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Americans in the '90s: Proudly profane no matter who can hear


Kathleen Kelly was in an ice cream parlor the other day with her daughter when some boys breezed in on a blue streak. "Everything was f-this and f-that," said Ms. Kelly. "I'm no prude, but I finally turned to them and said, 'Gentlemen, please!' They looked at me as if I had nine heads."

Four-letter words are flying everywhere these days -- on the street and at the mall and in the hall at school, in rock and rap music, on television and in the movies, in fancy bars and subway cars.

"Dirty words used to come in a plain brown wrapper, you know, in private, and now everywhere you go you're assaulted by them," said Ms. Kelly, a Long Island, N.Y., elementary school principal.

Profanity used to be polite society's dirty little secret. Adults did it behind closed doors. Kids did it when the grown-ups were gone. Nobody did it in front of Aunt Alice. But now, Americans young and old seem proud to be profane, any time, anywhere. And as the words fly around in the fast lane, feelings, like fenders, are getting all bent out of shape.

"I think profanity offends a lot of people," Ms. Kelly said, "but we have become so used to hearing it we don't object. It's become socially acceptable, so the kids pick it up. I have to confess I'm not that offended when I hear it on television or in a movie, but I am offended when I hear it in the hallways at school."

A generation ago, the nation went nuts over George Carlin's comedy routine about the Seven Dirty Words -- hereafter referred to as the Salty Seven. New York radio station WBAI-FM broadcast Mr. Carlin's bit, and a man riding in his car with his son heard it and complained to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In 1978, the Supreme Court agreed, allowing the FCC to ban certain words from the airwaves. The case defined broadcast indecency, but the dirty words didn't even appear in the opinion.

The Salty Seven refer to body parts, body products or sexual acts, and they're not all four-letter words. A couple have fewer than four and two are hyphenated words that contain 10 and 12 letters.

The Salty Seven pepper our culture. They're in the dictionary now. They're on T-shirts and TV sitcoms, in PG-rated movies and on bumper stickers. They're baked on cakes and stuffed inside X-rated fortune cookies.

How did our language become a demolition derby? Are old-fashioned notions of civilized speech dead? Are kids being corrupted? In a democracy, should we have Word Police? Should we march against profanity or laugh at it, ignore it or ban it?

Timothy Jay, a 43-year-old psychology professor at North Adams State College in Massachusetts, and author of a new book, "Cursing in America," has studied how and why Americans swear for more than 20 years. He traces the nation's growing use of public profanity to the "in your face" counterculture of the 1960s.

Mr. Jay sees swearing as a kind of power grab at a time when more and more people are doubting the American Dream. "People who feel powerless or discriminated against use these words to empower themselves, to intimidate," he said. "Women, for instance, are swearing more now, especially in the workplace."

Are the '90s the Filth Decade?

"It would be hard to prove that we are swearing more now than they did in Chaucer's time," Mr. Jay said. "Our lives are more intricate than ever. We're hassled more, and these words have value. They allow us to relieve frustration and stress and express rage without becoming physically violent."

Others see greater danger in dirty words. Betty Wein of the watchdog group Morality in Media in New York believes the Salty Seven are symbols of moral decay. She blames the media for a lot of it.

"The media always uses the excuse that they're reflecting reality," Ms. Wein said. "I don't believe it. They're creating it now. The use of four-letter words is so incredibly gratuitous. It used to be that you had to go out of your way to find filth. Now you have to go out of your way to avoid it."

Mr. Carlin's current tally of taboo words and phrases is 2,443, and he's listed them in a book. "Alphabetized," he said. "Within categories."

Both he and Mr. Jay believe profanity is the price we pay for living in a free society.

"A word is different from violent behavior," Mr. Jay said. "A word is different from racism or sexism or cigarette smoke. We don't have the right to slander and libel people or to cause a riot with the words we say, but outside of that we're pretty much free to use any words we want to. I'm not sure we want it any other way. I mean, where do we draw the line? So let's not draw it.

"And besides," he said, "when I'm mad, 'Oh, poo' won't do."

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