July 25, 2014
#englishonthesideMonday, June 30, 2014
For the Herald
The Internet has changed how we curse
In using an expletive last week to tell a rally of hockey fans, “This is a big fuckin’ day,” did Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti cross a line?
There's real data to help us answer that question. Relatively recent technologies — cable television, satellite radio, and social media — provide us with a not-too-unrealistic picture of how often people swear in public and what they say when they do. Before these new forms of reporting, the media provided a fairly sanitized (1) view of spoken English. Newspapers today still report swearing euphemistically (2), as in “n word,” “f bomb,” or “an eight-letter word for animal excrement.”
In one study reported in the journal Science, less than one percent of the words used by participants were swear words. That doesn’t sound like very much, but if a person says 15,000 words per day, that’s about 80 to 90 fucks and shits during that time. More recently, my research team reported in The American Journal of Psychology, that fuck and shit appeared consistently in the vocabularies of children between 1 to 12 years of age. And politicians get caught swearing all the time.
What happens when the viewer at home encounters expletive-laced (3) speeches on their TVs or the Internet? Some viewers call these guys degraders of morals because they’re only thinking of the historically sexual meaning of the word fuck. Garcetti, though, used fuck as an intensifier (4), not as a sexual obscenity. Most swear words are used connotatively (5) (to convey emotion), not for their literal meaning.
The Federal Communications Commission waffles back and forth (6) about what to do about “fleeting expletives.” It's interesting that people don't complain as much about alcohol ads in professional sports. Alcohol can kill you, but swearing won’t; swearing might even help you cope with life’s stressors, according to recent research.
Older generations who are less understanding of technology may see more profanity and perceive that there is a change in language or societal habits, even when that is not the case. Swearing by people in positions of power has always been there; it just used to be better hidden. We have to learn to accept that we are now going to hear more Garcettis.
A sanitized version of something is one that has been “cleaned” by removing all the “dirty” elements (foul language, reference to “improper” subjects, inappropriate content, etc.).
A euphemism is a word or expression that we use instead of another that is considered improper or relates to a taboo subject. This includes words that we use instead of foul language (“gosh” instead of “God”) or words that one wants to avoid (in military speech, expressions like “collateral damage” or “friendly fire” avoid mentioning the death of innocent people).
To lace something (usually a drink) means to add a poison or alcohol to it. By extension, it applies here to speech that has a considerable number of expletives (swear words) in it.
Intensifiers are words that we use to talk about degree – how much or how intensely something happened. They can apply to adjectives or adverbs, and include words like very, fairly, too, quite or rather.
A bit of linguistic jargon here: when a word is used connotatively, it is used for the ideas it suggests in addition to its dennotative (literal) meaning.
(6) To waffle
When you waffle on something, you either talk a lot without actually making a decision or stating an opinion, or change your mind all the time without coming to a decision. The expression “back and forth” means backwards and forward, and is used when you switch between two places or ideas repeatedly.
* What did you just say?
Expletives, swear words, foul words, four-letter words, profanity.... call them what you want, but every language has them (and tries to sweep them under the carpet). It is strong, it is crude, it is impolite, and is usually offensive – except when it's not, and we use it to express familiarity.
Why do we need it? Well, life isn't always pretty and sometimes we need to express ideas which are not too polite. They are not nice, but they are necessary. What's more, swear words even have medical benefits! Researchers from Keele University (UK) showed in a study that cursing reduces the sensation of physical pain, making it a free version of aspirin!
Another fascinating aspect of curses is how they change from culture to culture. In English, for instance, religion and excretion are favourite subjects, whereas Spanish favours sex, motherhood and prostitution – and this changes from country to country and even among regions in the same country!
Adapted from a story by Timothy Jay for The Washington Post.