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131: Cussing & The Power of Language w/Benjamin Bergen, the Swearing Professor

March 8, 2018

Human beings study language and the mind typically without including profanity, and that leaves out a huge part of language. What does cussing teach us about history, human behavior and how we relate to each other? How do people navigate contextual and situational environments when it comes to swearing? On this episode, Benjamin Bergen is here to talk about studying swear words, and learning more about people through them.

Having a word for something creates a category to hang stuff on. -Benjamin Bergen


3 Things We Learned

Kids understand the context of language better than we think

Most people understand the contextual and situational environment of when certain words can be spoken. That’s why we can find swearing at a comedy club acceptable, while we wouldn’t accept a CEO swearing in a board meeting. This is something even our own children understand.

Swearing comes with some interesting perceptions

When you swear, people perceive you as more honest, authentic and comfortable with yourself. At the same time, you can be perceived as less in control, intelligent and literate. It all just depends on where you are and who you’re with.

Words young Americans find offensive

Younger people find slurs more offensive than swear words. They don’t like derogatory terms for people based on sexual orientation, ethnicity, and religion.



Language is a huge component of culture and personal identity. The language we grow up with is your language for life. When it comes to swearing, we learn a lot about human behavior, our sense of morality and how different generations find different words profane. Usually a word takes the trajectory of going from being normal, then being brought to judgment, and over time becoming offensive. In many cases, certain words will rotate out with the passage of time, and new words become profane. This is how they change over time from generation to generation.

Guest Bio

Benjamin Bergen is the author of What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves. You can find it here!