By HELEN POGGI
It only takes one stroll down a high school hallway to see—or, more accurately, hear—that swear words have become a large part of many teenagers’ lexicons.
Although this vulgarity is not totally pervasive, it is widespread enough to indicate that profanity is not as taboo as it once was, especially with the younger generations. This situation begs the question: have swear words lost their shock value?
The simple answer is yes. The more complicated answer is that swearing has become so commonplace that it has become normalized for most people. The linguistic phenomena can be attributed to rising individualism among America’s population and widespread online profanity.
But before one can understand why swearing is losing its shock value, one must understand why people swear in the first place. For many, swearing serves as a form of catharsis. When feeling anger, sadness or anxiety, cursing can help alleviate these emotions. According to psychologist Timothy Jay of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, swearing “allows us to vent or express” this negativity, much like the horn of a car. Furthermore, profanity can spark confidence or rebelliousness, which, according to psychologist Neel Burton, can lower anxiety and make one feel more in control.
This last benefit can begin to explain the normalization of profanity. The aforementioned rebellious spirit is a key part of the rise in American individualism. This phenomenon was studied by San Diego State University psychologist, Jean Twenge, and she concluded that “Millennials have a ‘come as you are’ philosophy.” This mentality breeds a disregard for social taboos, thus they often do not mind swearing as much as previous generations.
However, not only do people care increasingly less about swearing, but they also have become desensitized to it through frequent exposure. People primarily encounter obscenities on social media and the internet. For instance, Twitter’s guidelines allow for swearing under most circumstances. The exposure to profanity from regularly reading these tweets has made people more comfortable with swearing over time. A similar pattern occurs on YouTube, where many content creators either swear openly in their videos or censor their language by merely bleeping it. Thus, since the inception of these various social media platforms, users have had to develop a thicker skin when it comes to profanity simply due to how often they stumble across it online.
Similarly, books have experienced a rise in the prevalence of uncensored curses. A study by respected psychologists Jean Twenge, Hannah Van Landingham and W. Keith Campbell demonstrated, through examining the trends in the use of seven different swears, that books published in 2005-2008 are 28 times more likely to include swear words than books published in the early 1950s.
Television, on the other hand, has been one of the last bastions of censored profanity. The Federal Communications Commission imposes restrictions on obscene, indecent and profane language, and fines broadcasters if their regulations are not followed. However, this is an outlier in media, as the FCC cannot regulate other platforms as much as television.
Overall, the decline in the shock value of swear words does not necessarily have devastating implications. In reality, all words and phrases are merely just the combined movements of the vocal cords and mouth; any meaning they may carry has been given to them by people. Therefore, if the majority of the population adapts an interpretation of a certain swear word with a less harsh connotation, the word will lose what it once meant and will be accepted with the new meaning. Put simply, the issue with cursing is largely just all in our heads, and consequently—much to the dismay of the older demographic—the English language will only continue to adapt to match our more colorful vocabularies.