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Delve into a light-hearted exploration of profanity

What the F: What Swearing Reveals about Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves

Benjamin K. Bergen
Basic Books
2016
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“F bombs” come in and out of earshot as I walk down the hallway of my school. I ask my students if they are going to talk like that in their jobs. Would they say that word in front of their mothers? They shrug. If I’m lucky, I get an apologetic “my bad” or at least a look of embarrassment.

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. Bergen takes the reader through the many dimensions of swearing—from definitions, etymology, and usage trends to the relationship between profanity and language more broadly. He even addresses the merits of ignoring profanity, as well as many other questions I have had over the years, such as, where do swear words come from? Is swearing harmful to children? And should people—whether a mother in a grocery store or an athlete on the basketball court—be punished for using profanity?

As one might expect given the provocative title, What the F is often very entertaining. At times, however, the book can be quite “in the reeds,” as Bergen admits, and will appeal more to linguists than to casual readers. However, nonexperts will likely still enjoy Bergen’s skillful use of analogies and pop-culture references and learning about the unique challenges of doing research on a taboo subject.

Although Bergen admits to having a “special affection” for swearing, he does an admirable job of staying objective throughout his analysis. He also voices concern about a troubling trend in the increased use of slurs and name calling and offers guidance for how individuals and society might respond to minimize the insults while still enjoying an expletive now and again.

About the author

The reviewer teaches chemistry at Falls Church High School, Falls Church, VA 22042, USA.