Why Do We Love to Curse So Much?

September 26, 2016 | ,

What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves
By Benjamin K. Bergen
271 pp. Basic Books. $27.99.

By Michael Adams
253 pp. Oxford University Press. $17.95.

Every parent has been there, or will be there soon: the moment when your darling 5-year-old says one of the magic words that can transform a PG movie into an R, or earn an N.B.A. star a $25,000 fine.

How do you react? You can’t pretend, in 2016, that washing a kid’s mouth out with soap will make those words disappear: Lenny Bruce disabused our grandparents of those ideas half a century ago. And if everyone swears, why teach a child that it’s forbidden? But you can’t exactly just high-five the sailor-mouthed tot and send her back to kindergarten, either.

This doesn’t seem like an especially new problem. So why haven’t we yet figured out what to do about profanity?

Benjamin K. Bergen, a cognitive scientist who studies language, would say that’s the case because we don’t really know yet what counts as profanity and haven’t wanted to know. The F.C.C. won’t even tell us which words you can’t say during a broadcast; George Carlin remains the authority on that. And the scholars who know the most about language have mostly shunned dirty words as a subject.

Bergen’s new book, “What the F,” hopes to change that. In it, he insists that it’s totally legitimate to study profanity because of what it can teach us, in general, about language and the brain.

Take aphasias and coprolalia. When brain injuries or tumors render people speechless, they sometimes still swear, while Tourette’s syndrome can cause uncontrollable shouting of offensive slurs and obscenities. For comedy writers, that’s all catnip, but for Bergen, these phenomena reveal where language originates: When you pay attention to the affected brains, you learn that there’s a specific place where automatic, stubbed-toe expletives originate, distinct from the pathway, in the left hemisphere, that generates the rest of our talk.

Profanity, in Bergen’s skillful presentation, also illustrates how our brains edit speech, where we learn grammar and why words that mean similar things sometimes sound alike. “What the F” delivers on the surprise promised by its title, as what seems like a book about language taboos turns out to be a cognitive scientist’s sneaky — charming, consistently engrossing — introduction to linguistics.

Which isn’t to say that Bergen ever strays too far from swearing per se, or misses an opportunity to critique censorship. Doing parents everywhere a favor, he points out that despite what the American Academy of Pediatrics has said, there is no evidence that exposure to profanity harms children. And he argues strenuously “that there are better ways to deal with profanity than to suppress it,” even though he acknowledges evidence that one type of profanity — slurs directed at people because of their racial, ethnic and sexual identities — are measurably harmful.

Bergen synthesizes reams of his own and others’ research clearly and cracks some pretty decent professorial jokes, but as entertaining and enlightening as he is, he inadvertently saps a little of the joy out of dirty words. When he wants to describe profanity as beneficial for something other than teaching neuroscience, he reports on studies showing that people can keep their hands immersed in very cold water for longer if they shout swear words while they suffer. This sounds plausible, but it’s hardly what makes profanity so appealing or enjoyable.

What does? That’s the question that excites the historical linguist Michael Adams, who has previously devoted scholarly paeans not just to slang in general (which he calls “the people’s poetry”), but also to the linguistic innovations begot by “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” His new book, “In Praise of Profanity,” sets out to catalog the “many benefits — personal, social and aesthetic” of cursing a blue streak (and none of them are profanity’s ability to increase your tolerance for freezing water).

Adams ranges widely, energetically, from early modern English poetry to contemporary television, offering definitions, etymologies and theories of language development, all the while tracing patterns in the deployment of profanity in English. He credits it for promoting intimacy — among boy scouts, Tumblr users, bathroom-stall poets and many others. He admires it for giving voice to anger and disenfranchisement on “The Sopranos” (which, he calculates, averaged 82.788 swears per episode) and in James Kelman’s fiction. He takes pleasure in euphemisms, which end up sounding dirty themselves.

Who wouldn’t agree with Adams that profanity can be “useful, expressive and even artful”? It’s not a promising sign that he introduces one of his points by noting that “if you’re alive, you know this already.” He props up a few self-published antiprofanity kooks as straw men, but, really, anyone paying attention can name all kinds of art and social experiences to which profanity meaningfully contributes. Adams’s own examples, while fair, do not seem more revealing than a dozen others that could be chosen at random: Instead of Nellie McKay and “Californication,” say, why not substitute James Joyce, Maggie Nelson and “Hamilton”? Or Henry Miller, “Game of Thrones” and Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen”?

Adams rejects the stereotype of profanity as a refuge for “sloppy or lazy” writers and speakers — he’s right, it’s not — but as a cultural critic, he’s sometimes guilty of those faults himself. Of the comedian Sarah Silverman, he remarks, “She’s not a potty mouth per se,” and, about her humor, that “profanity isn’t part of this ­address.” Perhaps before making such pronouncements, Adams should have at least listened to her song “Diva,” or read the first chapter of her memoir, “The ­Bedwetter”?

What Adams gets right is that we’re living in “The Age of Profanity”: It truly is a wonderful time to swear, and to publish books like his and Bergen’s. There’s not much risk, but one gets to feel brave and subversive for tossing around four-letter words with abandon anyhow — shades of Bruce and Carlin, but without all the cops and courtrooms. If Adams always seems to be patting himself on the back for being a genuine, bow-tied lexicographer who is completely, 100 percent O.K. with cursing, well, that’s the kind of thing you can get away with in the Age of Profanity.

This age won’t last, of course. Bergen predicts convincingly that the future of swearing in America belongs to slurs, because these are already the words judged most offensive, and they’re the ones most likely to be punished these days by sports leagues, schools and offices. But he’s less than sanguine about this transition from the “good dirty fun” of sexual profanities to hate speech. Adams, meanwhile, fears a future in which “nothing will be obscene, nothing profane and nothing taboo.”

Without quite intending to, both authors remind us that if there’s still any explosive charge left to be found in an F-bomb today, the parties who deserve our praise and gratitude are those who continue to censor profanities: the court system and its confused decisions about “fleeting expletives”; prude English teachers bowdlerizing their required readings; newspapers like this one, still toeing a line that was trampled on ages ago. And, finally, the beleaguered parent who tells her kids not to say dirty words in public, without really knowing why they shouldn’t.

Those are the heroes keeping our profanities alive — because, when the last prohibitions fade away, so will the power of the words.

[Originally published in the New York Times.]