Swearing Is Much Less Common Than It Seems

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Swearing, if you think about it, has a lot in common with another guilty pleasure: caffeine. If you’re a person who typically abstains from coffee, just one cup will be enough to leave you feeling energized; similarly, a well-placed f-bomb packs more of a wallop when it comes from someone who usually sticks to PG language. And on the other end of the spectrum, profanity, like caffeine, can lose its punch over time: Use it enough, and eventually you’ll require more and more just to achieve the same effect. Swearing, after all, is so satisfying precisely because it’s taboo.

The bad news: As Michael Adams, an English professor at Indiana University, noted recently in the Conversation, some people think we’re already there — that we’ve become so swear-happy that we’re diluting the meaning of the bawdy words at our disposal. It’s like that thing where you repeat a word over and over until it starts to sound more like a random collection of nonsense syllables (which, in case you were wondering, is called semantic satiation). And it’s an extra-grim proposition when you consider the fact that obscenities are a finite resource: We’ve been working with the same ones for centuries, tacking on flourishes like “face” or “wad” to a group of core words that otherwise has remained more or less unchanged.

Thankfully, Adams took a sunnier view. For one thing, we don’t actually know for sure that profanity is on the rise: “It’s impossible to say whether we swear in our everyday speech more today than 50 years ago, because there wasn’t any swearing research back then,” he wrote. “So we can’t compare our own swearing — in terms of quantity, anyway — with that of our grandparents.”

But more importantly, Adams argued, even if we do swear more than we used to, it’s still not really all that much: The average person uses just half of one percent of their speech each day on swear words, but it can feel like more because swear words, by their very nature, are supposed to stand out:

Besides frequency, we are sometimes profane in unusual forms – like the infixed abso-f–king-lutely or guaran-f–king-tee– or employ profanity in attention-getting ways: F–k me! and Go f–k yourself! or in sentence patterns reserved for profanity, especially when they possess a certain intonation, such as What the hell?, a sentence pattern is so conventional that we can simply say What the … and listeners will fill in the blank. Profanity intrudes; we can’t ignore it.

Swearing, in other words, works in a strange, counterintuitive loop: It grabs our attention because it’s taboo, it feels less taboo because it keeps grabbing our attention. For now, though, there’s a solid case to be made that we’re safe on this front, at least: With plenty of things to worry about, a less profane world is probably not one of them.