Until my wife came around, the absolute best compliment I have ever received was this: Megan, you know more ways to say “fuck” than anyone I’ve ever heard, and you wield them beautifully. It was a hat tip to the fluency of my cursing and I fell instantly in love because I am from Chicago. In Chicago, cursing is a widely accepted form of communication enhancement, like honking a car horn.
In some parts of the world, all car horn honks are considered embarrassing and rude. But in other parts of the world, the car horn is a tool for nuanced ears to pass along specific information to others who are likewise attuned to hear its subtleties. Like the car horn and perhaps a whole variety of vulgar, brash rock ‘n’ roll noises, cursing is for those of us who appreciate the nimble and the dexterous in witty applications of language.
On the first day of every new school year, I have to caution my sophomores that I curse like a sailor and offer a preemptive apology for the couple of weeks into the school year that it will generally take me to approach the level of zero curses per hour. Occasionally, people in charge of me at work have asked me to knock it off, told me cursing is not very professional. Tell you what, though: most of the kids love it. Even a majority of the Bible-toters amongst my tenth graders appear to kind of dig it, and not simply because it’s shocking to hear a teacher use a profane word. Sixteen-year-old kids like to use all their words, especially those that push at the edges of what little freedom they’re pretty sure they do have.
You know a difficult word that I need to talk about in class, sometimes? The N-word. It’s right there in students’ Mark Twain’s novels, Nikki Giovanni’s poetry, lurking around the corners of a three-day weekend for MLK, coming out of the headphones wedged into their ears during individual work time. Every year I encounter this word—a word about which I have icky feelings that keep me from ever using it aloud—and I have to engage with it in a calm, scholarly, professional way to model that mentality for a room full of teenagers. I have to pick up the slur and show it to them as a historical artifact, as a term of art, as a method of communication, as a tool of power. It ain’t too fuckin’ easy.
There aren’t many good resources I can put into my students’ hands about this. Yeah, there are a million blogs and a couple of legitimate news sources, but there’s a serious absence of academic research and hard science surrounding expletives. I want to give my sophomores bars graphs with current statistics, show them examples with rich context and sound evaluative detail. So I owe a big bloody debt to neuroscientist Benjamin K. Bergen for What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves. This book is full of highly respectable information, so people who assumed in the absence (until now) of evidence that cursing has no positive value can finally piss off. Bergen systematically analyzes the way the English-speaking world thinks about praying, fornicating, excreting and slurring.
Proceeding from what he charmingly refers to as the “Holy, Fucking, Shit, Nigger Principle”, Bergen explores every conceivable scientific standard by which we make meaning out of these kinds of words. Why do so many curse words have four letters? Is there something common in the way these words sound that makes them profane? How do textual profanities translate into gestural profanities? Why isn’t flipping the bird a big deal in Japan? Are Freudian slips a discredited thing? Where in the brain do we store our curse words? How do these words elicit feelings beyond our standard emotional range? Why does “you know jack shit” mean the same thing as “you don’t know jack shit”? What is the subject of “fuck you”, or is that not even a complete sentence? How come Dick has fallen out of fashion as a first name since 1968? Why did farmers give up cock for rooster? How do kids learn the social rules and syntactical structure of cursing? What is the difference between a curse and an epithet? What is the difference between hate speech and freedom of speech? What about censorship, from MPAA movie ratings to the approved book list at the high school where I teach? To what extent should we honor someone’s feeling about the offensiveness of these words, or try to predict their offense through the increasing availability of objective neuroscientific data?
Was George Carlin right about everything? Bergen provides a stunning amount of quantitative data, gathered by others as well as from his own experiments. He provides clear examples of every concept in plain language without washing out necessarily scientific vocabulary. There is so much more vocabulary to consider than just the F-word and the N-word — a prospect that will delight some and probably terrify many as Bergen gives equal time to all four categories of the HFSN Principle. He fearlessly pokes holes in his own conclusions— anticipating objections, controlling variables as best as he can—and suggests ways to continue on with further study in this area. Each chapter proceeds logically into deepening the territory of how we understand vulgarity, and yet each chapter can stand independently in its presentation of one field or facet of this study.
What the F is rigorous enough to guide future scientific inquiry, and casual enough to be read by any ordinary bastard with a passing interest. At the very least, this book reassured me of the profundity of my own human capacity for expression when I rolled out of bed last month to find out who got elected President of the United States and could only utter that one favorite curse word…
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