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  • What the F: What swearing reveals about our language, our brains, and ourselves by Benjamin K. Bergen
  • Laura W. McGarrity
What the F: What swearing reveals about our language, our brains, and ourselves. By Benjamin K. Bergen. New York: Basic Books, 2016. Pp. 271. ISBN 9780465060917. $27.99.


I teach an undergraduate course on swear words and taboo language designed to interest students in the study of language and introduce the field of linguistics to nonmajors. As a result, I have looked on with interest over the past few years at the spike in the number of published books devoted to the topic of taboo language (alternatively called swearing, profanity, cursing, or obscenity in the literature; see Adams 2016, Green 2014, Mohr 2013, to name a few). Cognitive scientist Benjamin K. Bergen’s latest offering What the F: What swearing reveals about our language, our brains, and ourselves is a valuable contribution to this growing library.

B’s book emerges from the following basic premise: because of its taboo nature, swearing has traditionally been ignored in scholarly research, but we ignore it to our detriment. Swear words can tell us a lot about language, the brain, and even human nature. B employs wit and humor in an engaging style to make the scientific research on swearing engrossing and accessible to even the most uninitiated reader. As such, this book serves as a perfect entry point for getting students interested in the scientific study of language.

In this review, I provide a brief summary of the content of the book and then address its suitability for use in the classroom from an instructor’s perspective.

Book summary

The book contains eleven chapters, each focusing on a different dimension of the science of swearing.

Ch. 1 (provocatively titled ‘Holy, fucking, shit, nigger’) looks at the similarities and differences in the semantic categories of swear words and their use across cultures. In Ch. 2 (‘What makes a four-letter word?’), B addresses the phonology of swear words, examining whether there is a connection between the phonological shape of a swear word and its degree of tabooness as judged by listeners. Ch. 3 (‘One finger is worth a thousand words’) investigates the iconic vs. arbitrary nature of obscene gestures around the world, as well as how swears are represented in various signed languages. In Ch. 4 (‘The holy priest with the vulgar tongue’), B demonstrates how the brain processes swear words differently than it does the rest of language. Ch. 5 (‘The day the pope dropped the C-bomb’) discusses speech errors or ‘slips of the tongue’, showing how innocent and not-so-innocent speech errors can give us insight into how the brain plans and even edits our speech. Ch. 6 (‘Fucking grammar’) covers the grammar of swearing, revealing that there is a subgrammar to swearing that differs from that of nontaboo words. In Ch. 7 (‘How cock lost its feathers’), B takes a historical look at how swear words and their meanings can change, becoming more or less taboo over time. The next two chapters discuss swearing and children. Ch. 8 (‘Little Samoan potty mouths’) explores child language acquisition, while Ch. 9 (‘Fragile little minds’) asks whether exposing children to profanity can cause them harm. Following up on this, Ch. 10 (‘The $100,000 word’) focuses specifically on the use of slurs and their ability to cause psychological and social harm to their targets. Finally, Ch. 11 (‘The paradox of profanity’) addresses censorship, investigating whether there are better ways to deal with profanity than to suppress it.

Instructors perspective

This book was not designed to be a textbook; however, it did emerge from material that B developed in the course of teaching his own class on the topic. As a result, there is a distinct instructional style to this book that reveals its origins. This is evident in how the book is structured and organized, making it quite suitable for introducing students to and interesting them in the scientific study of language. It may be used as a standalone text for a basic [End Page e372] course on swearing and its role in...


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pp. e372-e374
Launched on MUSE
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