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Dirty Words

- March 26, 2009

First, a couple of memories from my long-ago childhood.

* Grandpa Sigelman learned English late in life and not well. Whoever taught it to him must have had a robust vocabulary, which invariably caused my father to wince and my brothers and me to giggle whenever he spoke for more than ten seconds or so. Grandpa’s standard greeting to anyone – banker, minister, grand dame, grandchild, whatever – was “Hello, you goddamnsonabitch.” And that was just the ice-breaker.

* My father spoke standard American English, but he also inherited Grandpa’s bad language gene. I well remember one night at supper (not dinner; in the Midwest, we ate supper), one of us little cherubs uttered a forbidden word, and my father exploded “Goddamn it, Doris, where do these little bastards learn language like that?!?”

Those memories floated to the surface while I was reading Timothy Jay’s just-published review of research on “The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words” (Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4, March 2009, pp. 153-161). In English, Jay notes, taboos are placed primarily on sexual and profane or blasphemous references, and extend to scatology and other disgusting objects, some animal names, ethnic-racial-gender slurs, insulting references to perceived psychological, physical, or other social deviations, substandard ancestral allusions, and offensive slang.

So what does the research literature that has built up over the years tell us about the use of taboo words?

* According to the research that Jay reviews, in naturally occurring speech of various sorts, something like 0.5% of the words fit one of the taboo categories. That is, on average, about one out of every two hundred words that we speak would have led Mom to wash out our mouths with soap.

* Of course, that’s just the overall average. Some people never say such words out loud. For others, like Grandpa Sigelman or, for example, the Dennis Hopper character in “Blue Velvet,” a sentence without a bad word would be unimaginable. More specifically, Jay reports that taboo word rates vary from a minimum of 0% per day to a maximum of 3.4%. The latter may not sound like much, but think about it: If average speakers use 15,000 or 16,000 words per day, then 80 or 90 of them will be taboo words, and the saltiest speakers among them will produce more than 500. That’s a whole lot of bad words to say in a day. As a benchmark, Jay notes that language researchers don’t regard first-person plural pronouns (we, us, our) as low-frequency words, and the frequency of taboo words comes close to that of first-person plurals.

* What are these bad words? Expanding a bit on George Carlin’s list, Jay notes that just ten terms dominate the list, accounting for 80% of the data on more than 70 different taboo words. The words (close your eyes here if you’re likely to be offended): fuck, shit, hell, damn, goddamn, Jesus Christ, ass, oh my god, bitch, and sucks). In fact, the first two entries on that list amount to one-third to one-half of all the episodes in counts over the last two decades. (We may be prolific in our potty-mouthedness, but apparently we’re not especially inventive.)

* Men do use swear words more often than women do, though women appear to be closing the gap: “Men accounted for 67% of public swearing episodes in 1986, but the gap narrowed to 55% by 2006.” When women use taboo words, they tend to be milder than men’s favorites; “Oh my god” alone now accounts for 24% of women’s data.

* And yes, like so many other important things in life, swearing peaks in the teenage years and declines thereafter.

If you need a quick refresher course on George Carlin’s perspective on all this, here you go:

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