with experimental design in linguistics. I'm not sure that I enjoyed this a lot. That said, I read this because I needed to change it up, and read some nonfiction to decompress my brain after reading a lot of fiction, some of it heavy. I realize that the book is a bit dry, especially during the parts in which the author recounts his and others' research and methodology. I personally found this interesting, because, as a researcher, I know how important methodology is, but I was mostly unfamiliar with experimental design in linguistics. I'm not sure that I would recommend this to everyone, but I would recommend it to people who are interested in an overview of the history and science of profanity (colloquial usage of the word) and who generally enjoy things focused books like micro-histories.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Georgia Mechalke

    Super cool and interesting. Certainly might read again, there was so much information, and I'm sure a lot of it went over my head. I listened to it on audiobook on my way to dance class and other times I was driving Super cool and interesting. Certainly might read again, there was so much information, and I'm sure a lot of it went over my head. I listened to it on audiobook on my way to dance class and other times I was driving

  27. 5 out of 5

    Rachel Pollock

    I think I would’ve enjoyed this book in hardcopy format, but I absolutely loved the audiobook. Hilarious look at profanity from a linguist’s perspective, full of interesting history and facts about words some of us use all the time. Highly recommend for erudite pottymouths

  28. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    This book was fucking great! (Uh, p.s., I will be swearing in this review so don't read it if you don't want to.) I debated putting some swears in this review under spoiler cover, because they're harsher than my usual swears, but I don't think I will because as Bergen explores near the end of the book, profane words aren't dangerous or harmful in and of themselves, and I'm mostly using them (apart from the first sentence of this review) in a utilitarian way, to talk about them. But to be clear I This book was fucking great! (Uh, p.s., I will be swearing in this review so don't read it if you don't want to.) I debated putting some swears in this review under spoiler cover, because they're harsher than my usual swears, but I don't think I will because as Bergen explores near the end of the book, profane words aren't dangerous or harmful in and of themselves, and I'm mostly using them (apart from the first sentence of this review) in a utilitarian way, to talk about them. But to be clear I do love swearing. :D Children (or people in general) swearing might make you uncomfortable, but think about it for a second, why are you uncomfortable? Social taboos have a mighty strong effect on us living here in society, but they also change and you can train yourself out of it if you swear enough. It was interesting to note my own reactions to the profane words as I saw them on the page - words like goddamn and shit and fuck barely made me bat an eye, but ethnic slurs made me feel uncomfortable just reading them. I was more ok with slurs that were potentially reclaimable by me, words like bitch and cunt, dyke, and to a lesser extent faggot. Queer doesn't feel profane to me at all because it's been so reclaimed by the community and by myself as the term I prefer for my identity. Ethnic slurs made me the most uncomfortable because none of them can be applied to me. Maybe that's a weird relationship to have with words used to hurt, but Bergen describes a study in which gay and straight people were unconsciously exposed to either the word "gay" or "faggot" and then their reaction times to sort words that are either positive or negative descriptors of gay people were measured. Straight people who were exposed to the slur instead of the neutral term were more likely to react slower to positive descriptors, while gay people exposed to the slur were more likely to react slower to the negative ones. As Bergen explains, this could be because the slur has been re-appropriated and therefore has a positive connotation for gay people, but it could also be because, in hearing a term used to denigrate them, a gay person might get defensive and think about all the ways their group is actually positive. Anywhoo, this book is pretty delightful if you like linguistics and swearing and human nature. Bergen describes lots of studies and etymology so if you're into that sort of thing you should read it. Here's a great passage about the history of the word fuck: "Medievalist Paul Booth recently uncovered the earliest known record of the word to date, in legal documents from 1310 identifying a man named Roger Fuckebythenavel; parsed out, that makes Fucke by the navel. Booth explains that the name 'could either mean an actual attempt at copulation by an inexperienced youth, later reported by a rejected girlfriend, or an equivalent of the word 'dimwit,' i.e., a man who might think that that was the correct way to go about it.'" Also, did you know the word rooster was invented because the word cock started to be used too much to refer to penises so puritanical Americans had to find a new way to refer to their animals so as not to offend their delicate sensibilities? The more you know!

  29. 5 out of 5

    Ella

    I've always wondered why giving someone "the bird" in England requires two fingers and in the US only one. I worry that someday I'll accidentally make a peace sign in the wrong country, so I keep my hands out of it. Now, I can be a tad less worried because I know how to swear in quite a few countries both with my mouth and my hands! This book has been a great highlight of my office over the last few weeks -- so much so that I renewed it from the library so we could continue our studies. We may b I've always wondered why giving someone "the bird" in England requires two fingers and in the US only one. I worry that someday I'll accidentally make a peace sign in the wrong country, so I keep my hands out of it. Now, I can be a tad less worried because I know how to swear in quite a few countries both with my mouth and my hands! This book has been a great highlight of my office over the last few weeks -- so much so that I renewed it from the library so we could continue our studies. We may be boring old science types, but we can curse with the best of 'em. Which word is most offensive? In various studies, it's always the same. He not only reminds us the Pope swore during his weekly address but points out the double bind this lands the Church in. It's juicy: either the Pope is fallible, or he meant to say "in this f-ing..." As great as an admission of fallibility would be, it's even better to imagine that he meant to swear. And does anyone know my grade school principal, Sister Maria Virginia? Because she owes me back some detention hours either way. We all know swearing has been around, so instead of history he gives us specific cases including Jacques Lordat, a French neuroscientist born in the 1700s. Lordat was the precursor to Jill Bolte Taylor (My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey.) He wrote of his own stroke and went on to greatly further the field by dedicating his life to the study of brain injury. Lordat brings us the rather tragic case of a parish priest who also had a stroke but was able to say only two words after. One of those words started with an F and was a word so scandalous it wasn't included in dictionaries or Lordat's report. (Not the English F-word. This can get very confusing.) He dares to bring up the precious children everyone is always protecting and a whole host of ideas, science and thoughts about language and the way swearing affects each of us and society overall. A good, if not mandatory, read.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Tim

    Starts off slow and ends well. I believe this book could be part of a greater discussion. We're moving from the worst words relating to our spiritual beliefs (eg, taking God's name in vain) to scatological and finally into epithets. How these profane expresses have morphed over time is indicative to how our society has changed. As we move more secular, the religious profanity is no where near as offensive as it was hundreds of years ago. The scatological seems universal because of the disgust it Starts off slow and ends well. I believe this book could be part of a greater discussion. We're moving from the worst words relating to our spiritual beliefs (eg, taking God's name in vain) to scatological and finally into epithets. How these profane expresses have morphed over time is indicative to how our society has changed. As we move more secular, the religious profanity is no where near as offensive as it was hundreds of years ago. The scatological seems universal because of the disgust it can evoke. The interesting part of the discussion is the most profane words in our current environment: the epithets. The strong conclusion to this book is that the words only have power because we give them power. We do that by censoring them, outlawing them, shaming them, self-censoring, and generally going out of our way to avoid using. The more effort we exert in avoiding the word as a society, the more profane it is. In the United States, for instance, the worst word in the language is never referred to in its original form. We euphemize it. This happens in (at least in my experience) person should the subject come up. "N-word" is what we say. It's like Voldemort, we can never refer to it by name. By censoring, we give the words power. The most censored words gain the most power. it would seem the current trend of social justice is giving rise to the shift in what's deemed profane. What's interesting is how the words themselves go from purely descriptive then to a slur and finally to profane. I wish the author spent more time discussing this history. I have a lot of questions and hence why I feel as though this book might be a good starting point for future discussion on how profanity works in our society. Of course there's a whole lot more to the subject than this. I'm merely mentioning some interesting tidbits from the book.

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