Swear Words, Once Taboo, Now Can Be Heard Everywhere

From a Wall Street Journal essay by Peter Funt headlined “Why All the Crude Talk?”:

I’m at a loss for words to explain the growing use of coarse language in everyday conversation. When friends or colleagues use the F-word as matter-of-factly as my parents said “gosh” or “golly,” it makes me cringe—but I seem to be part of a bleeping minority.

I thought about this while watching the comedy series “Shrinking” on Apple TV+, starring Jason Segel and Harrison Ford as therapists practicing in Pasadena, Calif. Every character, including Mr. Segel’s teenage daughter, played by Lukita Maxwell, uses the F-word with startlingly casual frequency. In a recent 29-minute episode, these well-educated, affluent Southern Californians said the word 30 times—including nine utterances by Mr. Segel and six by Ms. Maxwell.

Are the producers trying to titillate viewers by writing foul language into dialogue where, in real life, it wouldn’t be likely to occur? Or are they accurately depicting a linguistic trend?

There isn’t much reliable research on how often Americans swear. A 2022 survey of 1,500 residents of 30 major U.S. cities found that they swore an average of 21 times a day, but it certainly seems that many Americans swear much more frequently than that. At a minimum, it’s safe to say that Americans are swearing more than ever before.

Many assumptions about cursing—for instance, that it correlates with lack of education—are apparently wrong. Timothy Jay, author of six books on language and professor emeritus of psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, said, “People who have better vocabularies, which is related to intelligence and education, are better at swearing.” Moreover, the use of taboo words helps with coping, storytelling and fitting in socially.

“We’re the only animal that evolved to do this,” said Prof. Jay. “If it wasn’t useful, it would become obsolete.”

Science has actually given a name to the benefits of swearing: lalochezia. It refers to the emotional relief gained from using profane speech. As far as I know, however, there is no term for the discomfort that many of us suffer when friends and colleagues pepper conversation with words that seem to relate more to their quest for social liberation than to communication.

I asked Sophia McClennen, a professor at Penn State University who specializes in culture, politics and society, why cursing seems to be more prevalent nowadays. “It has to do in large part with the casual forms of communication that take place on social media that have increasingly infiltrated more traditional news, broadcasting and other forms of what you might think of as more serious speech,” she explained. “The lines between casual and serious speech have blurred and that hybrid has influenced a lot of more formal spaces of communication.”

She added that, “A culture of uncivil discourse—what might be called s—t talking—is becoming more common.”

But both she and Prof. Jay were quick to note that cursing is prevalent across society. “With privilege comes power and the ability to break rules,” he said. “Donald Trump is a good example of that, as are a lot of executives and politicians.”

As vice president, Joe Biden famously used the F-word when congratulating President Obama on completing the 2010 healthcare legislation. Mr. Obama’s 2016 appearance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner included a video in which he jokingly says “F— you!” to NBC’s Chuck Todd. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Mr. Obama conceded, “I curse more than I should, and I find myself cursing more in this office than I had in my previous life.” Politico has reported that President Biden swears frequently in staff meetings, favoring the F-word.

A study conducted last summer by the company Wordtips used Twitter feeds to assess which parts of the country swear the most and which words they favor. It turns out that Georgians curse with the greatest frequency, followed closely by residents of Maryland and New Mexico. The least swearing takes place in Minnesota, where the curse of choice is “hell.”

No surprise: The F-word is the nation’s most prevalent curse, followed by s—t. The F-word is most popular on the West Coast, as well as in Texas and parts of the Northeast.

Folks have always liked the daring nature of dirty dialogue, as comic George Carlin confirmed in his famous 1972 routine, “Seven words you can never say on television.” My father, Allen Funt, tried to capitalize on this during his earliest days producing the television show “Candid Camera,” circa 1950. He would occasionally bleep a clean word, making it seem as if something crude had been said. Audiences howled, but as soon as network executives caught on, they put a stop to it.

One thing I’ve learned since taking over “Candid Camera” decades ago is that average people don’t curse as much as you might think—at least when speaking with strangers, which is the case in most of our vignettes. That suggests to me that foul language is usually controllable and, therefore, its inclusion in other settings is often contrived.

Interestingly, the sequence that produced the most swearing was one in which people were alone—or thought they were—inserting a dollar bill into a change machine and getting back 100 pennies. Their shocked utterances set a record for bleeps on “Candid Camera.”

I view the use of expletives as a sign of carelessness, much the same as dressing sloppily. Crude language bothers me most when I hear it from people who I know could do better if they cared to try.

So, what about the characters in “Shrinking”? Are they actually reflecting the behavior of SoCal professionals, or are they just pandering to the streaming audience?

I googled “therapists in Pasadena” and picked one at random from a rather long list. Jim Jacobsen’s website says he specializes in treating “intellectually and creatively gifted individuals.” I asked him if he uses the F-word a lot. “Yes,” he said. “When I’m starting up with a new client I mention that I curse like a sailor, and if that’s not OK, I will try to curb it. No one has ever objected. I’m fond of strong expressions, and it’s certainly not always about anger.”

“I guess people have decided to quit pretending that we’re some kind of polite society,” Dr. Jacobsen continued. Is cursing therapeutic? “I believe it is,” he said. “It’s part of my being genuine, which is one of the most important things I can do.”

According to Prof. Jay, “People with a rich vocabulary, educated people, treat language like owning a lot of different styles of clothing. You change for whatever the context is.” A regular viewer of “Shrinking,” he offered this analysis: “Each flawed character in the series who openly swears has a deep underlying problem with depression, anger or fear that is unspeakable…Taboo words are the speakable taboos, and mental disorders and problems are the unspeakable ones. That’s why we have therapy to dig beneath the speakable taboos.”

I’ll keep watching “Shrinking,” even though I find the gratuitous cursing to be an annoying distraction. But if I ever need a therapist, I’m looking for one in Minnesota.

Peter Funt is a journalist and TV host. He is working on a book about comedic impersonations of U.S. presidents

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