The increasing presence of profanity is fouling our language, some say


KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The football stadium is packed. The home team heads toward a score and then a referee's bad call stops the momentum. Some fans respond in unison with an obscenity.

A mother drags her two young children through a grocery store. One keeps lagging behind, picking items from shelves. Finally, the mother yells at the child. Her coarse vocabulary echoes down the aisle.

There's a widespread feeling in America that our language is, to put it politely, going to heck.

Nowadays, profanity and vulgarity slip out during normal discourse. Bad words aren't just the domain of athletes, soldiers or laborers. The cultured and the uncouth toss off salty vernacular in everyday places.

We're demeaning the language, in the eyes of the linguists and cultural observers.

"It represents a lowering of standards," says David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values in New York. "It's most evident in the decline of etiquette. It makes our common life together less civilized."

Harold Washington, who teaches at the Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, agrees: "Language like that is disrespectful to people. We become colder when we eliminate courtesy and deference."

And then there is the effect on children, who copy profanity partly for the shock value. Linguists say that by substituting swear words for more precise or tactful language, children lose the capacity to talk more eloquently -- along with being rude.

"Our feeling is, 'If I can't find the right word, I can hide my lack of precision with profanity,' " says Ray Browne, director of the Popular Culture Center at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. "That's what children are learning about language."

The quest for acceptable language is getting greater attention lately.

Former Vice President Dan Quayle stoked the issue when he accused Hollywood of being too reliant on dirty words, among other unpleasantries. Hollywood answered that their productions merely reflected the way Americans talked.

There lies the quandary of profanity in today's society. Does the tide of dirty words in movies, on television and radio encourage such language among the general public? Or do the media reflect language people already are using?

Cursing is not a subject that's easily quantified. But Timothy Jay, a psychology professor in Massachusetts, chronicles one attempt in a recent book, "Cursing in America."

Mr. Jay determines the rate of dirty-word use to be about 1 percent of all words spoken.

While that might not seem like much, Mr. Jay says that if a typical conversation flows at a rate of one word per second and if an exchange lasts five minutes, then ordinary participants are likely to utter three swear words.

"One of the things that makes it more obscene is that it's occurring in places where you're not used to hearing it," says James Hartman, an English professor at the University of Kansas.

A generation ago, some contend, profanity just wasn't heard as much in soda shops, schools or offices. Hollywood movies didn't include much cursing either.

This led to soldiers calling each other "thickheaded clunk" in the World War II film "Wake Island."

But the 1960s loosened standards. By decade's end, profanity began appearing in unabridged dictionaries. On film, "Rocky" (1976) used 36 swear words and, in a more recent leap, "GoodFellas" (1990) used the same swear word 246 times in 146 minutes, Mr. Jay reports.

"Does it reflect speech patterns of the day?" asks Mel Shavelson, a longtime award-winning screenwriter for movies and television. "I think it's probably a lot closer to it than the old days. It used to be if you walked into a room, you could tell if it was people or television that was talking. Now you don't."

Bad language follows the ebb and flow of cultural change, according to academics. Some say we're passing through a period of tolerance, what with looser sexual subject matters, increased violence and less parental control.

"Everything today is without limitations -- political, cultural, sexual," Mr. Browne contends. "There're no restrictions, and shame is no longer in our vocabulary."

Some suggest the swearing pendulum has reached its apex.

"This might not go on perpetually," says KU's Mr. Hartman. "I'm detecting early signs of people checking themselves, being more careful, feeling it's gone too far."

Deborah Boman sees that too, from the vantage point of a cultural philosopher: behind a bar.

"I eavesdrop on people all the time. It's definitely more prevalent than when I started 20 years ago," Ms. Boman says.

But today, she muses, "I think there's a backlash against it. Now, if someone says, 'Bleep you,' there are five people who turn around and say, 'Watch your mouth.' It's not cool so much anymore."

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