It’s January 19, 2003. The 6oth Golden Globe Awards are underway, and U2 has just won Best Original Song for “The Hands That Built America,” featured in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. On stage, trophy in hand, Bono says, “This is really, really, fucking brilliant, and, ah, really, really, great.”
While some of those in attendance clap and cheer at the front man’s impromptu expletive, members of the Parents Television Council and other conservative advocacy groups presumably do not. They complain. This incident and others like it—such as when Cher and Nicole Richie swore during live tapings of the Billboard Music Awards in 2002 and 2003, respectively—prompt the Federal Communications Commission to adopt an aggressive policy. The agency begins handing out penalties, which lead to multiple court battles debating, among other things, which words are too offensive for broadcast and which are not.
Today, the FCC defines profanity as “language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.” While it’s not the clearest of explanations—how does one measure “nuisance”?—the agency’s mandate to protect people from certain words received a boost in 1978, when, in response to a radio station’s afternoon airing of comedian George Carlin’s profanity-laced monologue “Filthy Words,” the Supreme Court granted the FCC authority to regulate content broadcast between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. Despite advances in communication—smartphones, social media, cable TV—and an acknowledgment from the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that the modern media landscape is “almost unrecognizable” to what existed in the 1970s, the Carlin case continues to shape how we distinguish between clean and dirty language.
“There’s always going to be a need for language that transgresses or subverts polite discourse. If some words happen to get devulgarized, then other ones will come along.”
For those who don’t appreciate any of this big government monitoring, First Amendment interfering, or questionable use of both resources and time, here’s a potential solution: Let’s put an end to swearing.
NOW, I DON’T MEAN “nobody ever cuss again,” but let’s collectively decide as a mature society to do away with the concept of vulgar words altogether. “Fuck,” “shit,” “piss,” and whatever else—these sounds we make with our mouth only have the power to insult because we give them this power, so let’s stop doing that. Let’s stop reinforcing their outlaw status by bleeping them on the television and censoring them on the radio. Let’s agree they’re nothing to worry about, and then maybe, in a generation or two, they won’t be.
As sensible as this might seem, would it work?
Randall Eggert, a linguistics professor at the University of Utah who teaches a course titled “Bad Words & Taboo Terms,” doesn’t think so. “Language doesn’t evolve to include things that don’t serve a purpose,” Eggert says. “Swearing seems to serve a primal purpose, and I don’t see that going away.”
One of these purposes, Eggert suggests, is an emotional outlet. According to research published in the Journal of Pain, people who don’t typically swear can hold their hands in freezing water for a longer duration when shouting a stream of expletives as opposed to neutral words, and they tend to last longer than individuals who swear regularly throughout the day. When used in moderation, it seems, profanity can induce short-term, adrenalin-fueled pain relief due to its effect on a deeper part of the brain associated with emotion. Harvard cognitive neuroscientist Steven Pinker has also argued along similar lines.
Other research conducted by Timothy Jay, a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and the author of the book Why We Curse: A Neuro-Psycho-Social Theory of Speech, highlights the social utility of swearing. Taboo words, one of his studies suggests, communicate anger and frustration much more quickly and effectively than non-taboo words, allowing the speaker to achieve her goals with maximum efficiency.
THE PARTICULAR WORDS THAT trigger these advantageous responses appear to be highly dependent on historical context. “Damn” and “hell,” for example, are not as taboo today as they were in previous centuries, when superstitious beliefs were more prominent. Can anyone imagine a film produced in 2014 receiving a fine for including the word “damn,” like Gone With The Wind did upon its release in 1939? Not a chance.
Our very terms for denoting taboo words—to “curse,” to “swear” upon something, to speak in the “profane” instead of the sacred—are intertwined with a religious worldview.
“It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that we started saying ‘shit’ when we were upset or in pain,” Eggert says. “To me, what’s going on there is that people started separating the word from its denotation, and it becomes just pure emotion, which is where ‘fuck’ is largely today.”
Since society hasn’t crumbled after experiencing the likes of Gordon Ramsey, rap music, and the Wolf of Wall Street, it appears people are getting comfortable with foul language. While one study found that nearly 50 percent of 30,000 Facebook users have profanity on their walls, another study from the Parents Television Council found that instances of profanity used during primetime network programming increased approximately 70 percent between 2005 and 2010.
These days, it appears racial slurs and derogatory terms aimed at specific groups—blacks, homosexuals, the intellectually disabled—are the height of vulgarity. Even the NFL is currently considering imposing a 15-yard penalty when a player uses the N-word on the field.
“If you draw a circle around acceptable language and that circle just gets bigger and bigger, there still has to be something outside of the circle,” says Ben Zimmer, the executive producer of vocabulary.com and a language columnist at the Wall Street Journal. “There’s always going to be a need for language that transgresses or subverts polite discourse. If some words happen to get devulgarized, then other ones will come along.”
Swearing, then, is a necessary dimension of how we exchange thoughts and feelings. As irrational as it may be to have a society-supported divide between good words and bad words, it makes sense emotionally. Will we ever see an end to swearing? Not unless we see an end to all human communication.