What the F by Benjamin K. Bergen

Even something as quotidian and seemingly inconsequential as swearing can be subject to theory. Why do we swear, and what function does it fulfil? Can we infer anything from cultural or historical variations in the practice of swearing? Is it, for example, always intemperate behaviour, and always (in some form) aggressive? Is it always offensive?

Nearly everyone swears – whether it’s over too many drinks, in reaction to a stubbed toe, or in flagrante delicto. Curiously, these same words get banned from television and censored in books. We insist that people excise profanity (from the Latin ‘profanus’, or ‘outside the temple’) from their vocabularies and we punish children for yelling the 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.

 Linguist and cognitive scientist Benjamin K. Bergen (http://www.cogsci.ucsd.edu/~bkbergen/) shows us that swearing opens a window onto how our brains process language and why languages vary around the world and over time. The author puts forward 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?

This is a generous taxonomy of swearing, covering the bases of God, sex, excreta and slurs. In our time, you can say all you want about God, pretty much, but racial and sex-based slurs are extremely taboo – in a survey he cites, the “N” word is in a camp by itself as offensive to pretty much everyone (though he offers a defence of “nigga,” used as slang, as a bonding tool, and, in the same manner as ‘queer’ is a raised middle finger to a hostile world).

What the F is also largely concerned with the neurolinguistics of profanity – why four-letter words ending in a consonant are so pleasing to our ape brains, for example, or why ‘tool kits’ is likely to be transposed into something less savoury when you’re in a rush. Why, also, do people with brain injury get robbed of their cordial language but can still deliver a blue streak. (One unfortunate 19th-century parish priest in France was left, post-stroke, with just two words: “I fuck.”)

This is one cunt of an entertaining and informative book.

Prepare to read this book but listening to a 15 minute podcast from the ‘Philosophy Bites’ series on the subject of swearing here  http://philosophybites.com/2015/03/rebecca-roache-on-swearing.html

Enquire at your local library or consult https://www.amazon.co.uk/What-Swearing-Reveals-Language-Ourselves/dp/0465060919/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1484477525&sr=8-1&keywords=what+the+f for further bibliographic detail.

288 pages in Basic Books

First published 2016

ISBN  978-0465060917

Benjamin K. Bergen

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