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June 24, 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..

What happens when the viewer at home encounters these expletive-laced speeches on their TVs or the Internet? Some viewers take it personally, calling these guys degraders of morals and classless because they're only thinking of the historically sexual meaning of the word f_. Garcetti, though (along with Bono at the Golden Globes), used f__ as an intensifier, not as a sexual obscenity. Most swear words are used connotatively (to convey emotion), not for their literal meaning.

The Federal Communications Commission waffles back and forth about what to do about Garcetti- and Trudeau-type "fleeting expletives." Fox Sports apologized for Garcetti's "inappropriate" speech, but it's not clear if Fox will be fined by the FCC. The FCC ruled less liberally during the Bush years when conservatives had more sway. 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 swearing 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.

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