Profanity (with Benjamin K. Bergen)

What makes a word profane? Why are my swear words different from my parents’? If swearing is so bad, why do we do it? And what can a culture’s swear words tell us about the things they hold taboo?

Today’s guest is Dr. Benjamin K. Bergen, professor of cognitive science at UC San Diego and author of the book “What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves.”

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Taboo Science is written and produced by Ashley Hamer. Theme music by Danny Lopatka of DLC Music.


Ashley: There’s a word that inspires horror and indignation. People have lost their jobs over it. Christopher Hitchens once wrote an article defending his use of the N word, where he acknowledged that he shouldn’t use this word. But it’s not a slur or any sort of profanity, not technically. You’ll find it in the dictionary and even on SAT tests. If I said it here, and I’m gonna say it here, I wouldn’t have to put an explicit rating on this podcast.

Confusing, right? How can a word that causes this much uproar not be considered profanity? Well, that’s the million dollar question. The word I’m talking about is, okay, I lost my nerve. It’s spelled N I G G A R D L Y, and it means stingy. It sounds an awful lot like another N word, a very racist word that is 100% considered a slur, but the two words only seem related.

The word that means stingy most likely comes from the 14th century from a word for a stingy person, while the racist N word didn’t appear until several centuries later and traces its roots to the Spanish word for black. They only seem related, the way a harmless snake might take on the markings of a venomous one.

But is it harmless? I mean, I’m uncomfortable saying it on this podcast. I know that it doesn’t mean to be racist, but I also know that people mistake it for that all the time. I wasn’t exaggerating about people losing their jobs for using the word. A political aid in Washington DC did in 1999, a Florida drug counselor did in 2011, and many others have come dangerously close.

There’s even a Wikipedia page entirely devoted to the various public controversies about the word. So is it a slur because it offends people or is it not because its etymology is innocent? What puts one word on the SAT and another one on the FCC’s banned words list?

That’s what we’re gonna find out today. I’m Ashley Hamer, and this is Taboo Science, the podcast that answers the questions you are not allowed to ask.

The question of whether this innocent n word should be considered a slur reminds me of the types of people who say, ain’t ain’t a word, and, oh, did it literally blow your mind? Those are what a linguist might call prescriptivists. They subscribe to the idea that language has a way it should be spoken, and if it’s not spoken that way, it’s incorrect.

So in this case, the dictionary doesn’t call this word a slur, so it shouldn’t be taken that way. On the other side of the aisle are descriptivists who say that a way of speaking is correct if a native speaker, well, speaks that way, linguistics as a field mostly falls into the descriptivist camp. I mean, you can’t exactly study the way language evolves and also insist that it never change, right? We didn’t get here from old English by being sticklers for grammar.

Language is a tool that we use to communicate. And if we need that tool to do something new, we can tweak it. In the same way, sometimes language goes stale or it sounds stuffy, or it becomes associated with an unsavory character. Or it starts to offend. And people start to lose their jobs over it.

Ben Bergen: The way that words become powerful is by the taboos against using them.

Ashley: That’s Dr. Ben Bergen.

Ben Bergen: My name is Ben Bergen. I am a professor of cognitive science at UC San Diego, and I conduct research on language and the brain.

Ashley: He’s written an entire book about profanity called What the F, What Swearing Reveals About our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves.

So who better to take you through the tantalizing world of taboo words?

Ben Bergen: What makes a word profane isn’t really anything intrinsic to the word, although there are things that make words sound more profane or be more likely to become profane over time. But really these are cultural judgments and you know, profanity because someone tells you not to use that word in public or someone, uh, punishes you for using that word in public or because someone censors themself from saying that word in public or that word is bleeped out in public. Those are the cues that tell us that there is power and, uh, social censorship of the word.

That there’s an agreement in our society, in our culture that there’s something powerful and bad about this particular word.

Ashley: It’s us who make words profane, not the dictionary. But while there isn’t anything intrinsic to a word that makes it profane, Dr. Bergen says that there are some things that can help push a word along.

Ben Bergen: Yeah. Well, the, the best predictor is if it comes from a domain of human experience that the people using that language have taboos about. So if you have a taboo about sex or a taboo about bodily functions like defecation, if you have a taboo about religion, if you have a taboo about groups of other people, Then that can lend vocabulary to the profane lexicon.

Ashley: That means that profanity is entirely cultural. If one culture has a taboo about, I don’t know, feet, and another culture doesn’t, well, you’re not gonna get foot related profanity in that second culture, but you very well might in the first. Ya toe toucher. Ya… arch flattener. You, uh, heel licker. I don’t know.

Ben Bergen: You know, in the history of English, for example, the, the F word was not always a profane word. And you know, in Shakespeare’s time it would’ve been used relatively casually. It was sort of like screw

Ashley: Shakespeare himself didn’t use it, but he definitely made reference to it. In the Mary Wives of Windsor, there’s the punny line:

What is the fockative case, William?

Kind of sounds like an F word, right? After which there’s a response that makes some veiled reference to lady parts. The greatest writer in the English language, ladies and gentlemen.

Ben Bergen: And that changed towards the end of the 18th century as people’s attitudes became slightly more Victorian towards sex.

And as people stopped wanting to hear about sex in public, they also decided that they didn’t want to hear words that were related to sex in public and that led to changes in how tolerated these specific words were. So as the taboos emerged for the words, the using of the word became, it became a sort of act of social demonstration.

You were acting out against this norm, against this, against this rule. And that gives the word power because it is a, it’s a social regulation that you’re breaking.

Ashley: By the way, you may have heard stories about how the F word was originally an acronym for Fornication Under Command of King, or for unlawful caral knowledge, or the slightly more tortured story an English teacher once told me where like, back when wars were fought with bows and arrows, French soldiers would cut off the middle fingers of English soldiers, so they couldn’t pluck their bows, which were made of the yew tree, so when English soldiers saw the French, they’d hold up their middle fingers and go pluck you.

Yeah, I don’t know either. Anyway. All of those stories are almost certainly false. While nobody’s sure where the F word came from, it has cousins in other Germanic languages, so it probably got its start as the word itself, not some amalgamation of other words. The word dick came to us on another path. The path of English’s insatiable appetite for penis words.

Ben Bergen: Dick, at the turn of the 20th century was not a swear word. It was a nickname for Richard, and it was also kind of a general term for a guy. So we still have this a little bit in Tom, Dick and Harry, but you could just say, you know, oh, he’s a regular dick, which means just he’s a regular guy. And then it started to change a little bit.

It got extended to mean a riding crop. In particular, maybe the hilt of a, or the handle of a riding crop. And then all of a sudden in like in the early 19 hundreds, maybe 1910s or twenties in military circles, it gains this new meaning. It starts to refer to the male member. And how exactly that happened we’re not entirely sure. It could have been from either of those sources actually, so that there are a lot of cases where a word for guy goes on to mean male member.

Ashley: Some I can think of? Peter, Johnson, Willie, I guess even manhood counts.

Ben Bergen: But it could also be the case that it went from riding crop, you know, due to some sort of metaphor from riding crop to the male member.

And, and it spread from the, from that military use as a, as lots of profanity does. So, you know, SNAFU and FUBAR and so on all started as military terms. And it appears that dick uh, did as well as profanity.

Ashley: SNAFU, of course, stands for situation normal all effed up and FUBAR stands for effed up beyond all recognition.

You are welcome. Anyway, as the penis related usage of Dick gained in popularity, the name understandably started to decline.

Ben Bergen: I tracked this looking at the Social Security administration’s data on names. In birth certificates, so you can actually track for every year, how many babies born in the US were given every name imaginable.

And throughout the beginning of the 20th century, there were a lot of little baby boys who were given the name Dick. So these were not, uh, Richards with a nickname, Dick, they actually, it actually said Dick on their birth certificate. And that peaks around the 1950s and then it drops off precipitously in the 1960s to the point where, you know, I just looked over the last decade, there are no dick records in the Social Security, uh, Administration’s name database for the last decade that say, Dick. And you can probably intuitively sense this, right? If you think about anyone you can think of named Dick, they’re probably 70 or older, right? They’re Dick Cheney, and Dick van Dyke and Dick Armitage, and I don’t even know who else.

Ashley: I just wanna stop here and mention that I had an elementary school classmate named Richard Harden. Richard Harden, and nobody made fun of him because we were like 10 and nobody realized what a hilarious name it was.

Anyway, it doesn’t even take centuries for a normal word to turn into a swear word or vice versa. I mean, I think everyone can think of words that offended their parents, but wouldn’t make their friends bat an eye.

Ben Bergen: So for my generation, uh, you know, I’m 40 something. I think it was probably the word sucks, like that sucks, you know, and we would say it left and right. It was just a thing that you would say on the playground.

And no one batted an eyelash. And our parents hated it. Our parents thought it was the most vulgar, profane thing that we could possibly say. And we didn’t get it in part because we were elementary school kids and we really didn’t quite understand the context. Um, but also because language was changing.

And this happens for all profane words. They, they go through phases where they’re innocuous, they become profane, and then they, and then they peter out. But there’s a big change happening right now, which is that younger people, let’s call it Gen Z, don’t find the words related to sex and bodily functions and religion anywhere near as offensive as previous generations did.

They find far more offense in slurs. So if you survey 18 year olds, as I do every year when I get a new crop of freshmen, and you ask them how profane words are, you give ’em hundreds of words. What you find is that the, the words that maybe George Carlin would’ve listed as the ones you couldn’t say on television, you know, words related to sex and bodily functions, don’t know,

those don’t even show up in the top 10. Uh, the F word to them is number 22. I think as of last year, uh, most offensive in the language. I mean, they have an F word in the top three, but it’s a slur for, for homosexual people. They, they find terms of abuse that denigrate people for their ethnicity or their religion,

sex, sexual orientation, ability actually is a big one, they, they find those terms to be far more offensive than words about sex or bodily functions.

Ashley: I wanna repeat that. Kids today find words that denigrate groups of people to be the most offensive of all profanity. I love that. The kids are all right.

Ben Bergen: I, I think what you’re seeing is that younger people don’t find profanity bad unless it’s being used to cause harm. Which is kind of a very enlightened view for an 18 year old. But it, but one that makes a lot of sense, right? There, there’s no real harm that’s caused by interjecting an F word here or there because you’re excited or frustrated or you wanna sound funny or whatever.

Or you’ve had a few too many. But there can be something harmful and there’s science to, social science to kind of back this up, there can be something harmful to being called by slurs. Especially kids. And so if younger Americans are sensitive to that, then, then maybe that does show a change in their attitudes towards language and, and towards, towards what they’re willing to tolerate and what they’re not in public.

Ashley: Yeah. There are certain types of profanity that can cause real harm, but before we get into the bad things, profanity can do. I wanna take a moment to celebrate the awesome things it can do. I mean, if it’s all bad, why do we. Well, for one thing, Mom, the popular kids at school, were right. Swearing makes you cool.

Ben Bergen: When people swear, the positive associations are that they are funny, that they are accessible, that they are genuine.

Ashley: It also does kind of amazing things in your own body. I mean, swearing feels different than other language, right? It’s got some extra spice to it. It makes the heart race just a little, you know? Well, it turns out that’s because it happens in a part of the brain that’s more responsible for keeping you safe than for communicating with others.

Ben Bergen: When people spontaneously automatically swear, they’re using a totally different part of the brain. They’re using a part of the brain that sort of deep in the middle of the brain shared with other primates and other mammals, even lizards, have a homologue of this. It’s a part of the brain that’s responsible for detecting strong emotions and for choosing an appropriate action in response.

So it’s the same system that triggers your fight or flight response, for example. And that’s the part of the brain that’s active when people are reacting to a stubbed toe or uh, a touchdown or whatever it is that they’re swearing in response to. It’s a different pathway from the rest of language. And that’s part of what makes it so fascinating.

The brain has two ways to generate language. Not one.

Ashley: Lizards have a version of this?! Wow. Let’s all take a moment and imagine a lizard running from a hawk and just yelling,

Yeah. You didn’t think a podcast on profanity was gonna bleep anything, did you? This is a tasteful podcast. Anyway.

But it’s not just that profanity happens in the fight or flight part of the brain. There’s studies that suggest it may even help out in your fight or flight response.

Ben Bergen: This is worked by Richard Stevens in the UK and he came up with this really clever idea.

You know, when we experience pain, one of our immediate reactions, many of us, is to swear. And there’s this anecdotal idea that maybe we do that to tolerate pain better and maybe that it sort of suppresses the pain to some degree. And so he did this experimentally. He had students come into his lab and they stuck their hands into a bucket of ice water, really cold water.

I’ve done it. It’s not pleasant. And the task is really simple. They just have to hold their hand there as long as they can. And they’re randomly assigned to one of two groups. If they’re assigned to the swearing group, then they have to swear. They say the same swear word over and over while they’re enduring this pain.

Or if they’re assigned to the control group, they say some neutral word like chair or something like that. And what he found was that people could hold their hands in the water about 50% longer when they were swearing. And they also reported that it hurt significantly less, and this was true for male participants, for female participants. It was true for people who reported swearing all the time in their everyday lives, and people who reported never swearing.

Ashley: Swearing let these people withstand pain for 50% longer. I mean, if there was a drug that could do that, it would be hailed as a miracle. Once during a really painful medical procedure, I yelled the F word like five times in a row in a very small doctor’s office. The whole waiting room could probably hear me. I no longer feel bad about that.

And it turns out that the harms that can come from swearing don’t even really apply to the classic stuff you can’t say on television swears. I mean, yeah, if you swear at all in the wrong context, people are gonna judge you.

Ben Bergen: Uh, negative associations are that they’re poorly educated or have weak language abilities that they’re out of control or that they’re norm violators. And these vary radically depending on the context and the person speaking.

Ashley: I probably don’t have to tell you what gender is judged more harshly for dropping an F bomb.

It’s, it’s women.

But the situation matters too. If you’re experiencing a strong emotion, people tend to give you more of a pass than if you’re like praying in church.

But like Dr. Bergen said, the words that do the most harm are the ones purposefully used to harm.

Ben Bergen: The only place that you can find evidence of harm is where people are using profanity as part of verbal abuse.

And that’s because verbal abuse in general can be harmful. And by verbal abuse there, I mean, you know, telling children, this is usually studied with respect to children, um, that they’re worthless, threatening them, that sort of thing. And that can be accompanied by profanity, it can be not accompanied by profanity. But calling people by slurs, specifically middle school kids, as it turns out from the, from the science, shows, uh, long-term effects on their wellbeing. So one study, for example, tracked a bunch of sixth graders as they went through seventh and eighth grade and asked them to just report how often were they called by slurs. In particular, this study looked at homophobic slurs, and what they found was that the kids who reported being called more by homophobic slurs in sixth grade reported more symptoms of anxiety and depression, trouble feeling connected to school and so on through seventh and eighth grade.

Ashley: Wow. Yeah. Whole idea of sticks and stones may break my bones that it’s kind of not, not true. It can really — words can hurt.

Ben Bergen: Well, I mean of, of, but of course they can. Right? Uh, word words can do all kinds of things. You say the wrong words and you might end up, uh, married or you might end up committing libel, or you might end up, I mean, there, there are — words do actually affect the world in important ways, so it’s not that surprising.

But I think that maybe my generation and previous generations have been a little bit oversensitive to certain types of profanity, thinking that they cause harm when they actually don’t.

Ashley: Words are tools. Just because a tool can be used for harm doesn’t make it inherently harmful. You can use a knife to stab someone or to prepare a lovely meal.

But words do have power and it’s important to understand the power they hold. We give them that power, not the dictionary.

Thanks for listening, like seriously, thank you so much for listening. This is the first episode of Taboo Science and I have some really fascinating stuff coming up soon, so please be sure to subscribe on whatever app you’re using to listen to this. You can expect a new episode every two weeks. You can also follow the show on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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