Dirty words and the people who use them

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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 the public oratory stylings of Donald Trump, a presidential candidate 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.

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.”

UC San Diego Professor Benjamin Bergen (Photo: Peter Gilstrap) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

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.

And everybody has their pet curses.

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

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

“It’s always fuck,” says Alana Hillman, a college student at Occidental. “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 Angeleno 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 what you just read on the radio, those choice 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 dark noun might be under that bleep?

No, it was “casserole.”

As with almost everything, it all comes down to money.

“I wrote a book called What the F, it’s about profanity,” Bergen says. “It has all of the worst words in the language in it. Why is it an F on the cover? Wasn’t my choice, but it has to do with the way products are consumed.”

And that factor has many academics running scared from nasty language, or at least from taking it seriously.

“There are taboos in play even with the ostensible pinnacle of free speech of a university that make it difficult to do research on profanity and write about it,” says Bergen.

“Even scientists, researchers and academics, they still believe that there’s something wrong with these words, that there could be some damage caused by human participants in experiments in which they hear these terrible words, or there may be blowback from a community who’s supporting a university that allows this research to be conducted.”

No such fear in the world of comedy, something comedian Maria Bamford knows all about that. In addition to her stand-up work, 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. “Swearing does very well with people who are out at night at nightclubs having a few beverages.

“They don’t ask you specifically, ‘Hey, would you swear please?’ but the feeling I get is that my act goes better with a few sprinklings of pepper.”

To wit: “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. 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.

(Photo: libsciterp)