The Future of Talking Dirty

8232How in English—or for that matter any language—does a word become “dirty?” That, linguistically speaking, is one of the great mysteries of our time, but one that not a lot of university linguists have been particularly eager to delve into. Enter Benjamin K. Bergen. A cognitive scientist and linguist at UC-San Diego, his latest book (“What the F: What Swearing Reveals About our Language, our Brains, and Ourselves”) plumbs the depths of our trash talk to give us a fascinating look at what the F*** is going on. “When you look at the languages of the world,” he says, “you find that taboo words are almost always drawn from the same four categories.” Those categories are blasphemy, sexuality, bodily functions and/or body parts, and hate speech.” Why just four? That too is far from clear. But what is clear, as Bergen observes on this month’s edition of Up Next: Perspectives on the Future of Everything, is that not all swear words offend with equal strength. Certainly, blasphemy doesn’t have the punch that it once did—at least not in this part of the world. Nor for that matter does the F word. But racial epithets are a whole different kettle of fish. And, especially among today’s young people, they are considered to be far more offensive than synonyms for say penis or sexual intercourse. Does this argue for the enforcement of on-campus word bans? Perhaps. But, as Bergen points out, the destructive power of hate speech has far more to do with the existing power structure than the words themselves. No one, he observes, is demanding that we get rid of the word ‘whitey.’

Watch The Future of Talking Dirty — Up Next: Perspectives on the Future of Everything

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