Celebrate the Facts!
Institutions of power like religion and media define and sanction taboo words and parents and society adapt these prohibitions. Recent trends have brought profanity into the public vernacular and these words have increasingly lost their shock effect.
Swearing has become more acceptable through time with perhaps the hallmark entre into mainstream culture being former President Richard Nixon, infamously caught on tape using language that might pass in most society today, but causing a metaphoric gasp of shock among the electorate when revealed on secret White House tapes. During the recent Presidential campaign, Donald Trump tweeted the word ‘bullshit’ and Kamala Harris used the word ‘shit”, indicating how swearing has become mainstream and acceptable over the past 40 years.
Swearing is positively correlated with extraversion and Type-A hostility but negatively correlated with agreeableness, conscientiousness, religiosity, and sexual anxiety. Taboo words can transfer emotion more readily than nontaboo words, allowing speakers to achieve an assortment of personal and societal goals with them.
Taboo words represent a powerful subdivision of vocabulary and provide a shock effect intended to emphasize and gain attention to the speaker or writer. Many off-limits words (e.g., cock, shit) are truly consistent with this representation but American English is also full of negatively valenced, highly arousing words such as abortion, socialism, cancer, and the like that are not regarded as profane.
Federal law prohibits obscene, indecent, and profane content from broadcast on radio or television, however, these rules do not apply to subscription services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, or the like. The rise of entertainment issued by these services may have contributed to the ubiquity of profanity in common public parlance.
The most common profane word in the English language, ‘fuck,’ is also one of the most versatile words as speakers and authors use it as a noun, a verb, an intensifier, and an exclamation. One can add suffixes to it to get words like ‘fucking’ and ‘fucked.’ Americans also use it in many expressions, phrasal verbs, and compound nouns.
The word 'fuck' is usually used in adverbial form as an intensifier. Intensifiers are words or phrases that strengthen the meaning of trailing expressions with common examples being: absolutely, completely, extremely, highly, rather, really, so, too, totally, utterly, very, and at all. A clever writer or speaker can remove any adverb and strengthen the sentence so the use of intensifiers, including the word ‘fuck,’ is a shortcut.
A self-policing rating system controls the prevalence of the word ‘fuck’ in films: it may occur once in a PG-13 film but no more than that. A PG-13 – Parents Strongly Cautioned rating indicates some material may be inappropriate for children under 13 and that parents should be cautious, and some material may be inappropriate for pre-teenagers. Under the system when a film has more than two ‘fucks’ it gets an ‘R’ rating and then anything goes. PG-13 films are later recut and released to video including the word, ostensibly to improve the production.
The 2013 Martin Scorsese-directed The Wolf of Wall Street with an astonishing 569 instances of the word ‘fuck’ leads the pack of mass-market movies shortly followed by the 2019 Adam Sandler comeback vehicle Uncut Gems with 560 occurrences.
This series of investigations is by credo tied to numbers and one way of evaluating the prevalence of words in print is the Google Ngram Viewer: an online search engine that charts the frequencies of any set of search strings using a yearly count of words or phrases found in sources printed between the years 1500 and 2019. The chart above presents the increase in the word 'fuck' from the year 1900 to 2019. Similar swear words searched showed consistent growth rates indicating formerly taboo words are now sinking into the vernacular.
Literary theorists scowl at the use of swear words in print because when authors use profanity, they are telling the reader what is going on in the minds of the characters instead of allowing the reader to experience the emotion for themselves. These authors are not showing their characters' emotions and psychological makeup and using the swear word as a shortcut.
English is an evolving language and therefore sensibilities change. Polite society in many ways has adopted the F-word and other formerly offensive swear words and so these words have lost their effectiveness. Progressive advances in racial justice, equality of the sexes, and gay rights have edged formerly widely-used epithets into a forbidden category not ever spoken in polite society.
Webster’s Dictionary says English, with 470,000 entries, has more words than most comparable world languages. English was originally a Germanic language, related to Dutch and German, and shares much of its basic vocabulary with those languages, and later expansion of the British and American Empires included words derived from their client states. English is the predominant technology language adding to the number of words in the language.
Given the immense nuance of the English language, the more frequent use of profanity seems more an indication of unlettered thought and sensibility than much of anything else.
Michael Donnelly investigates societal concerns with an untribal approach - to limit the discussion to the facts derived from primary sources so the reader can make more informed decisions.