Generation F-Bomb: Profanity Goes Mainstream
Ohioans ranked #1
By: Kelly Powell
What the #$@%*is going on? It seems profanity has run rampant through the social thickets of our society. Swearing has become widespread in television, on the big screen, and has now become socially accepted within many workplaces. It is seemingly embedded in our music, and in our everyday social interactions. Children often learn a four-letter word before they learn the alphabet. Profanity has even become commonplace in political arenas. Indeed, profanity is part of the human condition, and it is everywhere.
Ohioans are ranked #1 according to a 2013 study conducted by ad firm Marchex. The study scanned more than 600,000 customer service phone calls of 30 different industries. The buckeye state won the prize for most profanity used, as well as being number one in lack of courtesy. Other states where people are most likely to curse were Maryland, New Jersey, Louisiana, and Illinois.
A national study conducted by the associated press revealed three-quarters of Americans said they encounter profanity in public frequently. The AP poll questioned 1,001 adults, and also concluded that 64 percent said they use the F-word regularly.
“Everyone uses swear words. It’s in our everyday conversations. It is overused, in my opinion. It’s like, How are you today? — F’ing great, thanks! This is now an accepted and normal response,” says University of Cincinnati College Graduate Student Kali Bales.
Everyone has a potty mouth. Social media is communication at an epic scale, yet people still continue to tweet profanity with regularity. Jack Grieve, a professor of forensic linguistics at Aston University in England, created what he calls “swearword maps” using nine billion words derived from tweets on Twitter. The results reflected which curse words were the most popular by regions of the country. Cincinnati, for example, loves to drop the f-bomb the most, as do many other populous urban areas of the Midwest. In Southern states, along the coast, “damn” is more common, whereas the “c-word” was popular in the New England states.
The current political arena has certainly had a roller-coaster year with all the vulgarities and swear words flying around. The shocking use of curse words now commonly uttered by public officials is setting the social norms. For example, in a speech from November 2015, when asked about reinstating the use of waterboarding and other torture methods to interrogate terror suspects, Donald Trump said, “Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would — in a heartbeat.”
Trump’s potty mouth struck again when he whispered an f-bomb into the microphone at a rally in New Hampshire during a stop on his campaign trail, according to a Newstex Trade & Industry Weblog post. This infraction was then repeatedly featured in Hillary Clinton political ads, and was re-televised over and over.
And, who could forget the airing of the secretly taped conversation between Trump and Billy Bush engaged in so-called “sexist rhetoric” that was purposely leaked just weeks before the national election? This was accepted by many people, deemed normal between two males, and dismissed as “locker room talk.”
On the international stage, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines recently called President Barack Obama “the son of a whore” if Obama questioned him about thousands of killings, many of them state-sanctioned. These are both strong examples of how profanity is not only acceptable these days, but is breeding in our global society.
Profanity has a colorful past. The use of profanity is not a new concept. Remarkably, some of these popular swear words have been around for more than a thousand years. Medieval literature expert Melissa Mohr traces humans’ use of naughty language back to Roman times in her book titled A Brief History of Swearing. In our current stage of evolution, Mohr says most children know at least one swear word by the age of two.
Historically, vulgarity has been quite evident in our literary works. Even the Bible includes passages that mention men who “eat their own dung, and drink their own piss.” (2 Kings 18:27 of the King James version) The works of Shakespeare are also full of profanities. The “bad words” that we all use today each have their own unique origin. For example, the word “crap” comes from the last name of the British man who invented the toilet, Thomas Crapper.
According to Michelle Slatalla, author of, “Help! My Baby Swears,” the average person actually swears quite a bit. About 0.7% of the words a person uses in a single day are swear words. This is the same rate in which we use first person pronouns like “we” or “us” by comparison. Swear words tend to be harsh-sounding words, with endings like ‘uck” or “itch,” and have a tendency to only be one syllable.
The turning point for acceptable swearing in popular culture was set in the late 1960’s as our social consciences shifted towards liberalisms and civil liberties. The mere right to do something was a demanded privilege.
Freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution. However, certain categories of speech that are not entitled to First Amendment protection include fighting words and threats.
Dodging F-Bombs. The use of swear words in the entertainment industry over the years has now become routine, even expected. This has fueled the progression of the “profane train,” and sculpted the mindset of many young consumers. This reality has certainly been reflected on the big screen where there has been a ten-fold increase in profanity between the 1940s and today. A pioneer of its time is the 1939 film, Gone with the Wind, included the controversial line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” This movie is often credited as the first to use profanity in a major American film.
However, some films prior to 1935 were also known to have used strong language. In 1971, the f-word was used for the first time in cinema, and still wins the prize of being the most popular profane word used in films. The very first f-bomb in television history was dropped by Charles Rocket in 1981 on “Saturday Night Live” during the final minutes of a show in reference to the “Who shot J.R.?” craze that swept the country at the time. Consequently, he was immediately fired from the show. In our modern landscape, a perfect example is the movie, The Wolfe of Wall Street, where the f-bomb and other profanities were dropped a whopping 798 times! That is equivalent to 3.16 swear words per minute. In the world of television, Fox broadcast network showed the greatest increase in use of profanity from 2005 to 2010 with an increase of 269%!
FCC. The Federal Communications Commission is an independent U.S. government agency that regulates national and global communications of radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable. In 1975, after widespread criticism of the increasing use of vulgarity in American television, the FCC set family hour to be between the hours of 8:00 and 9:00 pm, which restricted programming to only family-friendly shows in that timeslot. In 1976, family viewing hour was declared unconstitutional in the United States district court by Judge Warren Ferguson, and the policy was overturned. Networks then recaptured freedom over what content they would ultimately broadcast.
Profanity and Health. It is now understood that profane words are directly connected to our emotions, and can evoke physiological processes in the body. Profanity can be emotionally, physiologically, and socially powerful. Bad words are treated separately than other words, and encoded differently in the brain. Biologically speaking, profanity is driven by evolutionarily structures in the limbic system, deep in the brain. This system is responsible for emotional calls, shrieks, cries, and growls. This is something we share with primates and other mammals. People, then, may be using curse words by instinct, rather than critical thought.
Popular mythology commonly associates swearing with low intelligence and lower social status. However, a study by Kristin Jay of Marist College and Timothy Jay of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts published in the Journal of Language Sciences, dismisses this theory. The results of this study found that people who could spew the most swear words in one minute scored higher on IQ tests.
A Keele University study of profanity by researchers Stephens, Atkins, and Kingston, showed that swearing actually helps alleviate the effects of pain. Researchers hypothesize that the brain circuitry involved is linked to emotion. Stephens states, “I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear.” The Keele University team won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 for their research.
The power of bad words. Profanity is unmatched its ability to incite violence or provoke rage within our social structures. It has seemingly has infiltrated our culture, and created this crazy circus of vulgarity now viewed as normal. The use of profanity is obviously not a new concept, as its origins can be traced back thousands of years. However, the mainstreaming of profanity, as currently embodied through our public forums and leaders, evokes another 4-letter word: —STOP!