What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, And Ourselves

Feb 13, 2017

Nearly everyone swears—whether it’s over a few too many drinks, in reaction to a stubbed toe, or in flagrante delicto. And yet, we sit idly by as words are banned from television and censored in books. We insist that people excise profanity from their vocabularies and we punish children for yelling the very same dirty words that we’ll mutter in relief seconds after they fall asleep. Swearing, it seems, is an intimate part of us that we have decided to selectively deny.

That’s a damn shame. Swearing is useful. It can be funny, cathartic, or emotionally arousing. As linguist and cognitive scientist Benjamin K. Bergen shows in his book What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, it also opens a new window onto how our brains process language and why languages vary around the world and over time.