It’s hard to escape news about the bombing economy these days. It's also getting harder to escape another type of explosion — the verbal kind.
“I’ve been dropping the F-bomb every time I look at the Dow or my 401(k) statement,” says April Thomas, a 35-year-old freelance writer from Watkinsville, Ga. “You open the statement and see that number in black and white and the reality hits and you say a few choice words.”
Michele Mehl, a 35-year-old PR executive from Bothell, Wash., says she, too, has noticed a changed in her cussing habits.
“I don’t know if I’m cussing more, but I’m cussing about things I wouldn’t cuss about before,” she says. “Before, I’d cuss at a driver or someone being rude on the highway. Now I’m cussing at my 401(k) statements. Maybe it’s a transition from road rage to market rage.”
“There are a lot of elements that are out of our control right now and as a result, there’s a lot more frustration, a lot more fear and anxiety,” she says. “When people feel that, many cuss. Swearing is something that gives us an instantaneous release.”
A popular pastime
The economy may be making it worse, but cursing has been increasingly infiltrating public conversation for years, with the rates of vulgar ranting rising right along with our stress levels. Expletives are so commonplace, there's almost no cuss-free zone anymore. President Barack Obama’s chief of state, Rahm Emanuel, is notorious for his foul-mouthed tirades. Recent outbursts by celebrities and public figures such as Christian Bale, Rod Blagojevich and Joe Scarborough are just a few other recent examples.
A 2006 survey conducted by Associated Press/Ipsos found that 74 percent of Americans acknowledged they encountered profanity in public frequently or occasionally and 66 percent agreed that, as a rule, people curse more today than 20 years ago.
While not everyone swears, field studies indicate that those who do utter 80 to 90 taboo words per day, out of an average of 15,000 to 16,000 words we speak daily.
While swearing has many uses, two-thirds of swearing is linked to anger and frustration, says Timothy Jay, professor of psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, and author of a just-released survey of the “Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words.”
During tough times, that number can go up.
“Different personalities react differently to stress,” says Jay. “But stress is certainly linked to swearing. Swearing results in a form of catharsis. People feel better when they swear. I was just back in Dayton, Ohio, where they’ve closed a lot of General Motors plants and if you went into a bar, you could hear the frustration.”
Of course, we’re not just venting verbally. Vulgar spewing is so widespread on the Web that a 2008 study on Internet swearing showed a .2 percent swear-word rate on MySpace. A 2006 study reported that 3 percent of chat room conversations contained obscene words, amounting to one obscenity every two minutes.
Cursebird, a Web application that tracks the use of expletives on the social networking site Twitter, offers an even clearer picture of the upward trend in cursing. Developer Richard Henry, who began storing “tweets” in early November of last year, said that by February he’d recorded over 2 million instances of swearing on the site.
Release or red flag?
Yes, we’re a nation of potty mouths. But in stressful times, does our penchant for profanity actually help us or does it make us feel worse?
“Healthy ways to cope with stress are to work out, play the piano, knit or cook or go to church,” says Irwin. “But if you call me up and give me bad news right now, I can’t run out and play the piano or start knitting or go to church. What I can do is hang up and say the F-word. In the moment, it’s a very viable choice to release pressure very quickly so the lid doesn’t blow off.”
Not everybody appreciates being around all that steam.
“I’ve been swearing a lot more in the past year and sometimes I’ll be on my computer at work and get frustrated and let loose with some choice words without even realizing it,” says Renate Raymond, a 37-year-old nonprofit administrator from Seattle. “The other day, one of my volunteers came up and asked if I could tone it down. She said the swearing really bothered her.”
Obviously, swearing bothers many people, including Pasadena teenager McKay Hatch, who persuaded the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to declare LA County a “no-cussing zone” the first week of March. Hatch says he hopes to get the entire state to put the kibosh on cussing for a week next year.
Other communities have tried to tone down toilet talk as well, including St. Charles, Mo., which proposed a swearing ban in bars in early 2008. Swearing bans have also been imposed outside the U.S., most famously in London, where a couple forbid swearing in the pub they managed and were subsequently fired due to a drop in business.
But to Jay, attempting to curb a habit that exists in all cultures and crosses all socioeconomic classes, a habit that’s been with humans since the beginning of recorded history, may just be playing with evolutionary fire.
“People usually look at the bad uses of swear words rather than why we’ve evolved to use them,” he says. “Cursing exists because … it’s how [we] express anger symbolically. It’s much better to swear than to physically hit someone or hurt them in any way. Those people who lost their job at GM need to go to a bar and have a drink and swear. They need to be able to vent their anger.”
Swearing does have its downside, however.
“Obviously there’s a wrong time and wrong place for swearing,” says psychotherapist Irwin. “You don’t want to swear in court or around children or on TV. You don’t want to swear at a business meeting or when you’re asking for a raise or when the police pull you over for a ticket. And you never want to be verbally abusive.”
Outside of that, though, Irwin says she’s a big fan of swearing as a way to defuse anger — unless cussing is all a person does.
“If you can’t get through one paragraph without swearing, then you need to get a dictionary and starting expanding your vocabulary,” she says. “It might also be a red flag that you have some anger issues that you need to get a grip on.”
While we can all cite instances that inspire foul language — a flubbed golf swing, a flat tire, the latest flap regarding corporate excesses at the taxpayer’s expense — it’s more difficult to put our finger on what, exactly, makes certain words so damned appealing.
Dan Gersten, 62, a marketing research consultant from Los Angeles, says the occasional short sharp exclamation simply feels satisfying to him.
“It’s a burst,” he says. “It’s quick and it’s over and it’s a great release. It’s like popping a bottle of soda that’s shaken up too hard. Everything needs a release.”
Jay, the swearing expert, says that while there’s no evidence supporting the notion that certain sounds are universally satisfying, short sharp words are officially known as expletives and are used in a stimulus-response kind of way.
“A lot of people don’t have control over those,” he says. “And you don’t even have to use swear words. Mormons use euphemisms like ‘Cripe!’ and ‘Darn!’ and ‘Shoot!’ But the emotion is still there.”
Break the taboo, release the energy
Expletives, as it turns out, are just one of many classifications of swear words. Other categories include sexual and scatological terms, animal names, ancestral allusions, ethnic slurs and blasphemous expressions.
“Swear words are almost always about sex or religion in every language,” says Jay. “It depends on what the [cultural] taboos are.”
In countries where religion is more powerful, phrases such as “Sacred mother” or “Holy mother’s milk” are typical. In Asian cultures, there are more ancestral allusions.
“For the normal person, swear words have an arousal level that other words don’t have,” says Jay. “That’s based on the fact that they’re forbidden and we’ve been punished for saying them. To break the taboo is to release the energy.”
Of course, considering how ubiquitous swearing has become, there are those who are starting to wonder if it’s more taboo not to swear.
David Bliley, a 42-year-old video producer/editor from Denver, says he gets far more attention with goofy euphemisms than he does with the same old four-letter friends.
“On my softball team a few years ago, I let out a guttural ‘Rats!’ as I was being thrown out and the first baseman nearly fell over laughing,” he says. “Now I find it funnier to use ‘cute’ curse words like ‘Darn!’ and ‘Drat!’ and ‘Dagnabbit!’ It still means the same to me, but I get much better reactions.”
Diane Mapes is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "How to Date in a Post-Dating World."