Press-Republican

FYI...

July 4, 2014

The Internet has changed how we curse

In using an expletive last week to tell a rally of hockey fans, "This is a big f_kin' 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 view of spoken English. Newspapers today still report swearing euphemistically, as in "n word," "f bomb," or "an eight-letter word for animal excrement."

Fortunately, YouTube now offers a more accurate picture. Are widely reported acts of swearing by public figures like Garcetti's typical? And are the rest of us any different — how frequently do regular people swear and what do we say?

In one study reported in the journal Science, less than one percent of the words used by participants (who were outfitted with voice recorders over a period of time) 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 f_ks and s_ts during that time. (Of course, there's variability — some people don't say any swear words and some say hundreds more). More recently, my research team reported in The American Journal of Psychology, that f_k and s_t appeared consistently in the vocabularies of children between 1 to 12 years of age.

Politicians get caught swearing all the time. In 2000, George W. Bush referred to a New York Times reporter as a "major league a_hole." In 2004, Vice President Dick Cheney told Vermont Senator Pat Leahy to go f_k himself on the floor of the U.S. Senate. In 2010, Vice President Joe Biden called the passage of President Obama's health care legislation "a big f_king deal." I put Mayor Garcetti's profane celebration of the Kings' Stanley Cup in the Biden category..

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