Randall Eggert is an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Utah and the author of “This Book is Taboo: An Introduction to Linguistics through Swearing.”
This past week, President Obama sat down with comedian Marc Maron for an hour-long interview on fatherhood, his legacy, basketball, health care and how being president is like being a comedian. Yet the headlines that followed focused on one line of their discussion in the 47th minute, when Obama told Maron that race relations are “not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public.”
“Obama uses N-word,” CNN blared in a typical alert. (Strictly speaking, Obama mentioned the word. He didn’t use it.) When a word is highly taboo, society demands that we avoid uttering it, even when we need to discuss it. And because Obama spoke the word on a podcast called “WTF With Marc Maron,” the double dose of vulgarity sent some into a panic. “I think many people are wondering if it’s only there that he would say it,” said “Fox & Friends” host Elisabeth Hasselbeck, “and not, perhaps, in a State of the Union or more public address.”
Hasselbeck’s concern, while hyperbolic, isn’t an unusual reaction to the perceived proliferation of obscenities. It’s easy to think our culture is coarsening. On social media and in online comment sections, vulgar interjections seem to be used as casually as verbs. Headlines claim that children are swearing more today than ever before, and we’re fascinated by videos of foul-mouthed kids on YouTube, where a search for “child swearing” returns nearly 50,000 results. Even the New York Times liberalized its standards in 2013 to allow for more uses of obscene and offensive terms in its pages.
In response, many of us have been wringing our hands. When the Toronto Star considered eliminating the dashes from taboo words in print, readers called on the newspaper to hold the line against the “daily assault” on proper speech. “While they understand profanity is increasingly part of common parlance,” public editor Kathy English wrote, “they still don’t want to see it spelled out in the pages of the Toronto Star.” (At The Washington Post, it is still unusual to print most of the delicate words in this story.)
But this consternation over mores is misguided. Yes, the four-letter words we once considered the worst of the worst have become more acceptable. But as we’ve relaxed our most puritanical attitudes toward sex and faith — and the taboo terms that stem from them — other prohibited words have risen to replace them. Racial and sexual slurs such as “faggot,” once common, are now more forbidden than ever. The president’s utterance notwithstanding, the n-word remains highly offensive, even an incitement to violence, in settings where we can drop an f-bomb indiscriminately. We haven’t normalized swearing; we’ve just changed our values.
I’ve seen this dynamic in my classroom. In my linguistics-of-swearing course nine years ago, as we discussed thresholds (the self-imposed limits on which taboo words we’ll use and which we won’t), I argued that, if we scratch deep enough, almost everyone has words they won’t use. A student in the back row raised his hand from deep within a slouch. “I’ll say anything to anybody. There aren’t any words I won’t use.” He shrugged. “That’s just the kind of guy I am.” I was about to move to the next raised hand when he continued: “Except racist words. I don’t say things like that. And I don’t use ‘faggot’ because my best friend from high school is gay.” The student in the next seat turned to him with a smirk. “Sounds like there’s lots of words you won’t use.”
It’s true that we use some salty words much more liberally than previous generations did — in some cases, more frequently than just a decade ago. “F---” and “s---,” for instance, are having a heyday in entertainment media and our everyday language. As with music, each generation’s language seeks to shock and challenge its parents’ standards of civility.
But as the old limits are pushed, new ones are set. For instance, the 17th-century poetry of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester shames modern slam poets in its sexual terminology: He rhapsodizes about “the savory scent of salt-swoln c--t” in “A Ramble in St. James’s Park.” It’s certainly an obscene, even offensive, way to refer to female anatomy today. But in Rochester’s time, obscenity (sex-related taboo words) was less forbidden than profanity (religion-related taboo words). The offensive words of the era — damn, God’s wounds and devilish — seem mundane now because religion isn’t as sacrosanct as it once was. Not until the Victorian era did obscenity become more taboo than profanity. Suddenly, Americans avoided saying “leg,” and the British referred to breasts as “the upper stomach.” Their prudishness led the youth in the 20th century to swear often, making words like “suck,” “tits” and the f-bomb the height of offense.
Today, our linguistic sensitivities have transitioned from obscenity to slurs — words deemed racist, sexist or homophobic. That change began with the social movements of the 1960s, when fighting prejudice against racial and sexual minorities became a defining issue of our time. As tolerance for such bigotry has evaporated, so has tolerance for the bigots’ language.
The new rules were set and enforced through various official and unofficial channels. The second edition of Webster’s New World College Dictionary, published in 1970, omitted certain racial and ethnic slurs because, according to its editor in chief, David Guralnik, they were the “true obscenities.” Leaders of the Black Power movement called “Negro” a term of white oppression, a convention that gradually spread into the mainstream. Public shaming of politicians, athletes and other high-profile figures who use or mention epithets plays an increasingly important role in driving social conventions. Sen. Harry Reid faced calls for his resignation in 2010 when a book revealed that, during the 2008 presidential race, he said that Barack Obama had “no Negro dialect.”
The rapid decline in society’s tolerance for slurs is evident in a 1977 survey by researcher Timothy Jay. That year, subjects called “f---” far more taboo than “n-----” or “c--t.” Today, the order is clearly reversed. Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks the prevalence of a word over time by how frequently it appears in printed texts, displays a surge in the four-letter words since 1960, surpassing the racial epithet in the 1970s.
For the past several semesters, I have asked my students to rank a series of words by how taboo society perceives them to be. Of the 12 terms that have appeared on every survey, the n-word and the c-word have consistently ranked most taboo, followed by other sexual obscenities. These results are roughly in line with those of other recent studies, including a 2007 study of American students that also included “chink” among the greatest outrages. In a large-scale 2000 study in Britain, the n-word showed the greatest increase in severity among all taboo words listed, moving from the 11th position in 1998 to fifth in 2000.
While social values have driven the evolution of swearing, the Internet certainly has had an effect on how quickly the change occurs. Communicating with perceived anonymity, we feel license to use language online before we’d feel comfortable using it face to face. To demonstrate this effect, a colleague, Nate Vooge, recently timed how long he needed to pause before playing a card in an online hearts game to elicit a slur. In less than five seconds, one of his opponents called him a “f---tard.”
For now, intolerance — or at least appearing intolerant — remains the highest threshold for swearing. But as routinely happens, younger generations will exploit these language taboos to offend their elders. We see this already with “n-----”, in the way young African Americans, and now even some young white Americans, have claimed it to mean “buddy” or a general reference to another person. A word that has caused people to lose their jobs (it all but ended the career of “Seinfeld” star Michael Richards less than a decade ago) is now ubiquitous on Vine and other havens for the under-25 set.
I hate that as much as any adult. But, as Obama suggested in his “WTF” interview, avoiding the word doesn’t automatically make our society more tolerant. Conversely, using the n-word doesn’t mean the younger generation is more crude. History tells us that their future children will find ways to use language to offend them as well. And they, too, will insist that we are seeing the decline of society.