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Harris Sherline: Curses! Crying Foul Over Foul Language

Profanity has been around for centuries, but whatever happened to being discreet about it?

My wife and I have recently seen several movies in which we felt that the language was over the top. The latest was The Ides of March, which opened with a barrage of four-letter words that would make most people blush when they are used in mixed company. It was so bad that a few people left shortly after the beginning, which my wife and I speculated was probably because they were offended and unwilling to wait to see if it got any better.

Another movie in which the lead character barely had any lines that didn’t contain at least one offensive word was 50/50.

I’m not sure what motivates screenwriters to write scripts that are dominated by such language, but I assume it’s because they think it will make them more appealing to moviegoers, or at least the audience they are attempting to reach.

I submit that it doesn’t. I have never heard anyone say that they wanted to see a movie because it had a lot of swearing in it.

Furthermore, call me old and out-of-touch, which I may be, but there are a lot of people in my generation (I’m 83) who agree with me, and we are a significant part of the movie-going public.

There was a time when openly swearing was not just frowned upon, it was illegal in some circumstances, such as on the air (radio or TV). Unfortunately, time and the changing mores of American society have not only made inappropriate language commonplace but almost universally accepted.

Years ago, it was not unusual for parents to wash their children’s mouth out with soap for using “bad language.” Today, it seems as though many parents have been corrupted by the change in mores to that point that they not only tolerate their children’s use of offensive language but frequently use it themselves. We are routinely assaulted by over-the-top verbal assaults in the movies, on television, in the schools and workplace, and even in public speeches on occasion.

For example, in March 2010, Vice President Joe Biden dropped the “f-bomb” when President Barack Obama signed the health-care reform bill. Biden’s comment was intended for Obama’s ears only, when Biden whispered, “This is a big f-ing deal,” as they shook hands in front of a cheering crowd.

Researchers point out that swearing has been around for centuries, noting that the taboo status of certain words is what makes them powerful, because they enable people to express strong feelings.

Studies have found that swearing can provide both “emotional release and relief from pain.” People often feel better after saying something that might otherwise be considered taboo. The specific words considered unacceptable change over time, but every generation has such expressions.

The power of swear words comes from their status as generally being inappropriate in “polite society.” The more restrictions there are on specific words, the more alluring it is to use them. Geoff Nunberg, a linguist at the UC Berkeley, notes, “It’s emphatic and has an intensity of emotion.”

Psychologist Timothy Jay of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams believes that words such as the “f-bomb” have “an intensity of emotion that conveys the intensity of emotion that best expresses strong feelings.”

Curse words have been around for hundreds of years — maybe more — although the specific words that are considered vulgar change over time. Throughout history, swear words have reflected the taboos of time and place. A century or two ago, religious words dominated the lewd lexicon: Hell and damn were unspeakable in proper company.

Lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary and author of The F-Word, noted that the “f-bomb” has 15th-century Germanic origins, and that the word’s root meant “to move back and forth.”

Over the centuries, the f-word has appeared repeatedly in obscene contexts in letters and poems, sometimes written in code. At some point in the 20th century, Sheidlower said it began to be used beyond its sexual connotations. As the word became more figurative, it also became increasingly versatile.

Today, variations of the word can function as a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb and an expletive. It can be used to describe almost anything. Not only can the word be anything you want it to be, it has also become an equal-opportunity expression. That is, women use it just as much as men do.

“I think this is one of the most important words in the language,” Sheidlower said. “People use it all the time.”

Swearing in the workplace has also become more commonplace, although there are limits, such as being openly using swear words in meetings or when they are directed as specific individuals, such as calling a woman a “b****” or a “whore.”

In one dispute, the defendant argued that he had a right to freedom of speech based on Section 16 of the U.S. Constitution and should therefore not be disciplined for his statements. However, the arbitrator found that this right also carried a duty, which related to respecting the fundamental worth and dignity of fellow human beings, and the finding of dismissal was confirmed.

One important labor law case concluded that there are a variety of employment environments in which vulgar language is accepted as a standard means of communication. The finding noted that vulgar language in the workplace occurs in two situations: when an employee or manager swears as a sign of frustration and not at a person, and when swearing is directed at a fellow employee. Although swearing may be the cause for a reprimand of the employee, swearing that is directed at a fellow employee could result in serious grievance and/or disciplinary action, perhaps even harassment claims against the employer.

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who as lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.

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