Swearing is Changing—And That's a Good Thing

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

(Pan European Game Information/Wikipedia Commons)

Back in 1939, the Production Code Administration required that David O. Selznick defend the use of the word "damn" in his film “Gone with the Wind.”

Fast forward to present day, and basic cable programs—from "Mad Men" to "Breaking Bad" to "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"—have no problem using stronger words, and with greater frequency.

But it’s not just scripted shows that feature swearing these days.

In recent weeks, the Federal Communications Commission announced that they would let the use of a certain "F word" on live TV go without fine under a certain circumstance. That word was uttered by David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox when referring to the Boston marathon attacks.

Have we gotten a tad too lax about swearing these days? Do we swear more than we should? Or is there something bigger going on?

As John McWhorter sees things, our idea of profanity is changing—and he believes that’s a good thing. McWhorter is a linguistics professor at Columbia University and author of “What Language Is.” He joins The Takeaway to discuss the evolution of swearing and it's integration in present day.

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John H. McWhorter

Hosted by:

Todd Zwillich

Produced by:

Kristen Meinzer


T.J. Raphael

Comments [25]

Mark Weber from New York, NY

I do not normally like talking w/ people who swear as a part of regular conversation (i.e. in every sentence). However, there are some cases where swearing adds an emphasis that is useful. Swear words are like an ax or knife - such tools can be useful when used appropriately but can also be overused. Also, there are cases where some words are "swear" words in some contexts but not in others.

I think George Carlin and Lenny Bruce had very insightful takes on it in their monologues.

Jul. 10 2013 03:56 PM

I hear less cursing and swearing, and more vulgarity and profanity. An example of a curse is "Damn you!" Then there is, "I swear to God...!", neither of which is as prevalent as they were when I was a child or young adult (I am 68.) "Cussing" seems to now be used as a catch-all term for gross or vulgar sexual or scatological references.

Jul. 10 2013 03:56 PM
J from SF, CA

I've worked in industry, construction, public sector, as a teacher in the public schools, non-profit. The rules of how and when profane language is used is determined by the space and place. As a writer and poet, I understand the visceral response a profane word elicits can be used as a form of power over readership/listenership. Profanity can be used as a weapon, can be used to strongly punctuate a point. As a public speaker, I understand that usage of profane language with certain audiences at certain times in certain circumstances for very specific reasons can be quite effective.

Profanity as a colloquialism hasn't changed much. It is seen by children as the untouchable fruit, and it's use as one path to maturity and adulthood (taking responsibility for using previously untouchable language). In the trades, it's just a matter of every day expression and forms a tight bond. Among more refined company, of course, it is seen as low class. I'd argue, in any company or space, it can be used as an effective tool to express strength of emotion, in some cases much more clearly than non-profane diction.

Jul. 10 2013 03:26 PM
jim from green valley, az

The Word is cursing--not swearing. To swear is to take an oath, to use profanity is to curse. Why has it become acceptable to misuse the words of our langauage so readily?

Jul. 10 2013 02:44 PM
Rocky from Dallas

Re: Indecent language.

If Mohammad's philosophy is considered by the erudite in society to be archaic and irrelevant to modern times, why is Shakespeare held as a Gold Standard of English literature. It is hypocrisy. We should look at modern writers and not Shakespeare anymore.

On June 13th, 2013, Writers guild of America-West made an application to remove restrictions on profane language and nudity on Primetime shows on the claim that it was stifling creativity.

If the house cat drags in a dead decomposed bird, people go in a tizzy and clean the house with bleach. Profanity piped into homes through TV shows and movies is similar and should be treated for what it is... offensive and disgusting

Jul. 10 2013 01:12 PM
Meg from Princeton, NJ

My favorite response to swearing is "profanity is the inability of the feeble minded to express themselves forcefully." Don't know where it came from but it's a good one. I've been known to do a far amount of swearing but a lot less these days.

Jul. 10 2013 01:00 PM

The only words I have a problem saying are words that are used to oppress people. Racial slurs like the n-word, ableist slurs like r*****(ed), homophobic slurs like f**, transphobic slurs like t*****, and misogynistic slurs like c*** or b****. If a word is used to attack a particular group of people, and you aren't part of that group of people, it's not ok to say that word.

Jul. 09 2013 11:16 PM
JT from Anchorage

What bothers me is people who use synonyms for a swear word that everyone knows the meaning of. My female coworkers used to say freekin all the time until I finally said to them, I thought it was inapproriate and if they must swear please just say the f word--they stopped saying freakin. My eleven year old grandaughter just recently did the same thing. I pointed out to her that everyone knows what the synonym is--she hasn't used it since, atleast in my presents.

Jul. 09 2013 08:18 PM
derac from St Charles, IL

The gentleman you interviewed had a very urban slant to his 'swear' words. If he ventured 100 west of NYC he'd find that the F bomb wasn't used much in family situations [ a picnic ].. the C word is never used in mixed company but when the guys are out drinking its pretty common [ its not much different to the B word when its just the guys ]. The N word is pretty rare now but not as much as he would like to think and the other f word isn't rare at all in the fly over states. I'm not defending any usage just telling it the way I see it.

Jul. 09 2013 05:16 PM
J from NYC

As a young man, I winced at the F word. Now I think nothing of it and use it frequently. There are other words, though, that make me wince now and would never use. One makes me so uncomfortable I can't even bear to make an allusion to it here.

We needn't worry. As some words lose their power to offend, there are plenty of others waiting in the wings. We're not losing our decency. The English language is a living thing.

Jul. 09 2013 04:54 PM
Laura Munski from North Dakota

Foul language reflects ignorance and a lack of respect for yourself and others. If you have a mastery of language you can express yourself without the use of vulgarity.

Jul. 09 2013 04:47 PM
Kirk from Bellevue, WA

I've always thought that use or lack of use of profanity is an interesting view on oneself and those around you. Restraint is a great way to show self respect as well as respect for those around you. Conversely, poor form in use of profanity says volumes about the fact that you don't care what others think about you or that you aren't entirely concerned with what they hear or think either.

Jul. 09 2013 04:31 PM
RT from Santa Clara

I swear more than I did at one time and less than I did later; something that makes me swear now is hearing things such as

“...it was a forgone hope...”
“...for all intensive purposes...”
“...somewhat of a problem...”
“...wouldn’t step foot in...”
“...was compatible to ..”
“...is in compliance to...”

all of which I've heard on NPR in the last two days. I don't expect topical expertise from journalists but I think it's reasonable to assume some facility with the English language.

Jul. 09 2013 03:57 PM

I was surprised to hear a linguistics professor the term "sexual preference" rather than "sexual orientation." While neither phrase falls into the category of "swear words," one implies that one chooses which sex to be attracted to and the other indicates that the attraction is not a choice but an innate part of the person. Isn't the use of one therefore more akin to to the idea of "taboo" than the other?

Jul. 09 2013 03:37 PM

I don't swear nearly as much anymore, but then again, I used to be in the Army.

Jul. 09 2013 03:21 PM

I doubt you can say "George Carlin" on the air.

Jul. 09 2013 03:00 PM
Cindy from Ohio

This program just showed how low our society has become. I agree that the sense of what is sacred and good is what determines what kind of language we use. Our society has fallen so far that God, the procreative powers were are given through sex, the bonds that sex can form, the feeling of respect for human life and decency and self-respect are no longer respected as something that should be protected. This show made me sick to think that anyone would defend profanity and say that it's okay that those words have made their way into our everyday language.

I, for one, am teaching my young children that there are good and sacred things in life even if the media and society tell them otherwise. What we say says a lot about a person. When I hear people use profane language, both what you termed new profanity and old profanity, I loose respect for them. I also feel that they have very little respect for me to use it around me.

Jul. 09 2013 01:32 PM
Julia Welch from Lago Vista TX

As a teenager in the 1970s, I learned to swear like a sailor. These days, I swear much less, and view swearing as a lazy and uneducated way to speak. Sure, you injure yourself, you say something brief and heartfelt, but to use four-letter words as everyday descriptors cheapens them - and you.

Professor McWhorter's opinions on the changing perception of what is profane were most interesting; thank you for inviting him. But I'm still going to strive for more precise and interesting language.

Jul. 09 2013 01:15 PM
Pamela Paasche O'Hearn from Lava Hot Springs, Idaho

I have always figured it was silly to restrain what you mean with a more delicate euphamism. One of my professors mentioned I swore like a stevedore in my graduate school letter of recommendation. I worked in a barn growing up. My victorian mother was horrified by my language. The man I worked for told her "Nancee, there are a lot of things you're going to say when you hit yourself in the thumb with a hammer, and none of them is 'good morning'" I now live in very mormon, very small-town, Idaho. I try to hold it back, but people apologize for me by saying "she's from the east coast" ;-)

Jul. 09 2013 01:03 PM
Christina from Portland, OR

I'm sick of the acceptance of foul language in our society. I'm no prude. Occasional swearing is appropriate, and sh*t is a favorite of mine, but does it have to be a part of our daily conversations? Can't people be articulate enough to get their point across without being foul? I view people who pepper their daily conversations with swear words, especially the "f" word, as being truly classless. And it certainly doesn't belong in a professional or business environment. I hope our society doesn't accept it more than it has already!

Jul. 09 2013 01:00 PM
Emily from Chestnut Hill

Swearing is an expression of emotions - anger, frustration. The daughter of a successful attorney and interior designer, I grew up in a household where us girls understood the paradox of not using certain language even as our parents swore like sailors. Once we were adults with outstanding vocabularies and college degrees, we could say whatever we wanted. Swearing is a privilege to be earned. Since becoming a parent, I've become fatter, poorer, more exhausted and sacrificed my career, and there's no way I'm giving up my three favorite words, too. Additionally, only a true lover of language can appreciate the ubiquitous properties and mesmerizing appropriateness of the f-word. If you don't get it, don't use it.

Jul. 09 2013 12:43 PM
Amy newman from Glenside

To profane something means to show disrespect to something sacred, something deserving of respect. Swearong
Gets its power and "umph" from that sense of disrespect. Swearing in our society is a result of our increasing feeling that not much is deserving of the term"sacred".

Jul. 09 2013 12:29 PM
Craig Landon from Portland, Oregon

What has kept me from swearing a these years was the memory of my mother saying that "swearing is a failure to communicate".

Jul. 09 2013 12:25 PM
Dennis Pucci

Terribly one sided story.... you make it sound like swearing is a badge of honor instead of a concession that you have a limited vocabulary. Use of the "f bomb" IS offensive to many people and it is distressing to see children swearing on screen as a source of our amusement..... Where, indeed, are we heading...?

Jul. 09 2013 10:03 AM
JP from Neptune, NJ

Regardless of when I grew up, I was exposed to and watched movies that based on their ratings I shouldn't have been watching. Did I go around casually dropping F bombs in school, church, or my Aunt's house? No, My parents weren't strict but still taught me the context of those words and when to know not & how not to use them. And seeing the context of how they were used in those movies also taught me their uses and why they were being used. I think when you try to protect society from something that they have easy access to they're more likely to make use of that "something" in the way that you fear in the first place. Where as if you let them have free access/exposure to it, but not necessarily encourage them to seek it out, they'll learn to embrace it responsibly.

Jul. 09 2013 09:29 AM

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