WTF? New Book Explores Our Fascination With Profanity

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UC San Diego Ppofessor Benjamin Bergen proudly displays his new book, "What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains and Ourselves." (Peter Gilstrap/KQED)

Back in 1939, movie audiences were shocked at Clark Gable’s groundbreaking D-bomb — “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” — in the classic film "Gone With the Wind."

Seventy-seven years later, we have Donald Trump, for example. A president-elect who has no problem spouting searing curses willy-nilly into the closest available microphone. Of course, he wouldn’t be the first politico with such a tongue. Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush and Richard Nixon have all dropped well-placed expletives.

Profanity has become an accepted part of American culture -- its definition, power and impact changing with every generation.

It’s a topic UC San Diego professor Benjamin Bergen covers in his new book, "What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains and Ourselves."

“You have to remember that a language is reinvented by every successive generation of new speakers of that language,” says Bergen. “The words that used to be so profoundly profane are now starting to become part of the furniture.”


Bergen explains why such language might be appealing to a candidate.

“Because it’s all about self-presentation,” Bergen says. “’Do I want to present myself as a man or woman of the people? 'I’m just one of you, I have strong emotions about these things.’ If so, then you will use informal language and profanity.”

The implication being that these days, profanity is the language of the people. Everybody’s working blue.

I asked a few Angelenos to chime in on their personal oaths.

“'Fuck' comes out of my mouth like every other word. I think that it just flows nicely,” says Beth Miller. “I like swearing. I think it’s fun. I like to paint in it."

For Joseph Perez, “'Shit' is my go-to word. Stubbing the toe, frustrated with the kids, pissed off at the wife.”

“It’s always 'fuck,' ” offers Alana Hillman. “If I'm trying to switch it up, it’d be 'shit.'”

“I think my go-to curse word is some variation of the word 'fuck,' for sure,” admits Damian Owl. “It’s versatile. Fuck can even be a good thing, like, 'fuck yeah,' or 'fuck you.' It has a lot of ways it can go.”

If you heard on the radio what you just read, those filthy words would have been tidied up. Which brings us to bleeping.

“The problem is that it doesn’t work at all,” Bergen states. And “those bleeped words? People subsequently don’t remember that they were bleeped. They think they actually heard the word itself.”

For example, take a sentence like, “Gosh, Margie’s BLEEP smells delicious.” What might be under that bleep?

No, it was “casserole.”

One of the strongest forces in opening the public embrace of profanity is comedy. Comedian Maria Bamford knows all about that. She stars in her own TV show, "Lady Dynamite."

“I think my dad tried to watch the show that I have on Netflix with his friends,” says Bamford, “and they were all a little bit worried 'cause it is a saucy show. But not in comparison to others. Now there's just a lot more adult material and it's not as big a deal.”

Though she doesn’t slather on the raunch as much as some comics, “I like the punctuation of a swear word,” Bamford admits. “My act goes better with a few sprinklings of pepper. One of my favorite jokes I ever wrote was that my parents are heckling me and my mom says, ‘Well, shut the fuck up you stupid cunt before I snap your neck in half. Honey, I’m just reading what you wrote down here.’ Still hurts, mother.”

According to Bergen, it’s all part of the shift from thinking words are bad because we’re told they’re bad to finding reasons why they actually are bad.

“What you find is that the worst words of the language are not the F word or the SH word, it’s actually slurs,” Bergen explains. “Words that insult people based on their ethnicity or race or religion, sexual orientation. These are the words that people find to be most offensive. If you look at the survey data, the four-letter SH word is actually found to be less offensive than the word 'scum.'”

That’s right, scum. So, culturally speaking, we’re swearing more, but at the same time, we’re thinking about it more. So maybe American culture isn’t so fudged up after all.