Saturday, October 22, 2016

Benjamin K. Bergen's "What the F"

Benjamin K. Bergen is a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Language and Cognition Laboratory. He writes for the Huffington Post and Psychology Today and appears on NPR's Morning Edition, the Brain Science Podcast, and elsewhere.

Bergen applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, and reported the following:
What the F is a book about the science of swearing, and the heart of the book explains fundamental facts about the brain that we have only been able to discover through profanity. Page 99 happens to fall precisely at the beginning of a chapter about speech errors—slips of the tongue, Freudian slips, and the like.

Considering how hard it is to produce language, people make relatively few errors in speech. And profanity provides a unique window into why. It turns out, and this is a spoiler, that we have an internal monitor in our heads. Milliseconds before we actually articulate a word, this monitor “hears” that planned word in our mind’s ear and if a mistake is in the making, the assembly line screeches to a halt, and the error is avoided. This is all unconscious, but we know it’s happening specifically from profanity. Statistically speaking, the times when we most successfully avoid errors in fluent speech are when those errors would in fact produce taboo words. This means that when the stakes are highest, the internal censors do their most fastidious work.

The chapter and indeed the page begin with the case of a surprising speech error—one that produced profanity from a most unexpected source. It starts like this:
5  — The Day the Pope Dropped the C-Bomb

By any account, Pope Francis has made interesting choices. He has foregone the traditional, opulent Papal Apartments, electing to reside in a small, modest bedroom in a Vatican guesthouse instead. He wears a silver ring instead of the traditional gold. And he has made a practice of washing feet each Easter—not the feet of priests as his predecessors did but those of patients at a home for the elderly and disabled, non-Catholics, and women. In aggregate, these many small acts of modesty have helped him build up a public image as the pope of the vulgar people.

Still, no one expected him to be quite this vulgar. On March 2, 2014, while delivering his weekly Vatican address, he slipped in a word that caught the world by surprise. He was speaking in Italian, and this is what he said: in questo cazzo. This translates literally as “in this dick,” but since the offending word cazzo is used in Italian roughly as fuck or fucking are in English, in colloquial terms, he said something roughly equivalent to “in this fucking...” I’m no papal scholar, but I’m willing to go out on a limb and proffer that this is an uncommon turn of phrase for a pope, even one fresh off an appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Learn more about What the F at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue