Steven Pinker Comes to the 'F' Word's Defense In his new book, The Stuff of Thought, psychologist Steven Pinker sorts through some of the paradoxes of profanity. He points out that in a society that prides itself on free speech, certain words pertaining to sex and excretion remain off-limits.
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Steven Pinker Comes to the 'F' Word's Defense

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan from Washington.

We've all been there. Someone cut you off in traffic, you sliced your finger open with a bread knife, your toilet overflows, and certain words seem to leap out of our mouths. That's exactly what happened to Dawn Herb in Scranton, Pennsylvania. She was cited for disorderly conduct after shouting profanities at her overflowing toilet. And these words prompt reactions. Her outraged neighbor, an off-duty cop, overheard her remarks, complained to the police, and Miss Herb could face as much as 90 days in jail and a fine as much as $300.

After a series of incidents, more better known, the FCC dramatically increased fines for the use obscenities, which many broadcasters say chills free speech. So why are some words taboo? Why do they have such power? How and why do we use them?

Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker joins us to talk about why we curse and what it says about us. We'll tell you in advance that our guests and callers will not be using these words. But we still wonder, are there moments when no other words will do, and why do they provoke such strong reaction? Our number is 800-989-8255. E-mail talk@npr.org. And you can comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later on in the program, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us. How does Al Gore's Nobel Peace Prize changed the dynamic of the Democratic presidential race? You can e-mail your questions about that now. Again, it's talk@npr.org.

But now, Steven Pinker joins us. He's the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. His new book is called "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature." And an excerpt appears in The New Republic magazine. He joins us from the studios at Harvard.

Nice to have you on the program again.

Dr. STEVEN PINKER (Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology, Harvard University; Author, "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature"): Thank you.

CONAN: And I think you would say Miss Herb was using, well, cathartic swearing.

Dr. PINKER: That's right. It's one of five kinds of swearing that I distinguish in the book. It isn't the kind where - when some misfortune befalls you - the topic of your conversation suddenly switches to excretion or theology or reproduction.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And there are imprecations you say - it's another term.

Dr. PINKER: Yes. That's when someone cuts you off in traffic and you advice them to engage in some undignified activity or accuse them of being the kind of person who engage in some undignified activity, typically a sexual one.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And there are figures of speech then that put obscene words to other uses, as everybody remembers the military term SNAFU.

Dr. PINKER: Yes, which stands for Situation Normal, All Fouled Up, except that it isn't really - it wasn't fouled in the original.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Or the B-52 bomber's nickname known as the BUFF, the Big Ugly Fat Fellow.

Dr. PINKER: Yes. That's right. And there's the barnyard term for insincerity. Another term that doesn't literally refer to its ordinary reference, but it's used figuratively…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. PINKER: …and people know what it means.

CONAN: And we could go on. But the essence of your article, it seems to me, is your talking about why this has such emotional power. And you say it goes back to the structure of our brain.

Dr. PINKER: That's right. Hearing a taboo word activates evolutionary ancient parts of the brain associated with negative emotion. In particular, there's a brain structure called the amygdala - shaped like an almond, you have one on each side, and that's an old part of the brain that response to threatening stimuli - to angry faces, to dangerous animals, and to swear words. And it suggests that swearing is somewhat aggressive that is it's forcing a thought about an emotionally charged or negative subject on a listener. It's pinging their amygdala, which gives you a kind of wave of sweat over your skin and wakes you up and alerts you to possible aggressive threats.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And if it's in - if it provokes that kind of reaction, it suggests that this is a very old response indeed.

Dr. PINKER: That's right. And you can actually measure it in the little wave of sweat that comes over your skin. And what it means is that people will react to swearing as if it's a kind of attack, a kind of active verbal aggression. And that's why, not unreasonably, people are concerned about swearing. They don't like to be forced to think about feces and urine and degrading sex simply because they've got their ears open and someone is directing language their way.

CONAN: And nevertheless, you suggest everybody does it.

Dr. PINKER: Just about everybody. There's even some personality questionnaires that use I sometimes swear as part of their life scale. If you claim you never do, then you throw out the results because it means the person wasn't being sincere.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners in on this conversation. We're talking with Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker, author of the new book, "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature." And part of the conversation is the use and meaning of swear words. 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And why don't we begin with - this is Dustin(ph). Dustin is with us from Casper, Wyoming.

DUSTIN (Caller): Thank you so much for taking my call, Neal.

CONAN: Sure.

DUSTIN: You know, I was just curious. I have a handful of friends who are teachers, from California to Chicago and everywhere in between, who have come to the - I guess, their estimation on the topic is that the effort, in particular with the young people, is used less as an expletive and less of an adjective and more as a thinking word to have replaced um. Because their mouths are really faster than their brains apparently, it would be something to the effect of - yeah, (unintelligible) the f-ing pencil there, you know. And it's become more of an accepted word there than just using it for its even grammatic usage of an adjective or an expletive. I'm wondering if you've seen any of that in your study on this.

Dr. PINKER: I think it tends to be used more for emphasis than as a filler while you're looking for a word or figuring out how to continue the sentence. I don't think it occurs in the exact positions of the sentence where um and er occur. And usually, its used either to emphasize that some state of affairs is emotionally trying - oh, like, they stole my f-ing laptop. Or as it's spread in its use, it can be just a way for a lazy speaker to wake up the listener and to try to convince the listener that there's something really compelling or arousing about what their about to say. And I think a lot of us react to the overuse of the F-word in conversation, because it's a confession of desperation on the part of the speaker. It's saying, I can't think of no other way of making what I'm going to say worth listening to…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. PINKER: …than by pinging your amygdala, you know, the emotionally old centers of your brain with a shocking word.

CONAN: Well, I'm thinking that…

Dr. PINKER: And that's why…

CONAN: I was just going to say, particularly with children, though, isn't it also saying I am a member of the adult club.

Dr. PINKER: Yes. And swearing can also be used in a positive way as a kind of bonding signal among friends to say, this is the kind of setting where you don't have to watch what you say. We can use the words that are taboo in society at large to show that we're at ease here. And so it's another of the many uses to which taboo words are put.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Dustin. Appreciate the phone call.

DUSTIN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Okay. Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go now to - this is Lorrie(ph). Lorrie is with us from Arlington, Massachusetts. Lorrie?

LORRIE (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Hi, Lorrie. You're on the air. Go ahead please.

LORRIE: Okay. Hi. I have a question about the - that particular topic or subject of swear words that is bathroom or sexuality. I'm wondering why - or I guess, sometimes it's the devil in some religion, some cultures - why are those chosen as the subjects of the swear words and does that vary from culture to culture?

Dr. PINKER: Yes. It's a great question. It does vary somewhat, and anyone who knows more than one language knows that you can't translate the swear words in one language into another without comical effect.

CONAN: Hmm.

Dr. PINKER: I mean, in some languages, if you would yell out the translation of the F-word, it would be like yelling out make love or copulate. It just wouldn't have the same emotional resonance.

CONAN: The same effect. Yeah.

Dr. PINKER: But there is a common denominator, which is that swear words in different languages all refer to something that arouses strong negative emotion. You don't have swear words for, you know, flower and buttercup and baby. There are things that strike a little bit of fear or disgust or hatred in you. There's words for sexuality, which is not always something between consenting adults, but we have strong feelings about sex, because there's also exploitation and adultery and illegitimacy and rape. Sex is a very charged topic in virtually every culture. There's DDs(ph), the supernatural devils, saints and so on, where the emotion is awe and fear of a power of DDs. There's excretion where the negative emotion is discussed.

There are often - in many languages, there are taboo words for death and disease. Like in Yiddish, when you swear, you can yell out chaleria, cholera. And then there are often taboo terms for groups of people that are hated in that society - for infidels, for traitors, for heretics and for repressed racial and ethnic minorities. Indeed, the most offensive word in English - American English today, I think, is not the S-word or the F-word but the N-word.

CONAN: And would you count that in this category of words?

Dr. PINKER: I would. We don't think of it as a swear word. But at least psychologically, it surely is. It arouses a strong emotion in the part of the listener and it is tabooed, that is you get in trouble for saying it in most public circumstances. There are exceptions as when African-Americans use it as an affection or defiant way to address each other, almost neutralizing its power by saying, oh, if I can use it casually, how much could it wound me. But outside of those contexts, using the N-word is probably, nowadays, worse than using the F-word or the S-word.

CONAN: Hmm. Thanks very much for the call, Lorrie.

LORRIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Interesting, a lot of the origins, as you suggested, were religious. I'd heard, for example, even the relatively mild oath by Gemini, of course, coming from by the Gemini, but I've not heard of the origin of blimey before.

Dr. PINKER: Oh, yes. It's from may God blind me. And there are a lot - it's curious that we refer to the use of taboo language as swearing, which is the same word that we use for binding an oath.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. PINKER: And the connection is to make your promises credible. You often - or at least our linguistic ancestors, would try to bring in God as a guarantor to their promises, in the same way the kids today say, I hope to die if I tell a lie, to make their promises more credible. In earlier times, people would say, as God as my witness, may God strike me down if I'm lying, or may God blind me, which then evolved into blimey.

CONAN: And, of course, these days, as opposed to bringing the deities into it, we bring lawyers into it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. PINKER: Yes.

CONAN: Which is a swear word of a completely other sort.

Dr. PINKER: It might become one.

CONAN: Our guest is Steven Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, author of most recently, "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature." We're discussing the human nature of those little words that you can't say and you really can't - curse words. When do you yet let loose? Are there times when no other words will do?

Give us a call, 800-989-8255. E-mail us, talk@npr.org. Also, later in the program, Ken Rudin joins us. The Political Junkie's main subject today will be the political implications of last Friday's award of the Nobel Peace Prize, at least part of it, to former Vice President Al Gore. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're discussing the usage, meaning and power of the F-word, the S-word, and all those pesky curses known mostly by their first letters in polite company. Another reminder, we're in the company of the FCC, so we're certainly not using any of these words. But we're talking about why they have so much power.

Our guest is Steven Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard, author of "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature." You can read an excerpt from it at npr.org/talk. When have you just had to use a curse word? 800-989-8255. E-mail us, talk@npr.org. And you can read what other listeners have to say at our blog. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And here's an e-mail from - I'm not sure who this is from. But years from now, the e-mailer asked, will these words lose their meaning or their power and just become normal?

Dr. PINKER: That can certainly happen. And, in fact, that has happened in the history of the language, even within the last century. For example, at the end of "Gone with the Wind," when Rhett Butler says, frankly my dear, I don't give a damn. That was shocking in those days. Now, I assume that I can say that on the radio. And bloody also was a very incendiary term in Britain in the first part of the century, and now it's no big deal. I think, though, that as the shock value of some words declines, the shock value of other words can increase.

So we replace our swear words rather than getting rid of them altogether. And a very good example is the N-word. One of the reasons that Huckleberry Finn - one of the great classics of American literature is often the target of bans in local schools and public libraries - is its common use of the N-word, which at the time, was not nearly as inflammatory as it is today. Our standards have changed. And if you don't realize the standards have changed, you could think that Huckleberry Finn is a deeply racist book.

And I think, as our cultural sensibilities change from worrying about religion and sexuality to worrying about misogyny and racism, the most dangerous words will be those that would tend to brand the speaker are racist or a sexist rather than as someone - as a blasphemer or someone who talks too freely about sexuality.

CONAN: Here's another e-mail. This from Manny(ph) in Sacramento. When I cross - come across multilingual people, I'm curious to know which language they feel more comfortable speaking. And the best way to find out is to ask them: When you actually kick something with your foot in the middle of the night, which language do you use?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. PINKER: Yes. That's right. There is some evidence in fact that even bilingual speakers who feel that their - the swear words are more tangy, more pungent in their first language. And indeed, there's even a stronger electrophysiological response, a stronger wave of sweat or a shudder, when they hear swear words in their first language compared to their second language.

CONAN: And I wonder which language do you use when you stub your toe in the middle of the night?

Dr. PINKER: Oh, I couldn't reproduce it on the air.

CONAN: That's…

Dr. PINKER: And that would be English, yeah.

CONAN: Well, speaking of not being able to reproduce something on the air, this month marks 50 years since a judge in San Francisco declared Allen Ginsberg poem, "Howl," not obscene.

(Soundbite of poem "Howl")

Mr. ALLEN GINSBERG (Poet): (Reading) I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked; dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix. Angleheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night; who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats, floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz.

CONAN: That's Allen Ginsberg reading the opening of his famous poem to commemorate this anniversary. Radio station WBAI in New York, a public radio station is owned by the Pacifica Foundation, planned to air the poem but then decided against it at the last minute, fearing censure from the FCC.

Joining us now to talk about the decision is Janet Coleman. She's the arts director for WBAI and host of the show "Cat Radio Cafe." She's with us from our bureau in New York.

And it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Ms. JANET COLEMAN (Arts Director, WBAI; Host, "Cat Radio Cafe"): And it's great to be here to talk about "Howl," and to listen, to have my amygdala pinging away here. Worrying that all these words you're saying will be said in full.

CONAN: Yes. Well, we're worrying about that, too, I think for the same reason that eventually, WBAI decided not to air this poem.

Ms. COLEMAN: Yeah. The FCC had previously fined people for using the notable seven dirty words, the George Carlin words, the ones we can't say - the F, the S, et cetera. In the mid-80s, the fine was something like $25,000. Very recently, they raised that fine for speech that offended community standards, a somewhat vague delineation of bad word usage, to $325,000 - that's per word, per usage.

That kind of made "Howl," which we plan to broadcast as a reading in Allen Ginsberg's own voice, a 1959 recording that he made in Chicago, throughout the Pacifica Network as its 50th anniversary celebration of the verdict - the verdict, judging it not obscene. And throughout the Pacifica Network, we have five radio stations, plus over a hundred affiliates. That would mean - now, you can't really count the words in "Howl" that are obscene because there are ideas there, there are excretory suggestions and sexual suggestions that might offend community standards.

That is how serious and how chilling the issue has grown since Judge Clayton Horn declared that "Howl" was a work of artistic merit and not obscene. So we decided instead to use our Web site, pacifica.org, as a programming device and put on a program celebrating "Howl," sort of promoting it on our radio station. You can't hear it here, but you can hear it by going online to pacifica.org, where, by the way, still remains the program with an interview with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who is the publisher of "Howl."

CONAN: Yes, of course.

Ms. COLEMAN: The famous publisher and still out there kicking away there, kicking the government and kicking, you know, restriction and censorship, 88 years old. I had a long interview with him, which he talks about the bravery, really, that was required in 1957 to publish "Howl," to put it in print. And were released - it was in 1958 - to see the page liberated for not just Allen Ginsberg, but all poets.

CONAN: Now, there is some irony here. You mentioned the famous "Seven Dirty Words" in George Carlin's routine, the case which the FCC ruled on that was, of course, broadcast on WBAI many years ago.

Ms. COLEMAN: Well, that's right. Exactly. My colleague - former colleague, Paul Gorman, I think, took it on himself to play that George Carlin record over and over again on a Saturday afternoon. I may be embroidering. But I think the story is basically not apocryphal. A father and a daughter were driving along, probably, oh, on some road in New Jersey and listened to this George Carlin piece, and was - I guess I can say PO'd.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLEMAN: He was PO'd and he wrote a letter to the FCC complaining -specifying what the program was, what the words were. And WBAI was fined, I think the rate then was something like 25, $32,000, something like that. And the station took it to court. It was, you know, the times - it wasn't that expensive, as you think about it. The court costs were pretty expensive, pretty - you know, quite great. But anyway, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

And it is now really a landmark case. All censorship cases regarding the FCC invoke Pacifica versus the FCC, the Carlin case, because it established a safe harbor wherein these dirty words could be said with apology and a…

CONAN: Warning, and…

Ms. COLEMAN: …warning and please turn your radio off, if you get offended by bad speech because this will occur and it's after 10 o'clock. Get your kids under the bed because they might - their ears might be soiled. Anyway, between ten and six in the morning, you can say this stuff.

And Allen Ginsberg, you know, throughout his life, really resented this particular restriction, that his poem could only be heard after 10 o'clock. And it is a very strange archaic restriction that we still have to live by.

CONAN: Well, with that 50-year-old court decision in hand, why did not WBAI decide to try it again and go to court if somebody objected?

Ms. COLEMAN: Well, we had the legal support system, because it was - in fact, I was approached by a legal consortium to make this birthday reading. It included Ron Collins, the guy who got Lenny Bruce exonerated by George Pataki, finally.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Yes.

Ms. COLEMAN: A First Amendment lawyer, and Ferlinghetti, and…

CONAN: Again, some years after the effect, but nevertheless…

Ms. COLEMAN: Right. Very many years after the effect. Allen - Lenny Bruce could hardly enjoy it, only his fans. Al Bendich, who is the co-counsel for the ACLU and the "Howl" case, all of these people were throwing their support to this trial reading. But really, when we counted the dollars, really, the - they could pay for the legal fees, but who would pay for the fines?

If Fox and CBS have taken these FCC fines to court and can so, you know, splendidly afford them, maybe they can. Maybe they're worried, too. I mean, if every exposure by a Janet Jackson costs a network $325,000, there's a very big chilling effect involved, you know. Anyway, it would have been - a Draconian fine would have basically stifled all of these community stations that WBAI supports, represents, is trying to - in fact, trying right as we speak, to help license through the FCC to gain, so that we can have multiple community stations, radio stations, all over the country to, you know, reflect local opinion, local thought, local art.

CONAN: Janet, thanks very much for your time. Appreciate it.

Ms. COLEMAN: You're very welcome.

CONAN: Janet Coleman is the arts director for WBAI, host of the show, "Cat Radio Cafe." With us today from our bureau in New York.

And I know, Steven Pinker, not necessarily in this case but in the other FCC cases that have been trumpeted in the past several months or so, you have some thoughts on why does this is happening now?

Dr. PINKER: Well, the immediate trigger was the broadcast of the Golden Globe Awards four years ago with which Bono accepted an award on behalf of the group U2. And in his acceptance speech he said, this is F-ing brilliant, and that's what set the switchboards on fire and resulted in this legislation that increased fines more than tenfold. It's ironic, though, that at a time at which the broadcast media, like radio and television, are a smaller and smaller share of total media, because we've got cable TV, which is not subject to these regulations, we've got satellite radio, we've got the Internet including streaming audio and video - there you can say anything you want.

But as - I hope I can say this on the radio - because fewer and fewer people are listening proportionally to broadcast radio and TV, the penalties on them are getting higher and higher. And as we're living in a golden age of free speech, otherwise, I mean, you can turn on late-night TV and watch comedians impugn the honesty and intelligence of the president and the vice president and they don't have to worry about the fines that put the station out of business. But if they use certain words for sexuality and excretion, then, the full weight of the government can come crashing down on them.

CONAN: Steven Pinker's new book is "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature." There's also an excerpt of it in The New Republic, and you can read an excerpt from it at our Web site npr.org/talk. His day job is as the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. If you like to join our conversation, it's 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail talk@npr.org. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another call on the line, Jim(ph). Jim with us from North Carolina.

JIM (Caller): Hi there.

CONAN: Hi.

JIM: I'm a foreign language teacher in Winston-Salem. And I was wondering, I haven't heard mention of euphemisms. And I was just wondering, is there any chemical reason in the brain why they're not may be as satisfying to people, and socially why they are more acceptable, and just the role that they play in all of this?

Dr. PINKER: Yeah, that's a very interesting question. Because for each of the taboo words, there are polite euphemisms, both descriptively I can - we can talk about, you know, excrement or urine or sex and the same subject matter won't get us in trouble, it's just those particular words. And also, when you stub your toe if you're a very careful speaker or you're in polite mixed company, you might say something like shucks or fiddlesticks or jeepers creepers or gosh or golly, all of which begin with the same sound as the obscene expression, but kind of truncated in mid-breath.

So what that shows is that it isn't enough for a word to refer something that's emotionally charged to make it taboo. It also has to be what the people perceive as deliberately reminding them of the most unpleasant aspects of the, of what a word stands for. So if I use the word feces or stool or manure or dung or guano, I'm making it clear that I have to bring it up because you got to talk about what to put on, how to fertilizer the tomatoes. I'm not bringing it up in order gross you out.

On the other hand, if I use the S-word, I'm using it in order to make you think about the most disagreeable aspect of the phenomenon, which I think is why it feels more satisfying when you hit your thumb with a hammer, because when you do so, you want to say something aggressive and so you choose the word that's understood to offend people because of the emotion associated with what you're talking about.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Jim.

JIM: Well, I was going to - can I ask one more question?

CONAN: We really want to give - we're running out of time, we want to give somebody else a chance, okay?

JUNE: Got you. Thank you.

CONAN: Okay. Bye-bye. Here's an e-mail we got from Mr. Duectsche(ph) - anyway, my father was in a nursing home. Apparently, he went into toxic shock due to gangrene. He was diabetic. He lay on the ambulance gurney, and only swore nonstop for 30 minutes. These were the last words I heard from him 11 days before he died. Why did this part of his verbal brain keep working when, apparently, the rest of speech left him? It was hard for me that these were his last utterances. (Unintelligible)…

Dr. PINKER: Well, it's not uncommon. And in cases where people suffer strokes and have become aphasic, that is they're no longer capable of articulate speech, they can sometimes still swear. And it suggests that the - there are different parts with the brain involved in swearing than in ordinary language. They're concentrated in the right hemisphere whereas ordinary language is in the left hemisphere, and they involve emotionally ancient parts of the brain involved in strong emotions, strong negative emotion, rather than the higher parts of the brain that are involved in thinking and reasoning.

CONAN: And would the same syndrome work for Tourrette's?

Dr. PINKER: Well, Tourrette's is the other way around, where you got those parts of the brain kind of working overtime. But yes, the basal ganglia, evolutionarily ancient structures in the brain, seem to be malfunctioning in the case of Tourrette syndrome, which, of course, is marked by involuntarily outbursts of taboo words.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And many people have sent in variations on this last e-mail question. This from Rory(ph) in Charlotte, North Carolina. I have heard the F-word derived from an earlier acronym for unlawful carnal knowledge. Any validity to that?

Dr. PINKER: None whatsoever. Nor does it stand for fornication under consent of the king. It goes back to Scandinavian, probably to Old Norse, and it is a word for to trust or to strike or to beat. Not a very pleasant connotation, but it's consistently with the fact some of our slang terms for sex other than the F-word also are aggressive, violent words. And it suggests there's actually some connection in our common culture between sexuality and aggression.

CONAN: And this last comment e-mail from Crystal(ph). You asked, are there times when no other word will do, well, let me put it this way: I'm an Orioles fan, so yes, this summer, sadly, lots of expletives were sent off into the universe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Steven Pinker, thanks so much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.

Dr. PINKER: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Steven Pinker is the author most recently of "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature." He joined us today from the studios at Harvard University, where he is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology.

Coming up, the Political Junkie takes on Gore's laurels. And here's a trivia question for you: You may remember that three U.S. presidents received the Nobel Peace Prize, who's the only other vice president to win the award? E-mail us talk@npr.org. And stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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