Five Good Question: Benjamin Bergen – What The F

Five Good Question: Benjamin Bergen – What The F

Benjamin Bergen is a professor of Cognitive Science at UC San Diego.  He teaches and does research on language and the brain.  Ben’s the author of two books; Louder than Words, which proposes a new theory of how people understand the meanings of words, and What The F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves.  He earned a PhD in Linguistics from UC Berkeley.

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Benjamin Bergen – What the F

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Five Good Questions:  

  1. Is there truth to the myth that swear words come from a different part of our brains?  What’s aphasia?
  2. How do swear words operate with their own grammar?  It seems like fuck is a Swiss Army Knife of words.
  3. There appears to be a Gresham’s Law to swear words where once a word takes on a taboo meaning, it drives out all of it’s non-profane meanings.  How do swear words evolve?
  4. What’s the story behind Samoan children’s first word?
  5. Is the internet leading to a homogenization of swearing?  It seems like new swear words could bubble up more readily through the use of hashtags, but are we also losing some local color in the process?

Benjamin Bergen’s Book Recommendation:

Stories of your life and others

What The F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves by Benjamin Bergen

Benjamin Bergen: What The F – Description

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 us, it also opens a new window onto how our brains process language and why languages vary around the world and over time.

In this groundbreaking yet ebullient romp through the linguistic muck, Bergen answers intriguing questions: How can patients left otherwise speechless after a stroke still shout Goddamn! when they get upset? When did a cock grow to be more than merely a rooster? Why is crap vulgar when poo is just childish? Do slurs make you treat people differently? Why is the first word that Samoan children say not mommy but eat shit? And why do we extend a middle finger to flip someone the bird?

Smart as hell and funny as fuck, What the F is mandatory reading for anyone who wants to know how and why we swear.

What The F – Review

“[A] skillful presentation…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…Bergen synthesizes reams of his own and others’ research clearly and cracks some pretty decent professional jokes…entertaining and enlightening…” New York Times Book Review

“Full of cute tidbits you can drop at cocktail parties… It’s a quick read, not a detailed, academic dissection. But don’t mistake breeziness for triviality: cursing plays a central role in our lives.” – Ars Technica

“A sweeping book, exploring not just the history of English profanity in words and in gestures, but also the impact that swears and other taboo words can have on the human brain…a valuable addition to the literature about profanity.” –

“A delightful new book… Studying swearing is a way of studying human nature itself. ‘Strong Language’, a group blog by language experts, ‘Holy Sh*t’, Melissa Mohr’s book on the history of profanity, ‘In Praise of Profanity’ by Michael Adams of Indiana University, or Mr Bergen’s own fine book would all be good places to start.” Economist

“Some prospective readers may avoid this book because of its subject matter. That would be a gosh-darned shame.” Science News

“In What the F, a self-proclaimed “book length love letter to profanity,” cognitive scientist Benjamin K. Bergen succeeds in bringing me around to appreciate the broader context, as well as the finer points, of the role “bad” words play in human society.” Science

“Oh, it’s a lot of fun, and scientifically sound too!” Language Hat

“There’s something here guaranteed to offend everyone (the book wouldn’t be doing its job otherwise), but…lovers of language will savor every word.” Booklist

“A fascinating journey to the crossroads of etymology, neuroscience and culture.” Discover

“A lively study with the potential to offend just about anyone…. From a linguistic and sociological viewpoint, the book is illuminating, even playful…an entertaining…look at an essential component of language and society.” Publishers Weekly

“A winner for the psycholinguistics nerd in the house.” Kirkus Reviews

What the F is accessible and engaging, and so brimming with insights that even as a linguist, I found myself stopping every couple of pages to say to myself, ‘Huh—I never thought of that.’ You’ll find yourself saying the same thing—and you’ll never hear profanity the same way again.” – Geoff Nunberg, author of Ascent of the A-Word, and language commentator on NPR’s Fresh Air

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