Power in Profanity: An Interview with Ben Bergen

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You lock your car keys inside your car. You get a test back and you did significantly worse than expected. You find out the milk in your fridge expired two weeks ago, but you are really craving some cereal.

As far as I can tell, these events only have two things in common: (1) they could potentially ruin your entire day and (2) they are often followed by a certain four-letter verbal expression, either conveyed out loud or in your head.


Ben Bergen, a Cognitive Science professor at UCSD, tackles these questions in his book “What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves.” Bergen is the Director of the Language and Cognition Lab. He’s authored two books and studies language, meaning, and brain computation.

“What the F” is an in-depth analysis of profanity, ranging from the phonological, semantic, and syntactic patterns profane words follow, to the brain circuits involved in impulsive language, to the evolution of profanity within societies, and to the link between language and thought. Though it asks challenging questions, “What the F” remains an entertaining, easy read. Bergen uses footnotes not only to reference further research, but also to crack jokes. I found myself laughing out loud because of the effortless narration and relatable anecdotes that accompany Bergen’s scientific findings.

The existence of swearing is known and its presence is undeniable, but its history and impact often go unnoticed. So much goes into creating profanity: producing it, perceiving it, and (sometimes) replacing it. “What the F” highlights these invisible, hard-working mechanisms behind swearing, while reminding us of the creative feature of human language. Bergen’s book is innovative, provocative, and highlights the influential nature of profanity on all language users (whether you swear or not).

I got to speak with Bergen about “What the F,” his interest in studying meaningful language, and his personal thoughts on the future of profanity. The responses have been divided into paragraphs for readability.

The Triton: Your first book, “Louder than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning” came out in 2012, with “What the F” coming out a few years after in 2016. Can you tell me a little bit about the relationship between these two books? Because it’s evident that their topics of discussion are different, but where and how do they overlap?

Bergen: Yeah, great question. So, I’m primarily interested in how we’re able to communicate with language — how we’re able to formulate thoughts into words and grammar and transmit that through space and time so that someone else is actually able to understand what we mean, and the first book addressed how we do that when we’re speaking rationally, intentionally, and communicating about states of the world or states of our desires or states of our beliefs. So, if I want to tell you where to find my keys, or where my office is, or what I think about the current political situation, then I’m going to have to choose some words, take it into grammar, then you’re going to have to figure out a way to reverse engineer it and figure out what’s inside my mind.

The second book is more about emotion. So, we communicate not only our rational thoughts, but also our feelings as well, and when I started to look at emotion communication, the first thing that jumped out at me, of course, was profanity. People use taboo language to communicate their strongest emotions, their most immediate, transient ones, and so I decided to dig a little bit into the science of how we do that.

The Triton: And so you do describe profanity as a type of “taboo” specifically because the meanings behind them are often about taboo topics. Devoting a book to profanity means you yourself would be working with these topics — something that seems like a bit of a risky move. Was it something you yourself were a bit intimidated to approach at all?

Bergen: You know, we are really lucky at UC San Diego to have a campus that’s committed to intellectual freedom so at no point did I ever feel like there would be some negative repercussions for studying this topic. The one thing that I was little concerned about was teaching about the topic because [except that] students feel strongly about taboo language, it’s possible they find themselves in a classroom where we’re discussing these strong words. You know, we’re not using them at each other, but we’re discussing how they work and what they mean and what emotions they convey and so on. And it could be that some people feel uncomfortable in that type of environment.

I teach an undergraduate class about taboo language and I consulted with the relevant units on campus, in particular the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination (or OPHD), to make sure that we put into place some guidelines and just some information so that students could decide whether this was a class students wanted to take and had some procedures in place just to make sure nothing ever happened in class that could be in any way harassment. And I’m happy to report that [laughs] I’ve taught the class for, I guess, about seven years now, and we’ve never had a single instance of anything that crossed the line in any way.

The Triton: That’s great. Will you be teaching this class the upcoming school year?

Bergen: I won’t teach it this year. I’m actually on leave next quarter, but I typically teach it in the fall. It’s a class called Cognitive Science 15: An Uncensored Introduction to Language.  

The Triton: Looks like I just missed you then, unfortunately. So, you make a clear distinction, throughout the whole book, between slurs and other profane language. What is this distinction and why is it so important?

Bergen: Within taboo language, there are different categories, and in any given time, at any given place, or any given person, some of them may be more problematic, more taboo… Or, taboo in different ways. So, taboo language is often drawn from different categories. One of those, the original sense of profanity, is language regarding religious concepts. There’s other taboo language that’s drawn from sex or bodily functions. That’s what we think of, the sort of, run-of-the-mill type of taboo language nowadays that gets bleeped on television… and then there are slurs. Slurs are terms that disparage people by dint of their race, or religion, or sex, sexuality, and so on.

Now, it just so happens that in this time and place, in contemporary America, especially among young people your age, slurs are judged to be far more offensive than any of the other words. So, we’ve had surveys of UCSD undergrads and we find that the words that they find the most offensive are the slurs. And there is [kind of] a reason for that. Slurs obviously aren’t just bad because we are told that they’re bad, because someone decided that at some point they were going to punish the kids who said them. They’re bad because of the work that they do. They’re meant to cause harm. That’s different from, you know, speaking the f-bomb when you’re really excited about something, which is not meant to cause harm to a particular person. It doesn’t pick out a particular group who has historically been marginalized or disempowered. That’s not what the f-bomb does, but it is what slurs do. Attitudes to those words are different, and in fact, the consequence of using those words are different.

You know, we have some evidence that the use of slurs directed at kids, particularly younger kids, so junior high school, actually causes harm over the course of their development. Kids who are called by, in particular homophobic slurs, but we have some reason to believe that others work the same way… The kids who are called by homophobic slurs by 6th, 7th, 8th grade, they show increased problems in school. They have increased signs of depression, anxiety, attachment from school, and so on. And the same is not true of other words, words that are just around a lot of cussing in general, you know, don’t end up showing those deficits. So slurs are kind of a special case of taboo words.

The Triton: Definitely. That said, you also mention how certain slurs, specifically, have been taken and transformed in order to possibly eradicate the negative connotations of that word. Like the word queer for example. How do you think transformations of these slurs impact the future of profanity?

Bergen: Hmm, well it’s true that there are some groups that have been quite successful at re-appropriating words, making them their own, taking away their sting and taking away their power. Queer is a great example. Gay is actually an example. And there have been others that are less successful. So, the worst word in English, at least as distributed data today, is a word that starts with n that I don’t think I need to say, and it has gone through several rounds of people trying to re-appropriate it, take away its power. You know, it occurs, at least a version of it occurs, in lots of hip hop and rap music, and yet that hasn’t taken away its effectiveness when it’s used in particular ways to cause harm by particular people, mainly people who want to cause harm.

You know, it’s not a silver bullet to try to take away the power of a word. I think that, at least for the foreseeable future, slurs appear to be in their ascendance in terms of how effective they are. My guess is that, you know, for the  next couple generations we’re in, what you guys are growing into, early and middle adulthood, that those words will be banned and disapproved of. What happens next? I don’t know. English has gone through cycles where slurs weren’t always bad. When I was growing up [I’m forty-something], slurs were very common place on the playground and no one really found that much to object to. Instead, it was words relating to sexuality that were judged most offensive. 200 years ago, it was before the Victorian turn that we made, it was religious terms. So, what’s up next? [laughs] We don’t have a way to know.

The Triton: I was personally curious if you think that profanity is something that will always exist?

Bergen: It doesn’t have to. There are some cases of place that decided that it wasn’t really that bad. So, France is a good case study. There are profane words in France, but they’re not called “bad words;” they’re called “fat words,” or “big words.” And what French people seem to have decided is that “yeah, we agree that these are the strong words, but that doesn’t keep us from using them in pretty much every context.” So you can be forgiven if you went to France and didn’t realize that they were bad words because people use them around kids, they use them on the evening news. They’re used for spice, but they’re not thought to be so objectionable that you have to bleep them out or anything like that… that just doesn’t exist. So, it’s certainly possible that that’s our future, and it’s not a terrible future, I mean, people argue a lot less about what words are acceptable in what context. And you know, the equivalent of the FCC and the Motion Picture Association of America have a lot less work to do, at least when it comes to language per say. But it’s not a terrible future, and it’s definitely a possible one for us.

The Triton: This kind of reminds me of the last chapter of your book called “The Paradox of Profanity.” If I’m correct, this “paradox” refers to the fact that profanity is something we, as speakers, simultaneously create and attempt to limit, right?

Bergen: Right, and we create it by attempting to limit it.

The Triton: Do you think there is any way profanity can somehow escape this “paradox”?

Bergen: Well it changes when generations of people decide that their attitudes toward language are different and I think one way that that happens is through the democratization of media. If you look around the English that people are exposed to today compared with 20 years ago, say … 20 years ago, pretty much all you consumed was censored. It was censored by the FCC, by movie ratings board.

Nowadays, it’s almost all uncensored. You know, your twitter feed is filled with whatever people want to say. So is your Xbox Live, if that’s still a thing people play. And as a consequence, language isn’t curated. Instead, the language that you consume is a direct reflection of how people use it. People have always used profane language, but profanity has been allowed to have this taboo status because of the appearance that people weren’t using it. Because the media wasn’t showing it. I think that it’s possible that this change that we’re starting to see, where millennials and younger, don’t find run-of-the-mill taboo language to be all that offensive anymore. I think that may be in part of how media works.

The Triton: So, I attended your panel at the San Diego Festival of Books called “The Fate of our Culture,” which is a very broad topic. I wasn’t really sure what to expect.

Bergen: [laughs] Neither was I.

The Triton: Where would you say is the intersection between linguistics and this “cultural fate” of ours? If possible, where does your study of profanity lie in this intersection?

Bergen: That’s a big question. A large part of what’s changing is how we communicate with one another. The technological tools that we use, but it’s also the modality that we use to communicate with one another. You know, are we speaking? Are we writing using our hands? Are we listening to each other? Are we reading each other, and if so, how much are we reading each other? So, cultural change is happening in the same time that these artifacts are changing and the ways that we communicate are changing. So language is obviously going to be central to that because this is all about language.

I don’t know what the fate of our culture is [laughs], but I definitely think that in one way, we’re in relatively good hands, with respect to profanity specifically. In that, like I said, people of your age seem to have your priorities relatively straight. Like, when you decide that the words you least want to hear, that you find most offensive, are specifically the ones that cause harm to people, and particularly people who are members of historically marginalized and disadvantaged groups, that seems like a pretty empathetic position to take. And it’s more of an empathetic position than the previous generation’s’ position that “These words are bad because they’re bad, because I learned that they’re bad, so they’re bad.”

To the extent that our future well-being depends on empathy, particularly empathy for people that are not like us, then I think that this is at least one harbinger of essential hope.


If interested, “What the F” is available to purchase on Amazon or the UCSD Bookstore. Ben Bergen’s other publications are also listed here.  

Ana Magallanes is the editor of Arts and Entertainment for The Triton. She can be reached at ae@triton.news.