So, what the heck? Why study profanity?
Language is changing. We’re exposed to a
wider and wider swath of language than we
might have been 20 years ago. That includes
slang; it includes new vocabulary embraced
by young people, and it includes profanity.
We would be doing ourselves a disservice
if we didn’t consider all these different
types of language as part of our research
purview. What people do with language
tells us things about how humans learn
language, how their brains process
language, how they use language for
Your book identifies four broad categories
into which profanity seems to fall.
When you look across languages and
cultures, the taboo words—the words
people decide are inappropriate for formal
contexts, or inappropriate around kids or
inappropriate in general—tend to be drawn
from four categories of human experience:
from religious concepts; from sexual
activities and sexual relations; from bodily
functions and the body parts that perform
those functions; and then, finally, from
terms for groups of other people. You find
in language after language that these tend
to be the sources of taboo language. It’s
not surprising because these, of course,
are domains of human experience that
themselves are quite taboo.
How have taboo words changed over time?
If you look at surveys that have been
conducted with native speakers of the
various Englishes of the world, religious
terminology has flipped pretty far down to
the least offensive of those four categories.
It wasn’t always. Three hundred years ago
you would have found the strongest words
in the language were names of deities and
hell and so on: “zounds,” which comes from
“God’s wounds,” and “gadzooks,” which
comes from “God’s eyes.” Those were
replaced by sexual language, which came
along with Victorian beliefs about sexuality.
And nowadays, the strongest words of the
language seem to have been replaced by
this largely newer crop of slurs—terms of
abuse for denigrating people based on their
race, religion, ethnicity, sex and so on.
Is profanity becoming more acceptable
then? And why would you say this is?
We’re no longer subject to heavy censorship on the media that we’re exposed to.
Most of the media we get pops up on our
media device in our pocket, completely
unfiltered. It’s straight from someone
else’s thumbs. As a consequence of getting
unfiltered language, the impact of the
profanity lessens. We’re inured to it. It
doesn’t seem as bad as it once was, and in
large part that’s because there’s nothing
intrinsically bad about it. It’s associated
Benjamin Bergen is a professor of
cognitive science at UC San Diego and
director of the Language and
Cognition Lab, where he studies how
our minds compute meaning and how
talking interferes with safe driving—
among many other things that don’t
need to be bleeped. His latest book is
What the F: What Swearing Reveals
About Our Language, Our Brains, and
Ourselves. He calls it “ a book-length
love letter to profanity.” You’ve been
UC San Diego professor of cognitive science
TRITON | WINTER 2017
BY INGA KIDERRA