What the F

What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves


By Benjamin K. Bergen

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It may be starred, beeped, and censored — yet profanity is so appealing that we can’t stop using it. In the funniest, clearest study to date, Benjamin Bergen explains why, and what that tells us about our language and brains.

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 groundbreaking 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.



Holy, Fucking, Shit, Nigger

Words do things to people. Some words demonstrate such rich erudition that, when deployed strategically, they cause university professors to swoon. I’m speaking from experience here. Words like prolixity. Or eponymous. Delightful. Let me get started writing your grad school acceptance letter right now. Other words affect people because they’re so fleeting—words like normcore or ratchet or on fleek. Deploy these words at precisely the right moment in their penetration of the lexicon and you’re the coolest hipster at the indie cold-brewed coffee co-op. But wait a week and you’ll be served your coffee with an eye-roll. Words, in short, have the power, by their mere utterance, to affect how people feel and how they feel about you.

And the most potent words of all—the ones that have a direct line to the emotions—are profanity. Profane words uniquely allow you to express pain or cause it in others. They peerlessly demonstrate frustration, anger, or emphasis. But let’s be specific. I mean words like cocksucker. Or fuck. Or cunt. These are among the taboo words of English that elicit the strongest measurable physiological reactions—the fastest pulse, the sweatiest palms, the shallowest breathing. These words are versatile. Name a feeling, and profanity can elicit it. Profanity can increase sexual arousal. It can increase your ability to withstand pain (compare the analgesic effect of yelling fuck! when you hammer your thumb with the effect of yelling duck!).1 When deployed appropriately, profanity can cause delight—countless comedians stake their professional lives on the impact of “working blue.” But when miscalibrated, use of the very same words can make you seem crude, uneducated, or out of control. 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.2

And because these words have such outsized impact, we ban them. We chastise or spank children for using them and fine or arrest adults who use them around children. Because the words are just too powerful.

What gives these words such an intensity and such a diversity of power? Where do they emerge from? Do they work the same in every language around the globe? Or could a language exist without profanity? And what would that look like?

Before looking for ways to answer these questions, we need to define some terms. I’m using the words profanity, cursing, and swearing interchangeably. I realize that some etymological hairsplitters out there will want to distinguish among them. It’s true that profanity once referred only to blasphemous language (profane contrasts with sacred). But I’m using it as it’s used in modern parlance—where it includes not just religious language, like Jesus Christ, but the whole taboo gamut: fuck, shit, cunt, and the lot. Following the lead of Timothy Jay in his influential book Why We Curse,3 I’ll be using the words cursing and swearing in the same way. And the same goes for expletive. It’s not that I don’t think there are important differences among the various types of taboo language—quite to the contrary! It’s just that for all intents and purposes, people at present don’t systematically distinguish what the words profanity, swearing, and cursing refer to.

That said, we do need ways to talk about the various specific types of profanity, or things related to profanity. One is a slur, a derogatory term for a person or group of people. These are also called epithets, terms of abuse, terms of disparagement, derogatory terms, or pejorative terms. People don’t always agree on which words are slurs and which are not (and, as we’ll see later, it changes over time), but some clear examples in contemporary English are slurs like nigger, faggot, and bitch. Now, not everyone agrees that slurs are profanity—for some people, nigger is a swearword, whereas for others it falls into a distinct category of taboo word. In order not to get hung up on definitional issues like this, in this book we’ll be considering slurs alongside the more traditional types of profanity and identifying differences where they bubble up from the data. And there are differences. Notably, as we’ll see in a later chapter, slurs have the greatest potential to cause harm and therefore demand different treatment.

I snuck one final concept in there that we should probably be clear about: taboos. Taboos are social customs—norms or mores—that prohibit certain types of behavior. For instance, there are things you know you’re not supposed to do in public—we wall off bedrooms inside houses and toilets inside stalls to satisfy and perpetuate taboos about bedroom and bathroom activities. We often also find it taboo to merely talk about those same things in public.4 We have taboos about telling people about excretory functions or sexual exploits, for instance. It would violate your expectations about normative social behavior if you asked a job candidate what other things you should know about her and she started telling you about recent abnormalities in her defecation schedule.

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. The taboo against the word shit is about the word itself; the word is taboo regardless of whether it’s used to describe feces or to express frustration. And we know that profanity is about the word rather than the content because in many situations it’s perfectly acceptable to talk about the same content using different words. Parents will willingly talk to small children about their poo-poo or to their doctor about their stool. But if they hear the word shit on the radio while the kids are listening, you can bet they’ll be sending the station manager an angry letter. And actually, to refine our definition of profanity just a bit further, it’s not really the words themselves that aren’t acceptable but the words used with specific senses or meanings. Words like ass, cock, and bitch can be passable when used to describe animals but are profane when describing people or body parts.

Now that the stage is set, let’s begin to look empirically at profane words. First, how can we tell which are the profane words in a language? Second, how similar is profanity in the languages of the world? Does it draw from the same sources? Are there languages without profanity at all? And third, when languages differ in how they treat profanity, does that tell us anything about the cultures in which they’re embedded?

# $ % !

Finding out what words the people who speak a particular language think are profane is not a particularly challenging operation in principle. You just have to ask them. But for the most part, there’s been very little effort to do so systematically. Even for English, the world’s most studied language, and even in the United States, the world’s biggest economy and a country that seems particularly invested in regulating profanity, almost no one has bothered to systematically pose the question, what are the profane words in your language?

Even the people who really should ask—because regulating profanity is part of their job—haven’t done so. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), for instance, is responsible for overseeing all television and radio broadcasts transmitted over public airwaves. The FCC regularly issues fines or other sanctions over incidents of profanity. For instance, it fined Fox for the 2003 broadcast of the Billboard Music Awards. In it, Nicole Richie spontaneously and rhetorically mused about the reality show The Simple Life, “Why do they even call it The Simple Life? Have you ever tried to get cow shit out of a Prada purse? It’s not so fucking simple.”

Given how firm the FCC’s penalties are (it’s taken its right to enact them to the Supreme Court on a number of occasions) and how clear it is about the times when children might be listening (precisely between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.), it would be reasonable to assume that the FCC has a published list of words you can use during daytime hours, or more to the point, words you can’t. But I challenge you to try to find the official FCC list of banned words. Go ahead—fire up your Google box. You won’t find it. Because there is no official list. Profanity is something the FCC apparently knows when it sees it—it says profanity is “language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.”5 If you were to give the FCC the benefit of the doubt, you might suppose that despite having no published official list of offending words, still it must have done some empirical research, asking normal Americans how they react to the words in question. But there’s no evidence of this. As far as anyone can tell, the FCC hasn’t actually done the legwork to find out what people really think about words—what’s profane, in the present culture, at the present time. And in the unlikely chance that it has, it’s certainly not advertising as much.

This stands in contrast with regulatory bodies in other parts of the English-speaking world, which have actually tried to get an objective handle on profanity. The standard is set by the New Zealand Broadcasting Standards Authority (NZBSA), which is roughly analogous to the FCC. The NZBSA conducts a survey about every five years to see what Kiwis think about a variety of potentially objectionable words and publishes a complete accounting of its methodology and findings.6 In the most recent round, it asked 1,500 adults to rate how acceptable or unacceptable they’d find dozens of words and expressions, should they appear on nighttime television. Without further ado, here are the most unacceptable words in New Zealand, from worst to slightly less worst. The chart above shows the proportion of people who judged each word as falling into one of three categories. The light bars on the left indicate how often each word was judged either “Totally Acceptable” or “Neither Acceptable or Unacceptable.” The medium-hued bars in the center reflect the proportion who responded that each word was “Fairly Acceptable.” The dark bars indicate those who found a given word “Totally Unacceptable.”

The least acceptable words in New Zealand.

All told, there were only eight words that more than half of survey respondents thought were fairly or totally unacceptable on air after 8:30 p.m.—the ones at the top, from cunt, motherfucker, and nigger down through fuck off. Words farther down the list were rated as more acceptable. For instance, only 30 percent of respondents felt that dick would be unacceptable in that context, and just 22 percent objected to shit.

A couple of things stand out from this list. First, for each word below the top eight, the majority of respondents actually thought that it was acceptable on television. That includes not just dick and shit but cock and faggot. Kiwis have a comparatively high threshold for profanity on television, at least compared with what the FCC appears to assume about Americans. Second, and perhaps so obviously that it goes without saying, the survey displays very clearly that people disagree about how unacceptable words are. Respondents were about evenly split on whether fuck is acceptable on television or not. Even cunt and nigger elicited 27 and 34 percent of respondents, respectively, saying that the words aren’t objectionable on television. This diversity of opinion prompts a host of second-order questions. How can there be so much disagreement about what’s acceptable? Do differences in opinion correlate with other variables—for instance, do opinions about words correlate with ethnicity, gender, age, geography, and so on? These aren’t just scientific questions—the same issues confront you if you’re in the broadcast standards business. How much agreement do you need on a word to ban it? In a hypothetical case, suppose there’s a word that a minority subgroup of the population finds profane, and say it’s a term of abuse, like nigger. In such a case, which matters more, the opinions of the population in aggregate or those of people in the relevant subgroup? How do you decide?

The New Zealand study can’t answer these questions. But we can start to get a feel for how opinions about language differ around the globe by looking elsewhere in the Anglophone world. How does the New Zealand list compare, say, with swearing in the birthplace of Shakespeare? There’s no precise analog to the New Zealand survey, but the Broadcasting Standards Commission of Great Britain did release a study in 2000, which it authored jointly with several other groups.7 The study asked 1,033 adults a series of questions about profanity, including whether each of a list of words was “Not Swearing,” “Quite Mild,” “Fairly Severe,” or “Very Severe.” The results are shown on the following page.

The two surveys are hard to compare. For one thing, they asked different questions—about the acceptability of words on television at a particular time on the one hand versus the severity of the words in general on the other. In addition, the sets of words they asked people about weren’t identical. The slur Paki (denoting people of South Asian decent) was judged either fairly severe or very severe by 60 percent of British respondents, but it simply wasn’t provided on the New Zealand list. Conversely, Jesus fucking Christ, the fourth-least-acceptable word in the New Zealand survey, didn’t appear in the British one.

Swearing in Great Britain.

As a result, the absolute ratings of words aren’t really worth perseverating on. But the general trends are still informative. Namely, like the New Zealand study, the British study shows rampant disagreement. Half of respondents said that slag (a derogatory term for a promiscuous woman, similar to the American word slut) was either fairly severe or very severe, while the other half judged it quite mild or not swearing. Second, some words behave similarly across the surveys—for instance, cunt, motherfucker, and nigger show up in the top five in each list, while in both lists bloody and crap appear not to widely offend. But at the same time, there appear to be substantial regional differences. Wanker shows up at a prominent number four in the Great Britain list, just ahead of nigger, but on the New Zealand list, it falls in the middle of the pack at number fourteen, right before whore. Similarly, bollocks finds itself on the more severe side of the Great Britain study, wedged between Paki and arsehole, but on the New Zealand list it falls nearly to the bottom, coming right after crap. So to the extent that these differences are the product of more than the survey instrument itself, they point to potential regional differences in how these words are viewed.

There’s been no study of the same magnitude or with the same weight of the state behind it in the United States or Canada. But where regulatory bodies in North America have shied away from profanity, fortunately, academics have stepped up in a smaller way, proportionate to their more modest means. How does North American English compare? Are certain components of the list similar (omitting dialect-specific terms, like wanker, bollocks, and get fucked, that Americans don’t typically use)? I know of only two pertinent recent studies. One small and one a bit larger. Let’s start with the small one. A couple of years ago, two undergraduates in my lab conducted a survey to get an idea of how profane people think specific words are.8 To reiterate, it was small—much, much smaller than the ones from New Zealand and Great Britain. We asked twenty native speakers of American English to rate the offensiveness of words from 1 (least offensive) to 7 (most offensive). They appear on the next page, with the most offensive again at the top.

Despite the diminutive nature of this survey, you find some alignment with the New Zealand and Great Britain studies. The top performers in terms of offensiveness should be familiar, with cunt, motherfucker, and fuck near the top of the list. As you continue down from there, you find that respondents really weren’t overwhelmingly offended by other words that we usually think of as taboo. For instance, notice that asshole, piss, and tit are actually rated less offensive than scum—at least by the people who took the survey. One thing to note is that we didn’t include slurs in our little study, because they weren’t relevant to the specific purpose we intended to use it for. So we have no information about where slurs would fall.

Fortunately, there’s another, larger, better study of profanity in American English. Cognitive psychologist Kristin Janschewitz asked eighty people to rate hundreds of words along a number of axes—not only offensiveness but also how taboo they thought other people thought the words were, how much they themselves used and were exposed to the words, and so on.9 This is a rich resource, and I’ll be mining it in the chapters that follow. Janschewitz included ninety-two words that could plausibly be considered taboo. What you see on the next page is how offensive each was rated, again from most to least profane. I’ve only included those terms rated most offensive, down through shit. That makes forty-one of them.

Offensiveness of American English words, small study.

Looking at English as it manifests itself across the world, we see hints of both consistency and variability. Certain words are repeat offenders. Others are culture- or dialect-specific. But even when the specific words change somewhat from list to list, the substitutions seem to fit the same pattern. In Great Britain, Paki, slag, and bollocks all make the list. And if you know that these are, respectively, a slur for people from South Asia, a word roughly equivalent to slut in the United States, and a word meaning “testicles,” it might not be surprising to see them here. At least across the Anglophone world, central tendencies capture the types of words that people find offensive, unacceptable, or profane. Profanity isn’t random. It’s principled. Let’s articulate the principle.

Offensiveness of American English words, larger study.

# $ % !

English profanity tends to be drawn from certain categories of words.

The word profanity originally referred to the first group. In Latin profanus literally means “outside the temple,” denoting words or acts that desecrate the holy. For some people, the use of religious words in secular ways constitutes blasphemy—a sin against religious doctrine—and this is the pathway that makes those terms taboo. The names of religious figures, like Jesus Christ, Jehovah, or Mohammad, are easy fodder. So are aspects of religious dogma. In English, we have a few of these, like holy, hell, God, damn, and, of course, goddamn. There are also older English curse words that have fallen out of favor, like zounds, which derives from God’s wounds, and gadzooks, from God’s eyes. When terms like these are removed from their sacred context and stripped of their religious intent—when they’re “taken in vain”—they can function as profanity. The line between desecration of sacred concepts and profanity is subtle, and as we’ll see later, historical religiosity is one of the best predictors that a language will have a robust system of profanity. But for the present purpose, we need only note that the first place English profanity originates is the sacred.

The second place English profanity comes from is language relating to sex and sexual acts. This includes the acts themselves (fuck, for instance), sex organs involved in those acts (pussy and cock), people who perform those acts (cocksucker and motherfucker), and artifacts and effluvia related to those acts (spooge, dildo, and so on). So the second prong of our profanity principle is sex.

Third is language involving other bodily functions—things that come out of your body, the process of getting them out of your body, and the parts of your body that they come out of. This includes robust cohorts of words describing feces, urine, and vomit, among others, as well, of course, as the body parts associated with these substances and the artifacts used in those body parts’ upkeep, like douchebag, and so on.

And finally there are the slurs. Among the most offensive words on each of the lists (when the lists saw fit to ask about them) are terms like nigger, faggot, retard, and the like. These words are offensive by dint of their derogatory reference to people based on some group that they’re perceived as belonging to, defined in terms of sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, and so on. New terms like this are developing all the time—relatively recent additions to English include tard (from retard) and sperg (derived from Asperger’s syndrome).

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. This is an important point, important enough to name a principle for it. I hereby propose we call it the Holy, Fucking, Shit, Nigger Principle.

Many of the most offensive words on the four surveys fall into the Fucking group. A wanker is one who masturbates. Cunt refers to a Fucking-related body part. And, of course, many of the words actually have the word fuck in them. The tops of the lists are also populated by nigger and other slurs. Lower on the lists are Shit-category words, words related to bodily effluvia, like shit itself, asshole, piss, puke, and so on. They’re not as vulgar, but they’re still on the list. Holy-category words, at least in English, seem relatively tame.

How generalizable is this pattern? If it captures something about human nature or about the inevitable evolution of cultural systems, then you’d expect it to apply broadly. Across the world, the vast majority of taboo language should be drawn from one of these four domains, perhaps even in similar proportions. Alternatively, English speakers might be a breed apart, uniquely obsessed with religion, copulation, bodily functions, and social groups. If you pick your favorite language other than English, how does profanity work? What’s profane in Cantonese? How about Finnish? Does the Holy, Fucking, Shit, Nigger Principle stand up?

# $ % !

Systematic research on profanity in English may be sparse, but there’s enough of it to go on. Other languages have basically zilch—no large-scale surveys and no small ones either. So if you want to know what profanity looks like in, say, French or Japanese, you have to dig around through language guides for foreigners with a particularly saucy bent, the occasional academic paper, interviews with native speakers of the various languages, or the rare regulatory document describing what words are banned where and by whom. These kinds of sources are limited in that they all encode the opinions of one or a few people—they’re not the product of systematically collecting data from native speakers of the language. But that’s what we have to go on, and that’s what I’ve relied on to produce the following assessment of how well the Holy, Fucking, Shit, Nigger Principle does around the world: pretty well.

Cantonese has five words widely agreed upon as the most vulgar in the language—these are the words censored on broadcast television in Hong Kong.10 They are diu (“fuck”), gau (“cock”), lan (“dick”), tsat (“boner”), and hai (“cunt”). If you’re keeping score at home, that’s five for Fucking.

Or consider Russian. Ripped from the censor’s press sheet is the official list of the most profane Russian words, currently banned from movies, plays, and other forms of art.11 The strongest profanity in the language, known as mat’, has two tiers. The top tier houses the four most profane Russian words: two words for genitalia, a word equivalent to fuck, and a word that translates as whore. Including the second tier of somewhat outdated and weaker profanities, mat’ totals eleven words: seven for genitalia, plus two for sexual acts and two for categories of people who engage in stigmatized sexual acts (prostitutes and homosexuals). In sum, two slurs and the rest are related to sex.

Finnish, which is unrelated to Russian and Cantonese (or to English for that matter) paints a similar picture, at least based on accounts provided by linguists. The top Finnish profanities are words roughly equivalent to hell, God, cunt, piss, shit, ass, fuck, and a number of words roughly translated as cunt or cock.12

And so it goes in language after language. Most of the profane vocabulary in most languages that have accessible documentation is drawn from one of these four categories. That’s not to say there aren’t local exceptions. One is language about animals—calling someone a dog in Korea is deeply offensive, for example. Disease often creeps into profanity, and a salient example is Dutch, which counts among its strong profanities words for cancer, typhoid, and tuberculosis.13 Ostensibly, in Dutch, the severity of the illness communicates the strength of the profanity. Another rare but attested source is words derived from maledictions—literal curses, like Damn you to hell! Or A plague on both your houses! And there are taboos about death and death-related words. For example, across many cultures, there’s a taboo against naming the dead. Once a person dies, his or her name cannot be uttered, sometimes for a year or longer, as in some Australian Aboriginal cultures,14 and sometimes under penalty as severe as death, as among the Goajiro of Columbia.15


  • "A delightful investigation of profanity."—New York Times Book Review
  • "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
  • "Offers useful information."—New York Review of Books
  • "Some prospective readers may avoid this book because of its subject matter. That would be a gosh-darned shame."—Science News
  • "Interesting and insightful"—National Review
  • "A fascinating journey to the crossroads of etymology, neuroscience and culture."—Discover
  • "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
  • "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
  • "This book is a surprisingly engaging introduction to a topic rarely discussed or examined...Highly recommended."—Choice
  • "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
  • "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
  • "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
  • "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
  • "An elegant, insightful, and ballsy application of rigorous linguistic methods to swearing, that most revealing--and ignored--corner of language.... 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, author of The Moral Arc
  • "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

On Sale
Apr 3, 2018
Page Count
304 pages
Basic Books

Benjamin K. Bergen

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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