Why does swearing make us feel better — or worse? Benjamin K. Bergen, author of “What the F,” examines how profanity affects our brains and our lives.
One of my favorite segments of the “Inside the Actor’s Studio” show is the Pivot questionnaire, and this query in particular: “What is your favorite curse word?”
The answers are always telling, whether the actor is coy or commanding in his or her delivery. Whether the word is a passing blush of profanity or a multisyllabic splash from the gutter.
So it seemed natural to ask Benjamin K. Bergen, author of “What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains and Ourselves” — and who will talk at Seattle’s Town Hall on Sept. 19 — to give me his go-to.
“I find the most interest in the new terms that come from other cultures,” Bergen began. This week, it’s a term from Australia, where the C-word is “far less strong.”
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It starts with the C-word, and then “waffle.” C-waffle. Oy.
There’s another he’s learned from his students at the University of California, San Diego, where he is a professor of cognitive science: “It’s spelled ‘THOT,’ which is for ‘That ho over there.’ ”
You laugh, you shake your head, but then you realize that we are caught in a storm of words — breath-stopping slurs, profanity and common insults — much of it stirred up in the race for the White House, and those watching from the sidelines.
In his book, Bergen attempts to explain where the blue streak came from — and what it does to us as people.
“Profanity is the type of language we use to communicate our strongest emotions,” he said. “It’s reflexive rather than reflective, and it’s immensely revealing about who we are and what we want.
“Not all is methodical and rational,” he said. “A lot is about our transient emotional states. ‘I’m angry, I’m frustrated, I’m overjoyed, I’m sexually aroused.’ ”
In fact, Bergen has come up with a can’t-print-it-here formula for remembering the source of all profanity, which goes something like this: Religion, sex acts, things that come out of your body, and slurs like the N-word.
Using profanity can bring quick relief in painful situations.
In one experiment, people were asked to put their hands in a bucket of ice. Those allowed to curse lasted longer, indicating a fight-or-flight response in which their heart rate climbed and they became less sensitive to pain. And Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker believes we curse as a defense mechanism; we want to startle the listener.
“If you’re working on a math problem or taxes,” Bergen said, “a well-executed string of swear words can act as a release. But that hasn’t been scientifically proven.”
Indeed, he said, road rage shows that swearing can only make things worse, stirring up more aggression.
“It might be better to say some calming things,” Bergen said, “to take some deep breaths.”
Many words that used to be taboo have been diluted and mainstreamed. Non-network TV allows profanity. Social media is democratic. People say whatever they want and we become inured.
The only words that retain their potency are slurs: The N-word. The F-word to deride homosexuals. Young people are more aware and sensitive to such language, so it remains taboo, Bergen said.
How to use profanity in our lives “is similar to the nuclear question,” Bergen said.
“These words are powerful emotionally, physiologically and socially,” he said. “And with great power comes great responsibility.
“They are part of what makes English English, and humans humans.”