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Why We Love to Swear So G*dd#mned Much

Our love affair with profanity may be cultural or it may be neurological.

Whether you use “bad” language or not, it’s clear that this is a family of words with unique power. It’s not completely clear why. We’re not talking about slurs, foul language intended to denigrate someone or a group of people. We know where that power comes from — hate — and why it’s potent: It hurts people. The profanity we’re talking about is defined by Google thusly:


We know that there’s no such thing as a truly bad word — there’s no real-world phrase to make someone drop dead like Harry Potter’s avada kedavra (and if so, whoops). So what’s so bad about profanity? Nothing really. It’s just that these are words that make some people uncomfortable, and so they should only be used with care, and an awareness of one’s audience. But, boy, do they pack a punch.

It could be argued that only its overuse has the ability to strip away profanity’s shock value. A comedian who’s every other word is a swear risks diluting its impact. And many feel that curses are simply a path of least resistance for vocabulary-challenged people trying to make a point.

Author Michael Adams, in his book In Praise of Profanity, asserts that naughty language is a good thing, not least because it brings people together. He says, “Bad words are unexpectedly useful in fostering human relations because they carry risk….We like to get away with things and sometimes we do so with like-minded people.”

Adams believes that a dirty word’s forbidden nature is why it’s so electric: it’s the thrill of the taboo. To him, this accounts for profanity’s importance in writing, whether that’s literature like Catcher in the Rye, TV or film like The Sopranos or Pulp Fiction, music (choose your favorite potty-mouth artist), or even a successful children’s book, like Go the Fuck to Sleep. It’s this off-limits nature that imbues it with an element of surprise to make a joke funnier, or an angry statement more powerful.

Linguist Benjamin Bergen of the Cognitive Science Department at UC San Diego has a new book, What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, that makes the case there’s something neurological behind the power and pleasures of profanity. He presents evidence that swear words come from, and please, a very particular region of the brain separate from the areas that govern normal speech.

Broca and Wernicke's area control normal speech (WIKIPEDIA)

Damage to those two regions in the brain’s left hemisphere — Broca’s area, which produces words, and Wernicke’s area, which is your built-in user dictionary — have been seen to result in aphasics who can’t talk normally anymore, but they sure can spontaneously swear, like you might after smashing your finger with a hammer. (Bergen is particularly fond of a priest who suffered a stroke in 1843 that left him with a vocabulary only a sailor could love.) So where are all these choice expressions coming from?

The basal ganglia? Yipes. (WIKIPEDIA)

It appears now that it comes from the right hemisphere of the brain, in the basal ganglia. This insight comes from the case of a different priest who lost his ability to swear — what’s with priests and swearing? — when his basal ganglia was damaged. What’s especially interesting about this finding is that this is an ancient, primitive area of the brain that has to do with emotional responses, as well as motor control. Sufferers of Tourette’s syndrome, that involves involuntarily shouted profanities, also have damaged basal ganglia.

This hard-wiring of profanity to the brain’s emotion center is fascinating. Maybe the taboo thrill of profanity is just icing on the cake. Maybe profanity is just the language of our emotions.

Most people who enjoy words and value an expansive vocabulary have an appreciation for well-used profanity, and Bergen’s “book-length love letter to profanity” isn’t all science. In it, you can learn, among other things, that the first words out of all Samoan babies’ mouths are apparently “eat &%$!,” and that the Japanese don’t have any swear words at all, forcing their Tourette’s sufferers to shout childhood words for genitalia.

So whether it’s culture or biology, profanity is here to stay. To which one can only respond, of course, “F#^k yeah.”

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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