Swearing up a Blue streak
Curses flow like sewers, assault the ear and numb the soul. Has everyone forgotten to hold their tongue?
By LORI PRICE
Posted: May 21, 2006
Don't feel dissed if Larita Lawson calls you a mean little word that rhymes with witch.
More often than not, she means no harm when she tosses a word once reserved as a high insult into daily conversation.
"I use it to reference a lot of people, not just women, and not always as something bad," said Lawson, 20. "I might say, Now, (word that rhymes with witch), that's hot,' as a compliment."
The word is one on a wicked list Lawson said she uses frequently, along with choice terms synonymous with bodily waste, blasphemous oaths and having sex.
"There are other options" for words to use, added Lawson, a Milwaukee resident. "But I do it so often, it's second nature."
What the, uh, fudge is up with that?
Foul language is no longer limited to moments of anger or frustration in our relaxed culture, linguists and other observers of language say. Now we curse and swear just for the heck of it. And that, some of those experts say, is making some people so oblivious to cussing that they don't realize they may be offending those around them.
"I cuss in general," said Percy Walker, a Milwaukee barber.
Walker, 29, said he uses the word that starts with "bull" the most.
"Being in a barber shop, somebody is always telling a story about something unbelievable, so that's something you say when you know something's not the truth," he said.
Making a point
Like a forbidden mistress, profanity used to live in the shadows of private conversation and came out only for emphasis or emotional outbursts. People were either cursing someone in anger or using profanity to make a point.
People still swear primarily for these reasons, said Timothy Jay, author of "Why We Curse: A Neuro-Psycho-Social Theory of Speech."
"Two-thirds (of swearing) is about frustration and anger," said Jay, who records the number of times he hears people cursing in various settings as part of his research.
Expressing emotion is still the larger purpose for swearing, others agreed.
"Whenever I want to make a point in conversation, or make sure all eyes are glued on me, I'll swear," said Aaron Hahner, 31, of Milwaukee. "People think that if you swear, you must be serious or impassioned and, therefore, worth listening to."
But now people might also curse in general conversation, linguists said.
Young people, for example, are more likely to use the "f-bomb" "in friendly context as opposed to cursing someone out or using it to be mean," said Donna Jo Napoli, a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.
"I think of my son, who is 20, when he's with a group of friends,and every other word is a curse word with them and there is no rancor," Napoli said. "There's a recognition that, We don't judge each other, we're just going with it, and it's a very comforting thing.' "
Such flippant swearing may make it seem as if more people are cursing.
Of the 1,001 people questioned in a recent Associated Press- Ipsos poll, 42% said they frequently hear people cursing or swearing in public. And 67% said they think people curse and swear more often than they did 20 years ago.
More than a third, 36%, of those questioned in the poll also said they were bothered a lot when people use profanity. Another 31% said swear words bother them some of the time.
The survey, done March 20 through 22, has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
The results of the poll are a reflection of both reality and perception, observers of language said. Sure, people may be cursing more, but we're also more exposed to it and hearing it from many voices.
Consider this: "Crash," the roughly 100-minute movie that took home the Oscar for best picture this year, contained 172 swear words,including 99 uses of the f-word, according to FamilyMediaGuide.com.
A range of TV shows, from the premium cable drama "The Sopranos" to the network sitcom "Will & Grace," include profanity in their scripts. Swearing is almost expected in pop music, especially rap.
Public officials are even getting in on the act.
Last year, Texas Gov. Rick Perry apologized after saying, "Adios, (expletive)," a shorter version of one of the more obscene terms, to a TV news reporter. Though Perry acknowledged that the word was inappropriate, he also was reported as saying it was "friendly banter" with a deputy press secretary and not intended to offend anyone.
And when Vice President Dick Cheney blurted out the f-word at Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on the Senate floor two years ago, his use of the word became a bigger headline than the debate itself.
"It's not that these words weren't being said before. It's just that media has made them accessible," said James Hala, an English language and literature professor at Drew University.
The exposure comes from a shift in language that can be traced back to the 1960s and 1970s, a time that included various movements toward increased individual freedom and gender equality, language experts said.
"Descriptive language happened as part of the cultural revolution,and we changed our language as we started to question what was taboo ... and said, No one tells us what to say or do. We decide what's taboo,' " Napoli said.
But as we freed our minds and our tongues, we may have diluted our language in general.
James V. O'Connor, who wrote "Cuss Control: The Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cursing," recalls hearing a young woman in a store tell her mother that a sweater she was trying on "fit like" the s- word.
"What does that mean?" O'Connor said. "Was the sweater too tight?Too big? Uncomfortable? Why swear when she could have used another word that really said what she meant?"
This kind of casual use of swearing makes language lazy, O'Connor said.
"There are many good words in our language that are disappearing because we use the swear words instead," he said.
Syndicated columnist and author Harriette Cole agreed with O'Connor and called increased casual use of profanity a sign of society's collapsing boundaries. We've become casual about a number of things,from the way we dress to the way we speak to authority figures, Cole said.
"I was in a meeting yesterday, and it was the executives who were cursing," said Cole, whose column offers advice on a range of issues, including etiquette.
And though there are times when profanity is not offensive, cursing in a professional setting is never appropriate, Cole added.
Casual swearing, which Cole said some people do because they think it makes them seem young and cool, runs the risk of offending someonewho could be valuable. Once a person picks up cursing as an untailored habit, they forget to determine whether others around them are OK with such language.
"People have to ... learn when to turn it off," Cole said. "We can't afford to be oblivious of others in our space."
Despite all the willy-nilly cursing going on, people still use an intuitive moral compass when it comes to swearing, according to professor Hala.
"It's a sense that we develop as soon as we grow up that says there are some times and some places that you use the language and (other times when you) don't use it," Hala said.
Walker said he tries not to swear in front of women, children and clergymen who come into the barber shop. Lawson watches her mouth around senior citizens and tries not to curse in places that are too public.
Latasha Medley, 25, said she is constantly trying to remove swearing from her language, especially in front of her 3-year-old son, Shalamar.
"It's a very hard habit to break," said Medley, of Milwaukee. "I'm constantly saying I'm not going to curse, and then I can't even go a whole day."
Some questions:As the quoted individuals say, if emphasis words become commonplace, what do you use for emphasis? The words reserved for cursewords nowdays usually refer to bodily functions that used to be thought somewhat private. Does anybody really need to be reminded what goes in a toilet, for instance, or have [impersonal] you divorced all meaning from the sound? Why is Latasha trying to not curse in front of her son now when other people would be happy to do it for her, including ones on TV and the soi-disant Vice President of the United States? Why is appropriate to use one selection of vocabulary with one group, and not with others; why not be consistent?
There ya go. Have at. I'm curious to see what you think.