We spoke to Benjamin Bergen, an author and linguist, about what might happen if curse words stop working.
Cursing is, as you already know, fucking great. It turns bad jokes into good jokes, it signals to nieces and nephews that you're the fun one, and if you do it in a restaurant, it makes stuck-up people slam their forks down and look over at you. And, as VICE has already reported, dropping a lot of swear words into every conversation doesn't make you stupid—it's just evidence of a colorful vocabulary.
But more than just a fun hobby, cursing is an integral part of human communication, according to a new book, What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves. The author, Benjamin Bergen, points out that brain damage victims who become mute often retain the ability to blurt out profanity. He also demonstrates that there's no evidence that most swearing harms anyone at all, even children—which is why Bergen often curses in front of kids, and thinks you should too.
"But not all profanity is equal," Bergen writes in the book, "and all signs point to a strengthening in the United States of one specific class of profane language, namely, slurs." He explains how slurs are unlike other words, insofar as they have tangible, measurable negative effects. And "in the last two decades," Bergen explains, we've all been having fun dismantling the taboos around curse words involving shitting, fucking, and Jesus, but meanwhile "all manner of sexual or ethnic epithets have become unspeakable."
To find out more about what this shift means, I got in touch with Bergen, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego. We talked about the large amount of profanity on the fucking awesome website you're reading right now, and the future of cursing in general.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: When was the last time you cursed in front of your kid?
Benjamin Bergen: It was probably this morning. I don't know what it was, but somehow I couldn't get the wrapper for my teabag open, and I said something like, "I can't get this fucking thing open."
And he's OK?
He's still intact. I guess most two-and-a-half-year-olds are perfect angels, and he's not. So maybe that's because of the profanity. He hasn't started imitating those particular words, in large part I think because we don't make a big deal out of it.
If you distill it down to one thing, what makes a word a curse word?
The biggest part is the social convention—agreements that we don't use these words in certain contexts. These are words we don't say about kids, or don't allow kids to say, that we don't say over the public airwaves—although maybe we say them in VICE magazine.
It's more than that! We even have a show on our TV channel called Fuck, That's Delicious. What's happening when we put profanity out in public like that?
You, the publishers, are doing something that hooks into the same thing that comedians who "work blue" are hooking into. There is social capital to swearing. You're violating a taboo. That makes you a rule-breaker. That makes you cool. That makes you appear to have power and confidence. And this is the same way that people judge swearers—individual people who swear—in the workplace. These are the same things that we judge people to have, these personal attributes. You're hooking into that same belief.
Is there a downside?
You guys should be really worried that the "F" word is gonna lose its power, because in a way, you're using that taboo as a way to create a brand. This is a really exciting time, because language is becoming democratized, whereas 20 years ago, pretty much everything you would hear or see was filtered through the FCC or the MPAA. Now, most of what pops up on your mobile device is straight from someone else's thumbs, with no intermediary. That means when a younger generation recreates the language in their own image to serve the purpose that they want, they're going to use it in exactly the way that they want, and these conventions start to melt away.
But that's not happening with racial slurs, right?
The "N" word is the word of our times. I think a really interesting thing that's happening is that these words—and I guess I can say them—"fuck," "shit," "cocksucker," "motherfucker," the really strong ones, the [George] Carlin ones—are not judged by young people to be very profane. It makes sense that they would start to lose their power, but they're not about anything bad. There's nothing intrinsically bad about sex or defecation. The words that millennials seem to find most offensive are "nigger" and "chink" and "fag" and "retard." These are terms you would not prefer for a very specific reason, because of the way they're often used. These are words that are often used to hurt people. I'm sort of optimistic seeing that people younger than me find that they want to tailor their language so that they don't do harm to other people, and they don't really care so much about these old conventions.
And as you point out in the book, slurs can cause real damage, right?
In this one particular experiment, after [participants] were exposed to the word ["faggot"] subconsciously, they were told that they were going to go into the other room and have a conversation with someone else at the university who was gay. They were going to talk about the conditions for homosexuals at the university, and [they were told], "There's a chair folded up over there, and could you please set it up so that you and this other student can have a conversation?" The researchers measured how far apart the students put the chairs. If they'd been primed with "faggot," they put the chairs ten centimeters farther apart than if they'd been primed with "homosexual." That kind of physical distancing is the most concrete manifestation of the kind of discrimination and dehumanization that these words create.
On the other hand, you've described other types of curse words as helpful. How does that work?
It makes you seem to fit in, makes you seem powerful, and makes you seem confident. It also helps alleviate pain. There've been a couple experiments showing that when people have to stick their hand in near ice-cold water, the half of people who are told to swear during the immersion are able to hold their hands there about twice as long as people who don't swear.
But what happens if words like "fuck" are too common to be used as that kind of emotional vent?
The words can lose their power. The reason they can do all of those things is because I—and maybe you—were taught that these aren't words that we say in this house, young man, and we internalize that. People around us internalize that. That's why people get the electrical jolt that they get when we say or write them. That's why the heart rate starts to increase and people's palms start to sweat, they have blood pressure increases, there's a fight-or-flight response of emotional arousal. And obviously [if it's] part of your brand that you use that physiological fact, it puts you in a tricky situation. If those words are slipping—if those words become normal, typical, normative, what do you do? Do you have to go to slurs? And are you willing to go there?
What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves is now available.
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