View from the Pew
Profanity’s power loss
Swearing is so common these days that many people do not realize what they are really saying when they do it
OMG. It's the WOW in the shorthand of electronic speak.
Mention that it is also profanity, the kind of speech that was once forbidden, and you'll get a blank-faced "Huh?" from most people using it - if they'll even raise their chin from their text-messaging, chatting and blogging screens.
It's not just in personal electronic conversations from which we can mercifully choose to sign off. "Oh my God" trips off the lips of so many so often that you can't escape it out in the real world. Recent experiences in the company of a herd of linguistically challenged middle-schoolers nearly made a wild-eyed hellfire-spouting Puritan out of me.
It's No. 3 of the 10 most common American swear words or expressions, according to Timothy Jay, a psychologist who has studied cursing for 35 years. Jay, a professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, is the author of "Why We Curse" and other books on the subject and is frequently tapped for expert commentary on the subject by the news media.
The "Bottom 10" list of favorite dirty words is evenly divided between religious references and words linked to sex and body functions. They account for 80 percent of cussing, although Jay has recorded at least 70 words and phrases.
"You're hearing OMG for a variety of reasons," said Jay. "It is a mild thing to say. Women and children primarily use it. Women use it five times more frequently than men."
Men are most likely to use the explosive sexual and scatalogical words. While those functions are displayed and discussed in every form of entertainment and arts, the words still incite screams from would-be speech police if ever they are uttered before a radio or television audience. There are rules against some of them and efforts in Congress to increase the penalties for violation.
The early influence of Puritanical Christianity in America led to prohibitions against profanity - irreverent, secular references to God - and blasphemy - attacks on God or religion. It was right there in the 10 Commandments that God gave Moses: "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain."
Some 60 years ago it cost the movie producer of "Gone With the Wind" a $5,000 fine for Rhett Butler's famous expression of contempt, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."
But as the influence of Christianity waned in the secular Western society, so did the restrictions. "About 100 years ago the church started to lose its power," said Jay, pointing to the former morality gauge used to measure movie content. "We didn't become obsessed with sexuality until after the Civil War. Before that they were protecting people against profanity. Since the 1960s the church can comment, but it doesn't have power. With that decline, there is no one around to police those things.
"Restrictions on speech predate the Bible," said Jay. "Every culture had taboos, for example not to name dead people or disease or what comes out of the body. Swear words have been around for thousands of years. If you ignore that people swear, you are missing an important part of their emotional makeup."
The professor said swearing is a normal, healthy aspect of being human. "It replaces physical violence. Humans are the only animal that can express emotions symbolically. It has to have a
benefit, or we wouldn't have evolved it. Those words allow us to express and convey emotions." The unprintable top favorite expression used by men "conveys a level of contempt that you can't match. No other words in English can convey it."
Don't blame the rap singers and professional athletes, he says. "I'm not saying those things don't impact, but it's not the primary source. You learn how to swear in the back yard, primarily from your peers and your parents."
About the use of faith-based cursing, "it goes back to parental values," he said. "If you want your kids not to use those words, that's your value. But you can't impose that on other people. I think it's a parent's obligation to teach children about morals and values."
"People who are conscientious and agreeable tend not to swear. I would tell parents not to overreact and not to ignore the cause. They should teach children how to manage their emotions, should look at why a kid is angry and help with anger management and coping."
OMG is indeed a mild version of disrespectful speech about the divine. It's a lot like "golly" and "jeepers" which were distillations of the words God and Jesus that were so insipid they stopped being cuss words. It's just that it seems to be so very much used.
"When I look at MySpace and chat rooms, less than 1 percent are swear words, but because of the sheer volume, that's a lot of words," said Jay. "At the end of the day, you and I will have said 15,000 words. Only 70 or 80 are swear words; less than 1 percent are swear words."
It just makes me wonder how many times "Oh my God" is uttered in a day, in a prayer, spoken with deliberate thought and intent. Who, do you suppose, is counting?