Obscenities: What’s the Point?

My nine-year-old great-niece, Amanda, was taught not to use swear words. There is socially acceptable language and then there are “bad words.” She told her grandmother that her four-year-old brother had watched a movie with bad words in it. When asked what the words were, Amanda said they were “S” words. Her grandmother asked what the “S” words were. To her surprise, Amanda said the movie had words like stupid and shut up in it. Her grandmother could think of a number of worse “S” words. Children are taught the difference between respectful language and words that can hurt. Young children haven’t mastered the concept of empathy or socially acceptable words.

What about adults that freely use obscenities? Some people believe that swearing is a sign of a limited vocabulary, a result of a lack of education, laziness or impulsiveness. This theory would believe that when people struggle to find the right words, they fill in the gaps with swear words. Research has demonstrated that this is not the case. Instead, people fill the gaps with “ers” and “ums,” not swear words. Interestingly, researchers found that fluency with taboo words might be a sign of overall verbal fluency or intelligence. They may be more sophisticated in the linguistic resources they can draw from to make their point.

There is a field of research that studies the reasons why we swear. There are distinctions between taboo words that express heightened emotional states (e.g., f*ck), person-directed words (e.g., f*cker) and slurs (e.g., sl*t). Verbally fluent people have the ability to use these words fluently, but they may choose not to. They may have a wider vocabulary to draw from and will express themselves in a socially acceptable way.

Timothy Jay, a professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts says we use taboo words at a rate of one taboo word per 200 words. This rate differs among age groups. Swearing peaks in adolescence; men swear more often and more offensively; and swearing differs from one individual to the next.

Profanity in some settings is considered inappropriate and unacceptable. It’s usually related to anger, frustration or surprise. But it can also be associated with honesty, being used to express unfiltered feelings and sincerity. Some people appreciate those who “tell it like it is” rather than filter their language to be more acceptable.

I have been known to use cuss words. And although I’m comfortable with taboo words, I am aware that words can hurt. Freedom of speech is a founding principle of a democratic society, but there is also “unprotected speech” where it can be restricted. Slander, libel, and “fighting words” are examples of unprotected speech that are deemed harmful to others.

I’m an advocate for respectful language. I want Amanda, and others, to choose their words carefully in a respectful and socially acceptable manner.


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