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Publisher's Summary

Nearly everyone swears - whether it's over a few too many drinks, in reaction to a stubbed toe, or in flagrante delicto. And yet, we sit idly by as words are banned from television and censored in books. We insist that people excise profanity from their vocabularies, and we punish children for yelling the very same dirty words that we'll mutter in relief seconds after they fall asleep. Swearing, it seems, is an intimate part of us that we have decided to selectively deny.

That's a damn shame.

Swearing is useful. It can be funny, cathartic, or emotionally arousing. As linguist and cognitive scientist Benjamin K. Bergen shows us, it also opens a new window onto how our brains process language and why languages vary around the world and over time.

In this groundbreaking yet ebullient romp through the linguistic muck, Bergen answers intriguing questions: How can patients left otherwise speechless after a stroke still shout "Goddamn!" when they get upset? When did a cock grow to be more than merely a rooster? Why is crap vulgar when poo is just childish? Do slurs make you treat people differently? Why is the first word that Samoan children say not mommy but eat shit? And why do we extend a middle finger to flip someone the bird?

Smart as hell and funny as f--k, What the F is mandatory listening for anyone who wants to know how and why we swear.

©2016 Benjamin K. Bergen (P)2016 Gildan Media LLC

Critic Reviews

"A lively study with the potential to offend just about anyone.... From a linguistic and sociological viewpoint, the book is illuminating, even playful...an entertaining...look at an essential component of language and society." (Publishers Weekly)

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  • Story

Informative meets entertaining

Warning, if you're sensitive about profane word use, this probably will be a hard one to handle.
But I would expect people to get that from the subject matter.

Beyond that warning, if you like words and language, this will be well worthing the listen. The reader does a great job and the book ends up being a much more scholarly approach to the topic than I would have guessed.

45 of 51 people found this review helpful

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  • Gillian
  • Austin, TX, United States
  • 04-12-17

Take A Deep Breath, Hold Your Nose, Dive Right In

Quick! Who here hasn't come across a foreign language and asked, "Yeah, but what are the baaad words?" Well, okay; maybe that's just me...
From the get go, you're immersed in the world of slurs, and taboo words. At first you feel like a frog dumped in a pot of boiling water, but as you get through the text, the water becomes oddly just fine.
After all, this is more than just a book of lists (tho' there are plenty that'll make your jaw drop). It's a fascinating world of cultures, linguistics, religion, and more.
What's most interesting through it all, are the various tests scientists use to analyze and evaluate words/phrases/concepts that I can't list, or Audible will flag my review (and I get the whole "pending approval" thing far too often; I'm a cherub! What are they talking about?!?). You'll listen to studies about brain hemispheres and mouth lateralizations, power and disempowerment, even studies on pain tolerance.
If you can handle the liberal use of questionable (or flat-out extreme) words, this book is for you. Filled with cheeky good-humor, it's a delightful romp into what used to be extreme but is now tame, what is now tame but could be worse.
Quick! When is a finger just a finger?
When you're trying to say "brothers" in Japanese Sign Language... get your mind out of the gutter :)

68 of 79 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Informative and delightful!

I read because I enjoy learning. A well written book is intellectually stimulaing, thought and conversation provoking. It's not often its actually fun and funny. The fact it's read by the author adds the dimension hearing his passion and his dry sense of humor made it so enjoyable it became a weekend binge listen. The conversations it started with friends led them to download it the next day. Learning starts immediately and does not stop, nor do you want it to. The chapter on grammar, yes grammar, is laugh out loud funny. You can't help but say "I never realized that! But holy c#%p! he's right!" Best book in a while, started to relisten immediately, its that fun and informative.

44 of 51 people found this review helpful

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Who knew...

...you could write this much about swearing? This is a surprisingly comprehensive and interesting book. The narration was also very good. I enjoyed it. It's not fluff though. If you are not academically inclined or interested in linguistics, this may not be the book for you.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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Fucking Awesome!

A very good look on how language is colored by swearing. Both humorous and technical. It proves that you can be smart, funny and swear like a drunken sailor! In the right context.

52 of 70 people found this review helpful

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Encylopedic

I believe in swearing. I especially believe in creative swearing. But like any creative endeavour it helps to know the roots and science of a well-honed craft.

Benjamin Bergen provides that in dirty spades in an encyclopedic look at the world of swearing and, unlike the cover, there's no modifying the words used so it's not a book for people whose strongest oath is "jeepers".

The book does literally look at the world of foul language, looking into what's common and unique among world cultures for what constitutes a bad word, including what it references (anatomy, activity, excrement, etc.) and the impact of how the word is formed. It also seeks to answer questions and myths around bad language. Why are so many English words kept to four letters? Are hard consonants essential? There are scientific studies, including case studies of stroke victims who lose the ability to say anything but swear words. (Does that mean they're stored in a difference part of the brain or they just are embedded more deeply?) Why does Japan claim no swear words? How do we decide to say "poop" or "peepee" with children but other words describing the same things are considered obscene?

Beyond the spoken word Bergen also talks about hand and upper body gestures in different countries, some of which seem obscure to we in the US, and places where you should not be giving the peace sign or thumbs up.

It's exhaustive and nearly exhausting but Bergen keeps things moving with new topics and insights. For a book that covers everything from psychology to linguistics/etymology to sociology to neurology the book is fresh and interesting with thorough research. It's not a book that will change your life in any way but it's a good book with interesting angles on a subject we may have all wondered about at one time or another.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Surprisingly good

I did not expect much and largely there was little new that I had not come across in podcasts and such, but overall it was rather thought provoking especially as it strayed from pure language and focused on scientific method and broader implications (toward the end of chapters and book in general).

Time well spent, well written and read, with good and appropriate humour.

Although ... there was a bit of swearing in here which may be off-putting to some, it's a very different work to titles that outline all the uses of f#*k for instance. This is not meant to to offend or ammuse, thought in places it does ammuse, but to inform. If naughty words bother you though this is not for you, even if maybe you are still within the target audience...

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Interesting take on why we use swear words.

Ripping out a good swear word now and then can be therapeutic. There are studies and statistics to prove it. However, there are many other facts about bad words that I would never have really considered. Also, I learned many bad words i had never heard of before. The delivery was quite entertaining as well. Although I'm not big on using foul language, I do have moments when I use the s***t word or drop the F bomb to relieve stress when really bad things happen, but cussing in general doesn't appeal to me all that much. Still, the book was entertaining. You can tell from the title whether or not you would be offended by it. Just go with the flow and enjoy.

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Fascinating!

I found this really interesting. I didn't agree with all of the conclusions in the final chapter on slurs, but otherwise this book was entertaining and very informative.

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Interesting study

This book was an interesting, funny and sometimes absurd exploration of profanity. The areas covered ranged from possibly useless to the other end of the spectrum of possibly having profound implications on societal interaction.