Our Sensitivity to 'Curse' Words has Changed Over Time

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Elaine Jarvik - Deseret News

Pardon our French, as people used to say back in the days when they didn't use the following words quite so often, but we're going to now talk about the phrases "pissed off" and "that sucks."

Are these dirty words? Or just words?

And what about those other words, the ones that are still taboo enough to require dashes or abbreviations in newspapers such as this one? The s-word. The f-word. The f-word used as the all-purpose adjective. High-school teachers will tell you the halls are full of these words. As for "pissed off" — students say it so often "they're unaware they even say it," Highland High chemistry teacher Monica French says.

Expletives made headlines last month when the Grove Theater in Pleasant Grove canceled its production of Neil Simon's "Rumors" after the playwright refused to let the theater delete language it thought its audience would find offensive — "a lot of G-D and Jesus Christs," explains theater co-owner Gayliene Omary, plus "the f-word used very casually."

Acoustically speaking, words are just a series of hisses, pops and clicks. " 'Bad' words only have an effect if people think they're bad," says Marianna Di Paolo, chairwoman of the University of Utah Department of Linguistics. "Words are harmful if a culture regards them as harmful. Words become taboo because the culture associates taboo things with them.

In Victorian times, the word "leg" was considered risque, Di Paolo explains. At the dinner table, it wasn't acceptable to ask for a leg or a thigh of chicken, which is why people started using the term "dark meat." (People also put skirts on tables and beds, so the furniture legs wouldn't show.) Within our own cultural memory, the word "pregnant" was forbidden on "I Love Lucy" in the early 1950s.

Our sensitivity about words changes over time. Linguists call that "cognitive dialectology," says Rodolfo Celis, a linguist at Arcadia University. A word like "pissed" or "sucks," for example, might be considered crass and therefore inappropriate in "polite company." Then it starts seeping into more general usage, until finally there's a tipping point, Celis says, in which the word has become so mainstream that the people who still don't use it — often the older generation — start complaining that language has become coarser.

Eventually, though, a word that once could get your mouth washed out with soap will be regarded as just a word. Does that mean we've become desensitized and crass? More desensitized but also less neurotic about bodily functions and sex? Have the words simply become sounds, devoid of any reference to something taboo?

" 'Suck' is one that I am personally struggling with," says Celis, "as I perceive that it is shifting. When things are shifting there are some dangerous points of ambiguity." So recently, while teaching his freshman English composition class, in what he describes as "a lame attempt at inter-group affiliation," he said to his students: "I know some of these chapters kind of suck in the sense of exciting reading." The word sounded vulgar to his own ears, Celis admits. "But I genuinely think it is an almost neutral adjective for many freshmen."

Taboos evolve

Playwright Neil Simon's lawyer told Grove Theatre co-owner Gayliene Omary that "educated people" can handle the f-word, and that Utahns need to become desensitized. That got Omary thinking. "Maybe he's saying that educated people don't let these words have power. Maybe we give these words more power than they deserve." But Omary doesn't agree. If a person becomes desensitized to the f-word, she says, it means becoming desensitized to the disrespect she believes it embodies.

Robert Thompson, professor of media and culture at Syracuse University, recently heard a young Presbyterian pastor use the word "crap" from the pulpit. Thompson guesses the pastor didn't realize that the word once referred exclusively to excrement.

The media didn't teach Americans to swear, Thompson notes. But what "The Sopranos," Ozzy Osbourne and countless movies have done is "domesticate" words that once were limited to fenced-off areas of social discourse — behind the barn, in bars, on ships full of proverbial sailors. On Thompson's campus, walking across the quad, he'll hear students sprinkling the f-word throughout their conversations — which makes him wonder if, by the time these students are grandparents, the f-word will shock anyone at all.

"It took centuries for the f-word to acquire the taboo that it holds; it'll take only a generation to completely wear it out," Thompson predicts. And then what?

"We're wearing these things out very quickly, and you can't just make these things up. An entire culture has to agree that a word means something, that it has an aura and a gravitas, and that takes generations." Cuss words are not a renewable resource, he says.

The good news is that "the only reason this stuff outrages anyone is because we've all agreed it deserves outrage," Thompson argues. The bad news, he says, is that a culture needs its curses.

His theory is that the reason road rage has escalated is that the use of the middle finger as a non-verbal curse has become so casual. "It used to be so forbidden and taboo. So if you used it, you felt you'd gotten your revenge." Now, because it's lost some of its power, "you have to go elsewhere for revenge."

Violence rehearsal

Salt Lake psychologist Lynn Johnson disagrees, seeing swearing not as an alternative to violence but a "rehearsal for real violence," a way of training the brain at being irritable and aggressive. As for vulgar language, "Can you imagine Mother Teresa saying, 'Hey, that really sucks, I am so pissed off,' "Johnson asks.

Often it's not the words themselves, it's the tone in which the words are uttered that's damaging, to both the listener and the speaker, says Jim O'Connor of Lake Forest, Ill., who five years ago founded the Cuss Control Academy.

O'Connor's list of reasons swearing "imposes a personal penalty" includes: "It makes you unpleasant to be with; it endangers your relationships; it's a tool for whiners and complainers, . . . it shows you don't have control." Swearing also represents the dumbing down of America, O'Connor says, and it lacks imagination.

Despite his campaign, and hundreds of interviews on TV, radio and in print, O'Connor reports that America as a whole is swearing more than ever. On an individual basis, though, people tell him he's helped them clean up their acts.

His own daughter, who once was "quite foul-mouthed," stopped swearing cold-turkey three years ago, at age 24.

"She became a Mormon and stopped swearing," O'Connor says. "Most of the people I know who really stopped swearing, who stopped completely, did it because of religion."

The Bible is clear in its admonition about taking the Lord's name in vain. As for vulgar language, preachers sometimes refer to passages such as Ephesians 4:29, translated in various versions as "let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth" or "let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth."

"Swearing is a venial sin, and a venial sin weakens charity," argues Dan John, director of religious education for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. Foul language "weakens the layers of community," he says. If no one is offended, "that's a sign that the bonds of community are being weakened. If you're not offended by offensive things, then we have a problem." Are there exceptions —for example, solitary swearing? "I'd hate to go to hell and find out I'm there on a stubbed-toe violation," John says.

Stub-toe swearing

Stub-toe swearing comes from a different part of the brain than normal speech, scientists say. Washington University theoretical neurobiologist William H. Calvin, author of "A Brain for All Seasons," explains that "emphatic exclamations of all sorts seem to be coming from the supplementary motor area, in the midline of the brain above the corpus callosum. That's also true of many animal vocalizations."

What Calvin calls "novel strings of words — our short and long sentences" are created in a different part of the brain. "People can have strokes that disrupt novel sorts of language (i.e. aphasia) while still being able to swear like sailors. It can be very distressing to their families."

Calvin said he doesn't know if anyone has studied whether someone who tries to use faux swear words would utter the more forbidden f-word following a stroke, or whether "fetch" would still be satisfying enough.

Deseret News - Published Sept. 6, 2003 in the Faith Section