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A few years back, Jeff Chown was teaching an NIU course on HBO’s “Deadwood,” an American western series set in the 1870s and notorious for its profuse use of profanity. By the time the dust settled in the first episode alone, characters had fired off more than 40 variations of the F-word.
The excess of expletives prompted an interesting discussion in class. Did American frontier folks really swear like, say, the Sopranos?
“The series’ creator, David Milch, argues that yes they did—that it was a form of entertainment in an otherwise impoverished environment,” says Chown, a documentary filmmaker and NIU Board of Trustees Professor Emeritus of media studies. “Alas, no one could prove him wrong because there are no recordings, and official written sources would have been cleaned up.”
Nowadays, the mass media—from cable television and classic literature to pop music and the Internet—is saturating our senses with swears and vulgarities, particularly the F-word. But NIU scholars tend to doubt that modern Americans are personally more profane than their counterparts from generations past. And they say profanity does hold a purposeful place in our culture.
A seismic shift
What clearly has changed is the mass media.
Consider that in 1939, the Hollywood Production Code Commission slapped a $5,000 fine on the producer of “Gone With the Wind” for the swear word punctuating one of the 20th century’s most enduring lines of dialogue: ‘‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!’’
Other areas of the media are equally irreverent. Who could forget CeeLo Green’s light-hearted and contagious ditty of recent years with both title and refrain, “F*** You?”
And literature? Well, let’s just say we’re light years away from 1948, when “The Naked and the Dead” was published full of “fugs.” The publisher had famously persuaded author Norman Mailer to euphemize his original draft.
Had Mailer published the novel two decades later, his original draft might have been left intact. Google Book’s Ngram Viewer, which charts the frequencies of words or phrases in sources printed between 1800 and 2012, shows a marked upswing in the use of the F-word just prior to 1960 and continuing on an upward trend today.
‘An air of authenticity’
“I don’t use too much swearing,” she says, “mostly because I have been writing historical fiction lately, and I’m trying to imitate the sound of letters and documents that I read from the period I’m writing about.”
“Pay cable was freed from Federal Communications Commission (FCC) restrictions, so as part of its branding, foul language was used to gain an air of authenticity,” Chown says. “ ‘The Sopranos’ would be the case in point.”
Still, Chown doubts Americans swear much more than their forefathers.
“Maybe a little bit more,” he says. “I think young kids swear earlier because of their exposure to the Internet and cable. And I think women may swear more—but that may be a function of women’s liberation.”
Even if swearing is on the uptick, Chown wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. “I’m more worried over whether our culture thinks it’s OK to torture people for information or use drone strikes,” Chown says. “That’s far more important than whether we use the F-word.”
NIU political science professor Artemus Ward, who teaches courses on law, media and the U.S. Supreme Court, also isn’t convinced that Americans have become coarser in their use of language. But he’s quick to point out that laws regarding profanity and the mass media have changed substantially.
Ward says raunchy content—including sex, violence, drug use, nudity and what we would consider mild profanity today—was common during the early days of the movie industry. (Some silent films had mild swears on title cards.)
But in 1915, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that films were not protected under the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and press clauses. In 1930, the motion picture industry adopted the Hays Code to police itself.
It wasn’t long thereafter that the industry’s Production Code Administration began supervising every facet of a film and only issued its seal of approval if a picture was free of objectionable material.
In 1968, the code was revamped and ultimately scrapped in favor of a rating system that has remained in effect, with slight modification.
The floodgates opened.
Films from 1968 to the present have contained all of the things once banned. And many of those films find their way to cable TV and now the Internet. Meanwhile, broadcast radio and television, which use the “public airwaves,” remain subject to strict FCC regulation.
“The cable and satellite television industry, the post-code film industry and now the Internet are responsible for this perception that profanity has increased,” Ward says. “Those of us old enough to remember when cable first started and HBO, for example, was launched in the 1970s, remember hearing the F-word word on our televisions for the first time. It was one of the shocking things about cable, along with the nudity and everything else it wrought. The Internet is much the same.”
Losing its f-ing power
NIU English professor Joe Bonomo, an award-winning nonfiction author, isn’t quite sure what to make of the explosion of expletives.
“I’m of two minds,” he says. “On one hand, there’s nothing wrong with a gradual loosening of top-down, authoritative and puritanical control over human expression. But I think it can go too far. When profanity becomes too common in everyday conversation and common in art, its value slowly erodes.”
The F-bomb is a remarkably versatile word that can be used in numerous parts of speech (verb, adverb, adjective, noun), often is the lynchpin of creatively vulgar phrases and is frequently used in alliteration. For these and other reasons, Bonomo considers it “one of the greatest words in the English language.”
“The way it explodes from the mouth,” he says. “It’s got one foot in sex, another in invective.
“All I know is the F-bomb is one of the great curses,” he adds. “It’s a shame it has been drained of some of its power.”
Betty Birner wouldn’t disagree. Words that are considered taboo vary from culture to culture and language to language, according to the NIU English professor and expert in linguistics. Taboo words also change over time. So a curse that cuts like a knife in one generation may be dull-edged in another.
For the past 25 years, when teaching introductory courses in linguistics, Birner has devoted a class period to a lecture that includes discussion of the F-word.
“I use it in part because it gets students’ attention, and it sets the tone that language and linguistics is interesting,” she says. “They learn that even profanity can tell us really important things about the human mind and how we process language.”
However, Birner also believes the F-word is losing its edge.
“It doesn’t get the shock it used to—people aren’t appalled to hear the word,” she says. “I don’t know if its use has increased, but I think its power has decreased.”
Profanity with a purpose
And what’s the purpose of swearing, if not for shock value?
Well, NIU psychology professor Brad Sagarin, whose research interests include persuasion, can count the ways swearing can actually be useful. He says it intensifies language, grabs attention, amplifies strong emotions, conveys strong opinions and can significantly increase persuasiveness.
Cuss words can also satisfy psychological needs, such as the need to assert autonomy. That’s one reason children are thought to sometimes swear, Sagarin says.
Of course, swearing can have negative effects as well. In some situations, it is considered non-normative behavior and can lead to negative impressions.
“If I were giving a commencement speech and dropped an F-bomb, you can imagine that it would have quite a few negative repercussions,” Sagarin says. “But this illustrates an interesting point: Much of swearing is context sensitive. What is perfectly appropriate and acceptable in one situation would be an unforgivable breach of etiquette in another.”
And, not unlike Mark Twain, Sagarin believes there’s an appropriate time and place for a good swear.
“We have need to express strong emotion and autonomy. We do so, these days, with this set of words,” he says. “I’m sure in some contexts, swearing was just as prevalent in the past. The words might change, but the needs they satisfy stay the same.”