What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, by Benjamin K. Bergen

I believe in swearing. I especially believe in creative swearing. But like any creative endeavour it helps to know the roots and science of a well-honed craft.

Benjamin Bergen provides that in dirty spades in an encyclopedic look at the world of swearing and, unlike the cover, there’s no modifying the words used so it’s not a book for people whose strongest oath is “jeepers”.

The book does literally look at the world of foul language, looking into what’s common and unique among world cultures for what constitutes a bad word, including what it references (anatomy, activity, excrement, etc.) and the impact of how the word is formed. It also seeks to answer questions and myths around bad language. Why are so many English words kept to four letters? Are hard consonants essential? There are scientific studies, including case studies of stroke victims who lose the ability to say anything but swear words. (Does that mean they’re stored in a difference part of the brain or they just are embedded more deeply?) Why does Japan claim no swear words? How do we decide to say “poop” or “peepee” with children but other words describing the same things are considered obscene?

Beyond the spoken word Bergen also talks about hand and upper body gestures in different countries, some of which seem obscure to we in the US, and places where you should not be giving the peace sign or thumbs up.

It’s exhaustive and nearly exhausting but Bergen keeps things moving with new topics and insights. For a book that covers everything from psychology to linguistics/etymology to sociology to neurology the book is fresh and interesting with thorough research. It’s not a book that will change your life in any way but it’s a good book with interesting angles on a subject we may have all wondered about at one time or another.