What the F

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

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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 ground-breaking 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.
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Product details

  • Hardback | 288 pages
  • 163 x 237 x 26mm | 484g
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • 0465060919
  • 9780465060917
  • 342,793

Table of contents

1. Holy, Fucking, Shit, Nigger 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. Fucking Grammar 7. How Cock Lost Its Feather 8. Little Samoan Potty Mouths 9. Fragile Little Minds 10. The $100,000 Word 11. The Paradox of Profanity
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Review quote

"[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 "A delightful new book."-Economist "Offers useful information."-New York Review of Books "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."-Atlantic.com "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 "A fascinating journey to the crossroads of etymology, neuroscience and culture."-Discover "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 "Some prospective readers may avoid this book because of its subject matter. That would be a gosh-darned shame."-Science News "Bergen has a flair for constructing arguments and discussing complex ideas in accessible language, helped by vivid examples and a splendid sense of humour...He describes What the F as a 'book-length love letter to profanity'; combine that with reams of fascinating science and analysis and you have an irresistible item for fans of fuck and friends."-Strong Language "Oh, it's a lot of fun, and scientifically sound too!"-Language Hat "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..."-PopMatters "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 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 "Call them vulgarities, profanities or expletives, they're the words we label as unspeakable-banning or punishing their use, masking their letters with asterisks or other orthographical pasties-all to ensure they retain their transgressive force. But they're also the words we don't speak of. We may condemn or defend them, but we don't imagine they're worthy of serious scientific study. But as Benjamin Bergen shows, taboo words offer fascinating windows on the workings of language, from sound symbolism (why does skoom sound more vulgar than skoo?) to the way language is localized in the brain (which is why some aphasics who have lost most language retain swear words). Bergen has a gift for uncovering linguistic significance of what seem casual observations. A pope's inadvertent production of an Italian swear word leads to a reflections on how we plan our speech as we talk; the decline of the name Dick leads him to reflect on how words become taboo over time. He also debunks some common misperceptions about these words (no, exposure to swear words doesn't make children more prone to aggression). 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 "You might think a book about cursing would tell us that lately people seem to be doing it more, that the F-word goes a long way back, and maybe that in the Old West people used to say 'Tarnation!' Ben Bergen reveals how much more there is to profanity, ranging from why POO doesn't end in a consonant through how people curse (or not) in other countries and about what things, to whether we should formally ban slurs, and on to the Pope and the brain. What the F teaches us that profanity is not just pungent, but as INTERESTING as other aspects of the miracle we call language.'-John McWhorter, author of The Power of Babel, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, and The Language Hoax "Profanity is about powerlessness and power. Powerlessness leading to frustration, anger, surprise, and in positive cases, awe-where speech acts are easier, or preferable to, physical acts, or the only possibility. Power where there is intent to harm and words hurt. Fear of the natural emotions behind profanity have led to a need for order and politeness and the view that profanity is 'bad language.' Profanity is natural, and as such, is a lens into emotion, cognition, and cultural norms. 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 "An elegant, insightful, and ballsy application of rigorous linguistic methods to swearing, that most revealing-and ignored-corner of language. Census data reveals where all the Dicks have gone. Brain imaging shows how we manage to avoid taboo slips of the tongue. A careful analysis of studies about profanity's alleged harm to children betrays them as the anti-profanity agitprop they are. Though a descriptivist to the core, I issue the following prescription: read this effing book!"-Jesse Sheidlower, Author of The F-Word "Why we swear and where and when it is permissible are explained in this compelling treatise on one of the most taboo subjects in all culture. Read this fucking book or else you might be a wanker."-Michael Shermer, Publisher Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist Scientific American, Presidential Fellow Chapman University, author of The Moral Arc
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About Benjamin K. Bergen

Benjamin K. Bergen is a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Language and Cognition labouratory. He writes for the Huffington Post and Psychology Today and appears on NPR's Morning Edition, the Brain Science Podcast, and elsewhere. He lives in San Diego, California.
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Rating details

943 ratings
3.69 out of 5 stars
5 20% (192)
4 40% (378)
3 30% (286)
2 7% (70)
1 2% (17)
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