AMERICA’S Supreme Court allows them to be banned from public spaces, and permits heavy fines for their improper handling, making rare exceptions to the protections of the constitution’s Bill of Rights. Guns? Only in a saner world. The weapons in question are swear-words, and readers who agree that they are objectively dangerous will want to stop reading at this point, as Johnson does not share the court’s view.
The Federal Communications Commission may warn or even impose six-figure penalties on a broadcaster that allows even a “fleeting” expletive on air, as when Bono, a singer, told an awards-show audience that winning was “fucking brilliant”. A mother in South Carolina was arrested for shouting “Stop squishing the fucking bread!” at her family. (Witnesses said she shouted at her children; she said it was at her husband.) A North Augusta city ordinance includes in its definition of disorderly conduct “any bawdy, lewd or obscene words…while in a state of anger, in the presence of another”.
As with guns, attitudes towards swearing vary widely. Big majorities of New Zealanders rate words like shit and balls as“acceptable”. The French are blasé about their “c-word”, con. Japanese has insults, and of course words for genitalia and excretion. It even has special polite registers that must be mastered to avoid offence. But it has no real taboo words.
This and more is the focus of a delightful new book, “What the F?”, by Benjamin Bergen, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego. Despite the regional variation, there are four near-universal sources of swear-words: religion, s.e.x, bodily wastes and slurs. As befits Mr Bergen’s discipline, the core of the book is about swearing in the mind itself. On hearing the bluest of blue words, people’s heart rates speed up, and their palms begin to sweat. Their concentration on tricky tasks can be severely disrupted. Merely being told to free-associate with the word faggot (frocio in Italian) made experimental subjects less willing to allocate funds for an HIV centre in a subsequent simulation. But Mr Bergen criticises bans or fines, arguing that education about the harm slurs can do is more effective.
Some swearing is hard to stop. Automatic swearing—the kind that happens when your hammer meets your thumb—seems to have its own brain circuitry: Mr Bergen tells the tale of the French priest who lost all language ability but the words je (I) and foutre (fuck). Reflexive swearing seems to be routed through a part of the brain that is evolutionarily older, and may be analogous to the circuitry that causes calls of fear or surprise in other animals. Swearing can increase pain tolerance.
Though taboos are everywhere, they change over time. English law forbade swearing by the deity in plays in 1606; this means that Shakespeare’s later plays see the drop-off of “zounds” (“by His wounds”) and the like. The Victorian era was notorious for s.e.xual prudery. Today, it is slurs that pack by far the biggest punch. A survey in 2000 found that British respondents rated wanker as more unacceptable than nigger, but a 2016 study found the reverse. And words like cripple and retarded, formerly unimpeachable medical terms, have become unusable in polite company.
Swear-words in English tend to be short with hard-sounding consonants, especially k and g. But there is nothing strictly taboo about curse-words’ sounds; truck and punt are not taboo. Nor do the referents alone make a word taboo: copulate and vulva aren’t unmentionable to little ears. But when children see their parents cringe at the use of their sweary synonyms, they quickly pick up how powerful they are. Taboo words, ultimately, are those that people treat as taboo, the treatment itself giving them their force.
It would be better to take a more lighthearted view. Cuss-words can no more be wished or censored out of existence than colour-terms or animal words. A widely reported article in 2011 in Pediatrics, a medical journal, claimed that merely hearing swear-words made children aggressive, but this conclusion was based on a long string of debatable assumptions that Mr Bergen unpicks with gusto. Studying swearing is a way of studying human nature itself. “Strong Language”, a group blog by language experts, “Holy Sh*t”, Melissa Mohr’s book on the history of profanity, “In Praise of Profanity” by Michael Adams of Indiana University, or Mr Bergen’s own fine book would all be good places to start.