A cognitive scientist offers a look at language through the lens of profanity.

After he began teaching “An Uncensored Introduction to Language,” a profanity-themed linguistics course at the University of California, San Diego, cognitivescientist Benjamin K. Bergen noticed that many English swear words have a funny similarity: They contain just one syllable and end in a consonant. It’s a great example of the clustering that happens frequently in language, as with light-related terms like glow, gleaming, and glimmer. A wade through our forbidden vocabulary offers many other enlightening glimpses into how we use words, as Bergen details in his new book, What the F.  

What can we learn from the way curse words change over time?

The word dick used to refer to a riding crop—then it became a metaphor for an anatomical part. A word gaining a new meaning is a normal process, but what’s interesting about profane terms is that they systematically lose their old meanings. You don’t use dick to refer to a riding crop anymore because of the trouble that can be caused by confusion. 

Matt HustonMatt Huston is the News Editor at Psychology Today. Before PT, he freelanced for The Philadelphia Inquirer and studied journalism at The College of New Jersey. He joined the magazine as an editorial intern in Summer 2012.

Editor: Saad Shaheed

What happens to a profane word in the long run?

It enters into the common vocabulary  and loses its salaciousness. Curse words seem ineffably powerful, but if we step back and compare them with words that did the same thing hundreds of years ago, we see that the words themselves don’t have any inherent power—just the power we give them.

Can you think of a once-empowered curse word that is meaningless to us now?

In Shakespeare’s time, to swive would have been a more common way than the F-word to talk about sexual intercourse. Today, I don’t think it would have much purchase outside of a Renaissance fair.
Could you explain a major misconception Americans have about curse words?

There’s a pervasive belief that profanity is intrinsically harmful to children, but there’s really no evidence for it. Verbal abuse can be damaging, but that’s not the same as profanity. You can verbally abuse someone by saying that they’re stupid or worthless, and you can use profanity in very positive ways: “Your grades on that chemistry test were fan-f***ing-tastic! Let’s go get ice cream.”

Profanity, you explain, has also taught us about how the brain produces language.

People with damage to Broca’s area in their left cerebral hemisphere often have trouble articulating speech. Many of them, while they can’t say “There’s a cat,” can swear and often do. This has been known for 150 years, but people figured out only recently that spontaneous swearing uses a different brain pathway from the rest of language. It’s a totally different route to swear when you stub your toe. It’s evolutionarily much older and predates our capacity for intentional speech.

We curse when we’re angry or excited. Is it largely a way for us to spread those feelings?

That’s kind of what language does in general. Some language is really good at contaminating other people with your ideas. Other language has a more direct path to the emotions, and profanity is most definitely among the latter.

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