F-bombs and N-words: what taboo language tells us about ourselves

Why do we curse? Benjamin K. Bergen looks at the origins and purposes of swearing in his new book, What the F, and says that even in our more accepting age some words still have the power to shock

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 September, 2016, 12:16pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 September, 2016, 3:16pm

One of my favourite segments of the Inside the Actors Studio television show is the Pivot questionnaire, and this query in particular: “What is your favourite curse word?”

The answers are always telling, whether the actor is coy or commanding in their delivery, whether the word is a passing blush of profanity or a polysyllabic splash from the gutter.

So it seemed natural to ask Benjamin K. Bergen, author of What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains and Ourselves, to give me his go-to curse words.

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“I find the most interest in the new terms that come from other cultures,” Bergen says. He refers to a term from Australia, where the C-word is “far less strong”.

It starts with the C-word, and then “waffle”. C***waffle.

There’s another he’s learned from his students at the University of California, San Diego, where he is a professor of cognitive science: “It’s spelled THOT, which is for ‘That ho over there’.”

You may laugh and shake your head, but we are all surrounded by a storm of words – breath-stopping slurs, profanity and common insults .

In his book, Bergen attempts to explain where that blue streak comes from – and what it does to us as people.

“Profanity is the type of language we use to communicate our strongest emotions,” he says. “It’s reflexive rather than reflective, and it’s immensely revealing about who we are and what we want.

“Not all is methodical and rational,” he continues. “A lot is about our transient emotional states. ‘I’m angry, I’m frustrated, I’m overjoyed, I’m sexually aroused’.”

Bergen has come up with a formula (unprintable here) for remembering the source of all profanity, which goes something like this: religion, sex acts, things that come out of your body, and slurs like the N-word.

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Using profanity can bring quick relief in painful situations. In one experiment, people were asked to put their hands in a bucket of ice. Those allowed to curse lasted longer, indicating a fight-or-flight response in which their heart rate climbed and they became less sensitive to pain. And Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker believes we curse as a defence mechanism; we want to startle the listener.

“If you’re working on a math problem or taxes,” Bergen says, “a well-executed string of swear words can act as a release. But that hasn’t been scientifically proven.”

Indeed, he says, road rage shows that swearing can only make things worse, stirring up more aggression. “It might be better to say some calming things,” Bergen says, “to take some deep breaths.”

Many words that used to be taboo have been diluted and mainstreamed. Non-network TV allows profanity. Social media is democratic. People say whatever they want and we become inured.

The only words that retain their potency are slurs: the N-word. The F-word to deride homosexuals. Young people are more aware and sensitive to such language, so it remains taboo, Bergen says.

How to use profanity in our lives “is similar to the nuclear question”, Bergen says. “These words are powerful emotionally, physiologically and socially. And with great power comes great responsibility.

“They are part of what makes English English, and humans humans.”