Magazine article Psychology Today

A Four-Letter Fan

Magazine article Psychology Today

A Four-Letter Fan

Article excerpt

AFTER HE BEGAN teaching "An Uncensored Introduction to Language," a profanitythemed linguistics course at the University of California, San Diego, cognitive scientist Benjamin K. Bergen noticed that many English swear words have a funny similarity: They contain just one syllable and end in a consonant. It's a great example of the clustering that happens frequently in language, as with light-related terms like glow,gleaming, and glimmer. A wade through our forbidden vocabulary offers many other enlightening glimpses into how we use words, as Bergen details in his new book, What theF. -MATT HUSTON

What can we learn from the way curse words change over time?

The word dick used to refer to a riding crop-then it became a metaphor for an anatomical part. A word gaining a new meaning is a normal process, but what's interesting about profane terms is that they systematically lose their old meanings. You don't use dick to refer to a riding crop anymore because of the trouble that can be caused by confusion.

What happens to a profane word in the long run?

It enters into the common vocabulary and loses its salaciousness. Curse words seem ineffably powerful, but if we step back and compare them with words that did the same thing hundreds of years ago, we see that the words themselves don't have any inherent power-just the power we give them.

Can you think of a onceempowered curse word that is meaningless to us now?

In Shakespeare's time, toswive would have been a more common way than the F-word to talk about sexual intercourse. …

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