Why Are Some Words 'Bad'?

Dec 6, 2019

In this episode, we tackle why some words are considered bad. Plus: Why do people say bad words? Why aren't kids allowed to say cuss words? Why is the middle finger bad? Adults, don't worry: we won't actually be using any bad words in this episode!

But we will explore the psychology and brain science behind bad words with Benjamin Bergen, professor of cognitive science at University of California, San Diego. He's the author of What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves.

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"Why are some words bad?" - Dashiell, North Carolina.

It's hard to give a single answer to the question of why some words are bad, while others aren't, because each word has a different history. Words and their meanings change over time. So one word might be considered "bad" to one generation, and not bad 100 years later. In addition, words carry different meanings in different families, communities, and cultures. So what is bad to one culture might not be considered bad to another.

But there are some general categories that "bad" words fall into:

"Words in general that are considered bad tend to relate to parts of our lives that we don't like talking about in public, like bathroom functions," Benjamin Bergen says. Other words that are often considered bad relate to negative ways of talking about people and their religion, skin color, ability, gender etc. Those words are called slurs. And many people consider those the worst kind of bad words.

Often people say bad words when they're experiencing strong emotions, and those words are link to our emotions. Kids are no exception. "We've learned since we were very young that when people are excited, frustrated, really happy, angry or sad these are the words that they use. So when we have these strong emotions, we use those words as well," Bergen says.  

Listen to the episode to learn about the brain science behind bad words and how young people have an impact on language and swearing. Plus what to do if you hear the adults in your life using language you think is not okay.

Read the full transcript

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