It has been my impression over the years that foul language of various kinds has been increasing, especially among younger generations. A couple of recent incidents–one I overheard that was profoundly wonderful and another that I heard about on the news that was profoundly disturbing–prompted me to research the use of profanity and people’s attitudes toward it.
First of all, I should mention that not everyone considers the same words taboo, vulgar, foul, obscene, or profane (these words are roughly synonyms, and throughout this post, I use them interchangeably). My intention is not to attempt to parse which words virtually everyone is likely to consider taboo, but to first of all look at some age and gender differences in regard to the usage of them. In my research, I found a couple of good articles from 2006 about some gender and age differences in the U.S. As you might guess, younger Americans (ages 18-34) were significantly more prone to swearing in conversation than Americans 35 and older, 62% to 39%. Additionally, men were more likely to swear than women, 54% to 39%. I also found an article from 2016 which said that American women and men use the F-word almost equally. Beyond that, I’ve had difficulty finding other articles about swearing written for the general public since 2006. My guess is that this is due at least in part to the heavy use of social media for people’s communication, making the gathering of data more complicated. On the one hand, there is a lot of written text that could be analyzed; on the other hand, previous research focused on speaking. I did find in an article from last year that the average American says 80-90 curse words every day.
I was able to find some much-more-recent articles about swearing in the U.K., including one from last year. One statistic that I found especially interesting was that 46% of Generation Zs said they frequently use strong language. That compares with 12% for people aged 55-64. As for gender: Women now use the F-word more than men! I also found an article from 2015 that says the British are more “proficient” at swearing than Americans, with more creativity. My strong guess is that the significant U.K. generational divide in regard to swearing is also present in the U.S., based on what I overhear. I don’t have a good guess regarding gender differences in the U.S., especially among youth.
While generational and gender differences in swearing are interesting, more important than these differences is the question of how we respond to swearing. First of all, most parents still agree, thankfully (including in the U.K.), that they don’t want their kids to use foul language. Of course, that means that parents have to watch their own language! Beyond parenting, however, how do or should we respond? When I was a grad student many years ago, I had a great linguistics professor. There was only one problem; he peppered his lectures with vulgar language. A couple of my female classmates from Asia came to me after class one day and said that they were bothered by some of the words that the professor used; I agreed and said that we should go talk to him. They looked uncomfortably at each other and then explained that they would like just me to do it! I agreed and paid our professor an office visit. He explained to me that when he used certain words, that he didn’t really mean them. In other words, when he said “s–t,” for example, he didn’t mean that “stuff.” I explained that that word (and some others) were offensive to me and some of my classmates. While he didn’t agree to limit his use of vulgarity, we noticed an immediate change the next day! He didn’t completely eliminate the use of such words, but the frequency was considerably less. In addition, the following year I took another class with him, and he used virtually no vulgarity.
I’m a retired ESL teacher, and my students never used obscene language during class; during breaks, they usually talked in their first language. However, I sometimes heard obscene language elsewhere on campus; there was one time I remember where I told a couple of guys to watch their language. In my neighborhood, sometimes when people walk by, I hear swearing, usually the F-word, and usually by young guys, sometimes even kids. I tolerate it because they are passersby.
In that regard: at the outset of this post, I mentioned something I had recently overheard that was profoundly wonderful. There were three boys riding their bikes by my house, and here’s what I heard:
- 1st boy: “Hey, what the [F-word]!”
- 2nd boy: “Don’t cuss. That’s bad.”
- 3rd boy: “It’s a sin. I should tell your mom.”
I almost called out something like, “You don’t need to tell his mom; you guys told him! He needed to hear it from you!” However, thankfully, I kept my mouth shut and praised the Lord in my heart. This is the best kind of “policing” of language, friend(s)-to-friend.
Contrast this with a video clip I saw on the news in July. The incident, which happened in St. Paul, MN, shows a very young boy wearing only underwear who screams, “Shut up, b—h!” at a police officer. He then walks up to the officer, hits him, and repeats his obscenity. Following that, he screams “Shut the f–k up!” at the other officer and adds that his work boots are “those ugly-ass church shoes.” The boy goes on to hit one of them at least three more times, even as the officers, who remain calm throughout, start walking away. As if things couldn’t have been worse, there is another even younger boy in a diaper with the boy who’s swearing and hitting; a bit later, he joins the older boy in even throwing rocks at the officers as they’re walking away. Adding insult to injury, a bystander can be heard encouraging the boys and calling out that one of the officers is an “Oreo head,” a slur suggesting a black person is acting white.
I’m so thankful to the Lord for allowing me to hear the wonderful exchange between the three bike-riding boys in front of my house, which happened very recently; after the profoundly disturbing video footage the previous month of the young boy swearing at the cop and hitting him, I needed that.
Speaking of the Lord: what does the Bible have to say about swearing? First of all, we have the fourth commandment in Exodus 20:7, which says, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses His name.” This commandment, which is repeated verbatim in Deuteronomy 5:11, refers specifically to misusing God’s Name; I certainly hear that at times in various forms, I’m sorry to say. Beyond that kind of swearing, Ephesians 4:29 says this: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” The phrase “unwholesome talk” certainly goes beyond taboo words, but it includes them. A few verses later, in Ephesians 5:4, we read this: “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.” For good measure, here’s Colossians 3:8: “But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.”
As Christians, let’s watch our language! The Lord is not pleased with obscenity in any form, and neither, thankfully, are many people, whether they tell us (verbally or non-verbally) or not.