Shift happens again

Because of my last post, the National Post's Tristin Hopper contacted me today about "a weekend feature about the increasing media normalization of swearing, and its effect (if any) on everyday swearing" [link]. He couldn't print much of my response, so I got his permission to share most of our exchange in a post. (To avoid offence, I've bleeped all swear words, no matter how mild.)

TH: … The feature was inspired by the pending decision of the Toronto Star to stop the censorship of common swear words, as well as the recent consequence-free use of "f**k" by Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. …

DF: … I actually didn't know that about the Star --very interesting, thanks for letting me know. If I were to read the Star, I wouldn't want to read gratuitous swearing in their editorials or columns, because who wants to be "reminded of excrement, urine, and exploitative sex" (Pinker 2007:369)? On the other hand, when a newspaper sanitizes a direct quote in a story for me, I feel like it's acting as my moral superior, which may be a hard sell in the case of the Star, so they might as well report verbal quotes/tweets/etc. faithfully, as is. As Pinker (2007:370) adds, "the prohibition against swearing in broadcast media makes artists and historians into liars, and subverts the responsibility of grown-ups to learn how life is lived in worlds distant from their own."

Trudeau's swearing was also not only appropriate to a boxing event, but astute, and may well have made him more persuasive. For example, strategists say he needs to break away from his political elite image. Frequency of swearing correlates inversely with social class, so Trudeau's profanity may well help the common man relate better to him. As Scherer & Sagarin (2006:144) observe: "Obscenities could impact credibility positively because the use of obscenities could make a credible speaker appear more human."

But it's not that simple, unfortunately for Trudeau, who insists that he's targeting Canada's middle class. Timothy Jay [the leading academic expert in cursing] reports that "generally, speakers who have power have license to curse as they please because they suffer no social consequences for doing it. At the other extreme, those without power have license to curse because they have nothing to lose by doing so" (1999:158). So in practice, the middle class is usually the most anxious about swearing, roughly because they're afraid of the possibility of higher class people reacting negatively to their swearing. No middle class witness will buy that Trudeau is working class, so his public swearing is more consistent with the idea that his high class status affords him the freedom to swear. In other words, profanity may put him back at elitist square one.

On the other hand, public figures with high class status normally avoid swearing for fear of jeopardizing their position, so Trudeau risks being perceived as reckless if he swears in public (setting aside boxing events and other informal events). Scherer & Sagarin (cited above) warn that "obscenities could also impact credibility negatively because the use of obscenity could be seen as inappropriate for a credible speaker."

Strategists also say that Trudeau needs to expand his popularity beyond women, and swearing may well help him with the men's vote. Research shows that women use different swear words than men do, that swearing reflects more poorly on women than it does on men, and that women are less comfortable with swearing than men are, but even women are growing more comfortable with profanity as its frequency and intensity continues to increase in movies and TV over time (Hagen 2013).

TH: Is there any relationship between media prevalence of swear words and their use in everyday speech? Despite their G-rated media consumption, were the citizens of 1920 just as foul-mouthed as the citizens of 2014?

DF: [Repeated from my interview with Meghan Jessiman:] I'm not convinced that "bad" words are experiencing any significant transition. Swear words, and words in general, have been and will always be affected by meaning changes like those discussed above. Taboos and negative emotions are constant, and so is the need to vocalize or convey them, so there will always be swearing, but never too much, precisely because it's associated with taboos and negative emotions. Studies that claim that swearing is becoming more prevalent are typically based on self-reporting, which is notoriously unreliable when it comes to taboo language. The Wall Street Journal's language columnist Ben Zimmer once wrote, "I'd wager that just about every generation in modern American history has thought that profanity was on the rise." [End of repetition.]

To add to this, research suggests that young people swear more than older folk, and that young people have a larger inventory of swear words than older people, but there is no reason to think that these patterns are new developments. Rather, it's likely that across generations, people have looked at younger people's speech, with its more frequent and more diverse profanity, and assumed that swearing is on the rise.

Note that swearing studies are very problematic in terms of methodology. The self-reporting problem has already been mentioned. Natural conversations can also be recorded, but the recording itself introduces what is known as "the observer's paradox" --speakers change how they talk when they are being recorded, and this is especially true of swears and other taboo words. Studies have certainly shown that profanity is on the rise in TV and films, but how broadcast media mimics everyday speech, and whether it has an influence on everyday speech, are two difficult research questions themselves.

TH: When words like "f**k" and "sh*t" are more commonly used—and thus less taboo—do they lose their power as expletives? If we normalize existing swears too much, will we have to invent new, more powerful swears to replace them?

DF: [Repeated from my interview with Meghan Jessiman:] Even mainstream broadcast media which are regulated by, say the FCC in the States, are becoming harder to control, partly because some swear words can be associated with positive emotions, in which case they're not really swear words, which by definition trigger negative emotions. A perfect example occurred in Boston earlier this year. At the first baseball game after the marathon bombing, the Red Sox's star-hitter David Ortiz thanked the mayor, the governor and the police, and then added, "This is our f**king city." The crowd cheered wildly, of course. Even the head of the FCC tweeted after the game that what Ortiz said was just fine, because it was spoken from the heart, and he appreciated the emotions. That is, the swear word evoked negative emotions of indignation, hurt and anger, but also positive emotions of patriotism, solidarity and justice. In practice, this means that regulators like the FCC have the impossible task of judging speaker's "hearts" in accepting or rejecting swear words on TV! … "f**k" is one of the worst swear words, but it's relatively safe to use with a large audience, as Ortiz did, because it doesn't disparage particular groups. By contrast, the very worst swear words, namely "c*nt" and the N-word, are sexist and racist, respectively. So Ortiz couldn't have gotten away with, "This is our city, c*nts!" or, "This is our city, n***ers!" But … the milder swear word "b*tch" is gaining wider acceptance in spite of being sexist, so perhaps Ortiz could've gotten away with, "This is our city, b*tches!" [End of repetition.]

I would add that the the strong swear word "fuck" can be used positively, but studies show that it remains the favourite swear to express aggression or rage, so there is no immediate danger of it falling into disuse.


Hagen, Sverre. 2013. Swearwords and attitude change: a sociolinguistic study. MA thesis, University of Bergen.
Jay, Timothy. 1999. Why we curse: a neuro-psycho-social theory of speech. Dordrecht: John Benjamins.
Pinker, Steven. 2007. Stuff of thought. London: Penguin.
Scherer, Cory R. & Brad J. Sagarin. 2006. Indecent influence: The positive effects of obscenity on persuasion. Social Influence 1(2).

[April 11, 2014]