A Course on Cursing

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Nobody gives a sh*t about “f*ck” any more, but the taboos against epithets directed at certain protected groups grow stronger by the minute.

IIn Praise of Profanity, Michael Adams argues plausibly that the threshold for what counts as profane (or obscene, or vulgar, all related but not synonymous concepts) is vague and radically context-dependent. I can write “douche bag” out, for instance, and the editors of National Review can’t do anything about it. The fact that this is a book review about dirty words provides plenty of evidence that I mean “douche bag” in the indecent sense, to be sure — but that evidence is circumstantial. And, besides, I took out a little extra insurance by using a space between “douche” and “bag,” even though no less a paragon of decorum than Microsoft’s autocorrect algorithm would have fully recognized the term as a compound word.

Homography is one way to slip cusswords into polite political periodicals. Euphemism is another. But whether we make “Jesus Christ” into “Cheese and Rice,” or obscure the odd vowel in “f*ck” or “sh*t,” there’s something a little silly going on. Nobody’s thrown off the scent by these little acts of censorship, just as nobody was fooled by my “douche” move above. Euphemisms are, in Adams’s words, like a “see-through fig leaf.”

But that doesn’t mean that function always trumps form when it comes to profane words. Benjamin Bergen, head of the Language and Cognition Laboratory at UC San Diego and author of What the F, spends a good deal of time showing how the material facts about bad words — the way they look and sound, the syntactic and grammatical rules they make and break, the little parts of the brain they light up on the MRI — tell us a lot.

Early on, Bergen has a neat chapter on the phonics of profanity in which we learn there is something to the “four-letter word” thing, particularly in English. Curse words in English tend overwhelmingly to be “closed monosyllables,” one-syllable words that end in hard, terminal sounds instead of bare, open-ended vowels or sibilants. There are a few exceptions — such words as “gay,” “Jew,” and “pussy.” Notice that these words, and virtually every other exception to the closed-monosyllable rule one can think of, have something else in common: They all have alternative, clean meanings. (This seems such an obvious explanation for their aberrancy that it’s a little odd Bergen doesn’t identify it himself. It’s left to the clever reader to surmise.)

So why are most profane English words — 95 percent of them, according to Bergen — closed monosyllables? He thinks it’s mostly an accident. Languages evolve like organisms, and early inputs can get locked into positive feedback loops. Bergen conjectures that as modern English took shape, a few early profanities happened to share this phonetic feature, and they served as a sort of magnetic pole for other bad words. This happens to polite language, too. Did you know that fully 39 percent of words starting with “gl” relate to vision or light? Bergen rattles them off: “glisten,” “glitter,” “gleam,” “glow,” “glare,” “glint,” “glower,” “glaucoma,” “glitzy,” and so on.

Profanity seems to play by grammatical rules all its own, too, and Bergen puzzles about a few of them. One funny case is what grammarians have termed “squatitives,” which are the profane or semi-profane cousins of a more respectable family of words and phrases called “minimizers.” So, “You don’t know a thing about economics” becomes “You don’t know squat about economics” becomes “You don’t know jack sh*t about economics” and so on. The odd part is that only squatitive sentences mean the same thing when negated: “You know jack sh*t about economics” expresses the very same proposition as “You don’t know jack sh*t about economics.”

The more fundamental the obscenity, the deeper the grammatical peculiarities go. For instance, serious linguistic scholarship has been done on why “Screw you!” and synonymous phrases seem to function without subjects. Here, “you” is the object of the screwing, but “I” is not the implied subject. To wit: “I screw you!” sounds like the kind of epithet an angry foreigner in a tracksuit might hurl at a blackjack table, but it’s not what native speakers of English mean when they omit the “I.”

Bergen flirts with but never quite hits the correct answer on why “Screw you!” seems to work just fine. It’s that the forefather of all such “maledictions” — and the reason we call it “cursing” or “swearing” (of oaths, you see) — is the hearty “Goddam you,” the subject of which is easily elided in the abbreviation “Damn you.” “Screw you” maintains a veneer of grammatical credibility from the elided subject, “God,” so long as we don’t linger too long on it.

Bergen doesn’t give a full account of the grammar of such simple profane exclamations as “F*ck” or “Oh, sh*t!” either. It’s actually one of the few theoretical areas in which Adams’s book has the best of him. Working from sociologist Erving Goffman’s Forms of Talk, Adams argues that the meaning of such interjections “isn’t lexical or syntactic . . . but pragmatic”: These expletives are functionally equivalent to “Ouch!” — belonging to primitive automatic speech. They are, per Adams, “no more linguistic . . . than the cries of animals, communication but not language.” More on that later.

To say that Bergen’s book is usually more interesting and insightful than Adams’s is a bit unfair. There are delights in In Praise of Profanity – for example, a fun discussion of the potty-mouth gangsters of The Sopranos that name-checks Seneca, and a socio-history of the “sh*thouse poetry” that adorns the stalls of American public restrooms. Adams, a well-regarded lexicographer of slang at Indiana University, is charmingly formalist, a close reader and an insightful one, refreshingly unconcerned with torturing texts with grave ideology. But his book lacks thematic unity and sometimes feels like an amiable and well-read series of asides, a free-form-jazz odyssey of scatology.

Bergen, by contrast, is a cognitive scientist as well as a linguist, and the most interesting stuff in either book, to this reader, is the insight scientific research gives us into how profanity fits into various human projects.

Consider what profanity teaches us about our brains. Bergen writes: “Even when patients suffer from nearly complete loss of language — so-called global aphasia — they often retain interjections and profanity. For instance, a recently documented patient could only produce six words: ‘well,’ ‘yea,’ ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘goddamnit,’ and ‘sh*t.’”

How do the sorts of words this patient retained clue us in to what might separate such words from the rest of language? It turns out there is good evidence that “automatic speech” — which is impulsive, reactive, and emotive — is controlled by different neurological circuitry altogether. These circuits exist in much more primitive neighborhoods inside the brain, principally in a structure called the basal ganglia, which is similar to the structures responsible for producing the emotive grunts and squeals of monkeys. It is a malfunction of the basal ganglia that results in the “coprolalia” of some sufferers of Tourette’s syndrome, for instance.

Tipper Gore lost her war on profanity in a rout somewhere around 1994, and Trump just salted the earth.

The two books share a conviction that profanity is a constitutive category of language that performs a necessary expressive function. You can’t extinguish it any more than you could banish prepositions. But Adams’s book is the more political. Adams spends a great deal of time aligning himself against linguistic scolds and anti-profanity speech police who, it seems to me, simply don’t exist. Before Trump, it would have seemed a bit much to suggest, as Adams does at various points, that there is some close-fought battle between foulmouthed hepcats and the darned righteous forces of decency. After Trump, it’s downright ridiculous. Tipper Gore lost her war on profanity in a rout somewhere around 1994, and Trump just salted the earth.

Adams admits a version of this. At one point he says profanity is on the verge of losing its edge, and that we’re on the cultural precipice of an “Age of Profanity.” He welcomes the new order, of course. But given how uptight he apparently thinks the holdouts are, and how much he wishes they’d all realize how salubrious cussing can be, his near-total silence on one entire continent of taboo speech is almost comically conspicuous.

I speak, of course, of the slur.

Adams understands the link between linguistic transgression and group solidarity: He writes that profanity in these intimate relationships “matters a lot precisely because it doesn’t.” He acknowledges linguistic reappropriation as a tool of resistance among the subaltern or oppressed. But then he seems to hit the glass in the fishbowl. Only once, by my lights, does he let himself say the N-word (no hard “r”), and it happens in a parenthetical about the reappropriation of its gendered counterpart, “bitch,” in hip-hop culture.

Bergen’s treatment of slurs is slight and tentative compared with his coverage of other subject areas, but he’s Kanye West compared with Adams. Consider that Bergen’s first chapter is titled “Holy, F*cking, Sh*t, N*gg*r” sans asterisks. It hits like a freight train, producing first an uncontrollable guffaw and then a pupil-dilating scandal. But the formulation is actually much more innocent, a shorthand for the ingenious theory that all languages are sortable into four categories according to whether their most taboo words are blasphemous, copulative, scatological, or bigoted. Spanish, for instance, is a sex language, while the French, for all their fallenness, consider sacrilegious speech most offensive. German, infamously, is a language obsessed with “scheisse.” And English, Bergen argues, is among the relatively few languages where the biggest taboos are slurs.

There’s a small but clever body of research about the effects of slurs. Homosexuals subliminally exposed to anti-gay slurs were, in a later test, slightly quicker to identify positive stereotypes with homosexuals than they were to recognize negative ones. Another experiment showed that a simple shift of pronouns results in an even greater divergence of positive and negative association. Test subjects who read an article containing the phrase “You’re queer” subsequently rated that term twice as offensive as another group who read a similar article, but with “I’m queer” substituted. Thus the folksy PC idea that “words can hurt” but reappropriation is empowering has some basis in empirics.

But it nevertheless remains striking that in this, the purported dawn of the Age of Profanity, the slur should be such a hearty holdout. Nobody gives a sh*t about “f*ck” anymore, but the taboos against epithets directed at certain protected groups grow stronger by the minute.

Perhaps the fact that Adams doesn’t write on this taboo is a sign of the taboo’s power. And Bergen points out that there is virtually no research on the long-term consequences of slurs on either the individual or the collective psyche, among either the groups proscribed from using them or the groups “taking them back.”

But I can think of one recent cultural phenomenon that might give us a clue.

The eager consumption of minority culture by whites — something a saner age might consider an act of empathy or even homage — is increasingly regarded as suspect at best.

The apex of prestige television for the educated white bourgeoisie is still HBO’s The Wire. It’s a treasure trove of hard-boiled dialogue in African-American English (AAE, as the linguists call it). But though we love it — and I don’t except myself here — there’s much of it we’re not supposed to repeat. When Brother Mouzone, the show’s cold-blooded but bookish Farrakhanist hitman, tells his protégés that “the most dangerous thing in America” is a “n*gga with a library card,” it crackles and pops. I’ve repeated the line among friends. But saying it in the wrong context would be quite costly.

Likewise, as many white kids as black memorize the verses of Kanye West and Jay-Z, just as I memorized the verses of Outkast and the Notorious B.I.G. in the mid ’90s. But the prohibition on cultural appropriation — and the heightening awareness of appropriation’s obverse, “code switching” (the necessity felt by minorities to oscillate between patois and “proper” English) — puts us in a weird linguistic spot.

The result is a cumbersome etiquette in which both majority and minority cultures are forced to tell bald-faced linguistic lies to each other (“I never use that word!”) and perform shock and horror when others slip up. And the eager consumption of minority culture by whites — something a saner age might consider an act of empathy or even homage — is increasingly regarded as suspect at best.

There is an old sense of “vulgar,” which refers to the manner of the common people, and a new one, which is synonymous with “profane.” Could the new Age of Profanity be one in which the only truly vulgar words left can be heard by the vulgar, but never repeated by them? And to what extent is that bullsh*t?

— Daniel Foster is a contributing editor to National Review. This article originally appeared in the December 19, 2016, issue of National Review​.

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