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What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves Hardcover – September 13, 2016
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"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, language commentator on NPR's Fresh Air
"It takes courage, energy, extraordinary intellectual chops, and a sense of fun to take on profanity. Ben Bergen has all in full measure. Read this book."―George Lakoff, Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics, The University of California, Berkeley
"Interesting and insightful"―National 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
"An illuminating read, and makes the case for swears as a salutary aspect of our lexicon."―A.V. Club
About the Author
Benjamin K. Bergen is a Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Language and Cognition Laboratory. His writing has appeared in Wired, Scientific American, Psychology Today, Salon, Time, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and the Huffington Post. He lives in San Diego.
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“What the F” is an interesting book on the science of swearing. Professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, Benjamin K. Bergen takes the reader on a “foul-mouthed” ride about bad language and what it tells us scientifically about us. This curious 290-page book includes the following eleven chapters: 1. Holy, $^#, #@#^%, *#@, 2. What Makes a Four-Letter Word?, 3. One Finger Is Worth a Thousand Words, 4. The Holy Priest with the Vulgar Tongue, 5. The Day the Pope Dropped the C-Bomb, 6. Effing Grammar, 7. How Cock Lost Its Feathers, 8. Little Samoan Potty Mouths, 9. Fragile Little Minds, 10. The $100,000 Word, and 11. The Paradox of Profanity.
1. A professionally written book. Well researched.
2. An interesting and rarely discussed topic, the science of swearing.
3. Despite the “uneasy” topic, the author has fun with it and is respectful. He skillfully interweaves neuroscience, linguistics, and social sciences.
4. The format of the book is straightforward. Each chapter covers a dimension into the science of swearing.
5. Good use of charts to quantify least acceptable words and such.
6. This book is about the power of words with a focus on the “bad” ones. “In their darkest incarnation, profane words can be part of verbal abuse, they can denigrate and disempower people, and they can be used in maledictions.”
7. Bergen does a good job of defining key terms. “Profane words are those particular words that some people in a culture believe are unacceptable in specific settings. The taboo is about the words themselves, not necessarily what they denote.”
8. Explains the origins of English profanity. “Looking just at English, you’ll find that nearly all the most profane words in Great Britain, New Zealand, and the United States fall into one of these four categories: praying, fornicating, excreting, and slurring.”
9. Some of the greatest strengths about this book has to do with asking the right questions and pursuing the answers. “In what ways are the 7,000 languages of the world similar, and in what ways are they different?”
10. So what’s behind the notion that most profane words are four-lettered? Find out. Linguistic wannabes enjoy.
11. Explains how gestures help complement the verbal word. “Words tell only part of the story of how we communicate; gestures tell the rest.”
12. Relies on a neuroscience to explain its interesting connection to profanity. “You don’t need your left hemisphere to talk, as long as you’re swearing in frustration.”
13. The curious analysis of speech errors. “People make fewer speech errors when the result would be taboo.”
14. Profanity vs. grammar. “In short, a sentence with profanity doesn’t follow the same rules as those without.”
15. Interesting look at how words evolve over time. “The list of profane words in English is largely a list of words with similarly humble, inoffensive origins.”
16. So is profanity harmful to children? Bergen deep dives into the topic.
17. The impact of slurs. “In other words, exposure to a slur can bias people against sharing resources with members of the defamed group.”
18. Bergen provides better ways to deal with profanity over regulating it. “In sum, the various ways we react to profanity by trying to limit it are grossly ineffectual.”
19. The advantages of swearing. “For one thing, swearing increases your tolerance for pain.”
20. Notes cited.
1. The book is not all fun and games. There are parts where non-linguistic enthusiasts will find tedious.
2. Neuroscience is admittedly in its infancy so as a result some conclusions are pending resolution.
3. As is the case of many books of this ilk, the questions are more satisfying than then answers.
4. I have the feeling (I just can’t put my finger on it) this book is not going to completely satisfy the layperson.
5. There are some low-hanging fruit topics left untouched. I would have liked to have seen more examples of the everyday variety. Treating profanity in schools as an example.
In summary, Bergen provides readers with a scientific and interesting look at swearing. He dives into various dimensions of swearing and amuses us with what we know about it. All that stated, I was expecting a little more from this book. Perhaps even better and more controversial examples involving countries, profanity and global affairs. Linguistic enthusiasts will enjoy, the rest of us will vary in degrees. I recommend it.
Further recommendations: “The Language Instinct”, “Sense of Style” and “How the Mind Works” by Steven Pinker, “The Unfolding of Language” by Guy Deutscher, “On Language” by Noam Chomsky, “Origins of Language” by James R. Hurford, “The First Word” Christine Kenneally, “How Language Works” by David Crystal, and “Words on the Move” by John McWhorter.
Benjamin K. Bergen provides some remarkable evidence-based arguments. His examination of profanity's alleged harm to children was impressively analyzed, supported and outlined.
The sections about American and British Sign Language and the global, cultural differences with regard to offensive language and gestures were really interesting and I enjoyed all the studies regarding how our brain reacts to profanity. I was actually fascinated by the extraordinary grammar of swearwords. Seriously, I loved that part. There were a lot of "huh, would have never thought of that"-moments. But I guess you might have to be a bit of a language/grammar nerd like me to get the same reaction.
Some of this is very textbook style. At times, I felt like being back in the classroom plowing through research papers. But a very well-executed research paper. Mr. Bergen takes great care to explain concepts, theories and even some of the necessary statistics (relating to significance) and images, tables, and graphs are used to clarify his points. Even if you've never bothered with this sort of stuff before, his ideas and findings are easy to follow and his laid-back, humorous style makes this fun to read. Mr. Bergen had me laughing at some of his footnotes. I wish research had been made into this much fun during my rather dry and sober studies.
I thought I was reasonably well-versed when it comes to my vocabulary (for a non-native speaker anyway) but I had to look up several of the "bad" words I'd never come across before. It's extremely unlikely I shall ever actively use them considering we're talking highly offensive language, but always good to learn something new.
Overall, very informative, insightful and certainly unique. 3.5 stars.
I received an ARC via NetGalley.
Disclosure: I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review.