Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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“Cathartic swearing,” is analogous to the earsplitting shrieks of rats, cats, and monkeys, and is part of a primal, embedded rage circuit, and likely evolved to startle and unnerve an attacker, according to Steven Pinker. Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author of a book entitled The Stuff of Thought (2007) that will appear in your bookstores within a week or so.

“If you want to intimidate someone,” Pinker says, “then talking about sexual acts he does with his mother and advising him to engage in various other undignified or sexual activities is certainly one of the techniques that we use: ‘Go fuck yourself, you motherfucker. Eat shit.’”

Pinker observes that brain-damaged patients who lose the power of articulate speech often retain the ability to curse like a sailor.

“Since swearing involves clearly more ancient parts of the brain,” Pinker says, “it could be a missing link between animal vocalization and human language.”

Hrm!

Pinker’s latest book is due to be released in September. I’ve read other books by Pinker, and I’ve enjoyed every one of them. This book is a fascinating look at how language provides a window into the deepest functioning of the human brain. According to the review I read, Chapter 7, “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television,” is the most fun. It explores sex and taboo language — you know, swearing and naughty stuff like that.

As I said, I’ve only read one review, but I already WANT A COPY OF MY OWN. I want to review this book on my site! I swear I’ll sell at least a dozen copies if I do!

Comments

  1. #1 coturnix
    August 31, 2007

    Your best post title to date!

  2. #2 ngong
    August 31, 2007

    Tourette’s patients are known to spew these words in very inappropriate situations, despite the fact that they may otherwise be acting fairly rationally.

    I’d be curious to know if there are any languages that don’t contain these words that you’re not supposed to say.

  3. #3 Bob O'H
    September 1, 2007

    The publishers haven’t sent you a copy already? What a bunch of cunts.

    Bob

  4. #4 Rob Knop
    September 1, 2007

    I’d be curious to know if there are any languages that don’t contain these words that you’re not supposed to say.

    C++

  5. #5 cfrost
    September 1, 2007

    “Pinker observes that brain-damaged patients who lose the power of articulate speech often retain the ability to curse like a sailor.”

    By all accounts G.W. Bush is quite the pottymouth in private.

  6. #6 "GrrlScientist"
    September 1, 2007

    rob; but doesn’t C++ cause the programmer to use such taboo language?

    cfrost; hrm. why does this not surprise me??

  7. #7 Toaster Sunshine
    September 1, 2007

    Was denn? Dass, wenn ich schlecte Woerter nuetze, ich mich wie eines boese Tier benehme? Was fuer einen Quatsch! Ich kann mich nicht eigentlich vorstellen, dass einen Hund sagt irgendwas wie “He! He! Deine Mutti ist eine querfoetzige Sclampfe, die Army-Stiefel traegt als sie mit Affen auf einen Mistkabel voegelt!” wenn er aergert ist, aber ich koennte nicht Recht haben. Vielleicht meiner Hund hat solch eines smutzige Mund…

    What’s that? That, when I use dirty words, I behave like an angry animal? What bullshit! I can’t quite imagine that a dog says something like “Hey! Hey! Your mother is a sideways-cunted slut that wears army boots as she fucks monkeys on dungheaps!” when its angr, but I could be wrong. Perhaps my dog has such a dirty mouth.

    Note: to wear army boots and fuck on dungheaps are far more insulting in German culture than they seem in English culture.

  8. #8 "GrrlScientist"
    September 1, 2007

    toaster sunshine: hey, that all sounded naughty to me, even without the translation (but thanks for that) and my German is very limited. however, i am nearly fluent in Parrot, Cat and Dog languages and believe me, you don’t want to know what they are saying about us mere humans.

  9. #9 David Harmon
    September 1, 2007

    Toaster: Think, rather, that our cursing has the same function as the rapid barking which dogs use to chase people off, or at least to startle them. (I’m sure you’ve met at least one of those little dogs who do this to all strangers.) In both cases, the “meaning” is vacant, but the action of cursing/barking is aggressive. It might be seen as a variant of phatic language, but used specifically for aggression.

    I’d kind of like to see a phonemic analysis of cursewords and obscenities across widely separated languages. I’d bet a couple bucks that they cluster neatly around sounds similar to the threat noises of other primates.

  10. #10 stewart
    September 2, 2007

    I spend a lot of my life with folks after stroke or brain injury. Very emotive words seem to be best preserved (fuck and shit, especially), just as people with severe or profound memory impairments can still sometimes recall very emotional memories (humiliation or sometimes joy – but humiliation is unfortunately more common in hospitals).
    My guess would be that Pinker is onto something (he should be, it’s not entirely his idea and well-known for at least 70 or 80 years). Probably reflects contributions not just from primary language areas but also strong contributions from areas such as basal ganglia and limbic system, involved in other aspects of action and emotional response. The sounds notion is interesting. ‘Asshole’ seems to be a less common phrase among my aphasic patients. I’d be interested in tracking the list of words reacquired in recovery from aphasia, especially those that are used spontaneously (SLP’s don’t usually feel the need to teach swearing), across patients and across languages. That would be very informative. It’s probably been done, and Pinker may even refer to it.

  11. #11 Dan S.
    September 2, 2007

    Think, rather, that our cursing has the same function as the rapid barking which dogs use to chase people off, or at least to startle them.

    - Amusingly, I’ve always assumed that such barking would more or less translate, were that possible, as something like ‘Hey you! Motherf*cker! F*uck you!, etc. . . . “- so perhaps I wasn’t that far off . . .

  12. #12 bernarda
    September 3, 2007

    Here is one of my favorite clips, this from the defunct series Lucky Louie, “Jim Norton Debates the Existence of God”.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l56b60FT1iw&mode=related&search=

  13. #13 Remis
    September 4, 2007

    This book seems like bullshit to me, coming from that Pinker fuckwad…

    LOL just kidding, but by the way, are there any comparative studies between cultures? I loved the “army boots” thing, pretty revealing about german culture. Here’s a sample of the finest chilean cursing:

    “andate a la concha’etumadre, maraco culia’o, hijo de perra malparío, saco’e hueas”

    go back to the shell (vagina) of your mother, you fucked (in passive voice) queer, ill-born son of a (female) dog, bag of eggs (testicles)

    It’s funny to me at least, that in Chile the verb “fuck” is used always in passive, it always involves the recipient of the insult as being a whore or a homosexual – both liking being “cornholed”, since the verb “culear” comes from the noun “culo” (ass)

    I’m expecting to get my copy of that fucking book ASAP. Greetings from Chile!