By Elizabeth Lehman
Whether it was Sen. Bernie Sanders talking about Hillary Clinton’s damn emails or President-elect Donald Trump vowing to “bomb the shit out of ISIS,” this presidential campaign seemed to include more vulgarity than usual.
In the past, this language was reserved for locker rooms, R-rated movies or maybe the Howard Stern radio show. But as evidenced by this election cycle, swear words seem to be increasingly acceptable in contemporary American society.
Cynthia Vigliotti, assistant professor in the English department, said she thinks the younger generation is taking some of the power out of swear words by frequent use.
“It seems to be used so frequently, or at least what I’m able to hear in my classrooms and my students talking in halls,” Vigliotti said. “It seems like swearing is much more acceptable, and it isn’t the shocker that it once was.”
Vigliotti said that for her generation, hearing someone peppering their speech with frequent four-letter words was a reason to take pause, but not so much now for the younger generation.
“It just doesn’t feel like it has that same sort of power that it once had, so maybe they’re kind of taking some of that power away simply by using it and not really caring so much about it,” Vigliotti said.
Swearing is about expressing ideas which are taboo. Steven Brown, retired YSU English professor, says there are four aspects of swear words — profanity or blasphemy, bodily functions, bodily functions related to sex and slurs.
“What all these have in common is taboo,” Brown said. “The sacred should not be profaned. We cordon off bathrooms and bedrooms, because we think the acts which take place there should be mysterious … So swearing is a lot about what makes us nervous.”
Vigliotti said that when a word becomes considered obscene, it has to have some relationship to that function of providing us with a way of talking about taboo subjects.
“Now, race, ethnicity, religion, all of those, if you start thinking about derogatory terms for other people and their beliefs, always, there’s a lot of obscenities included in those,” Vigliotti said. “Because it’s not something that we want to express very openly, so we find ways of shrouding all that in language with obscene words.”
So, does use of profane words indicate a lack of proper vocabulary or lower intelligence? A language study published in November of 2015 said that is not necessarily the case. Called the poverty-of-vocabulary assumption (or POV), this argument is centered on verbal fluency.
The study said, “When it comes to taboo language, it is a common assumption that people who swear frequently are lazy, do not have an adequate vocabulary, or simply cannot control themselves.”
However, the study said that the POV view is inconsistent with language research in a few ways and that the theory of inadequate vocabulary does not make sense.
“Speech production research, however, shows that when speakers get stuck, they hesitate, repair mistakes or utter such expressions as ‘er’ or ‘um’ but do not simply spit out taboo words,” the study said. “Second, recording studies have demonstrated taboo word use is relatively common among college students, and this population has higher-than-average verbal abilities.”
So, if swearing is not caused by a lack of better words to say, what is the appeal of swearing? Vigliotti said it actually makes us feel a bit better.
“Studies have been done to show it reduces the level of cortisol, which is the stress hormone. It does really good things to kind of lower our blood pressure,” Vigliotti said. “It helps you get something out, so in that exclamatory sense or in that emphatic sense, I think it’s a good thing.”
As time goes on, will swearing continue to become more socially acceptable? Vigliotti thinks, as a culture, we are becoming desensitized to language much like violence.
“Think about the way violence is handled by our culture, right? I mean violence is not shocking to us anymore. The more we are exposed to it the less of an impact it makes on us,” Vigliotti said. “And I think language works pretty much the same way. You keep hearing the same language over and over and over, the power that it has is eventually just going to sort of wane and go away, and it’s going to become acceptable to a certain extent.