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How Much Do We Curse?

cursing copyTwo Sundays ago, a graph in The New York Times Magazine caught my eye. The title was “Dear Reader: Are You Prone to Profanity?” The graph captured the results of an online study conducted by the newspaper’s research-and-analytics department in January. In this case, the question was: “How often, if at all, do you swear or curse in conversation?”

Of the 3,244 New York Times subscribers who responded, the majority (61 percent) went with “occasionally,” which seems like a fairly safe response for many of us who have been known to let a curse word fly: After all, who is to say just how occasional “occasionally” is? What we do know is that for the occasionally-respondents, it somehow feels less frequent than “frequently,” which garnered 26 percent of the responses. Only 2 percent of the respondents said “always,” and 11 percent said “never.”

OMG.

Not that I’m especially surprised by these stats. Instead I should phrase it as a question: OMG?

Here’s the question: Does OMG count as a swear word? What about if you actually say all the words of the phrase oh my god?

I first started thinking about this question a few years ago when I read a very interesting article, “The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words,” by Timothy Jay at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. Jay summarizes studies about frequency, which show on average that swear words are 0.3 percent to 0.5 percent of the speech people use every day. If that seems like a lot, that is because it is. Jay cites studies that show that first-person pronouns make up about 1 percent of our speech.

Of course, there is a range for speakers, from 0 percent to 3.4 percent, and this depends on many factors, including personality, gender, religiousness, profession or occupation, friend group, extracurricular activities, and much more.

But no reason to assume I’m exceptional on this front. I thought, OK, let’s assume I’m somewhere around the average. Do I really utter a swear word every 200-300 words? Hmmm.

Then I read on and discovered some of the ways that swearing is being defined. For example, included in these studies is usually the phrase oh my god, which is certainly taboo for some speakers, but is a phrase that many speakers use to show surprise and may not seem very strong or taboo. If we’re going to count oh my god as swearing, I have to say that my daily swear-word count is probably going to go up.

There are words few of us would probably dispute count as swear words, including George Carlin’s seven words that cannot be said on broadcast television. But there are some words that can be said on television that feel very strong if not downright taboo to me, including bitch and ass. The word crap, in contrast, feels not so strongly taboo to me, but I was recently warned not to use it on the radio: It counts as profane language given its reference to excrement. (I was hoping to explain the false etymology of crapper: It does not come from the plumber Thomas Crapper.) I think dork has lost its taboo meaning for many speakers, but you can certainly still find that meaning in any standard dictionary; and who knew fizzle and old hat used to be profane?

Can you feel your daily taboo word count rising? Just remember that taboo language or “swearing” can do a lot of different social work, some of it negative and some of it positive. As Timothy Jay reminds us, it can express anger and frustration, but also surprise and joy. Taboo language can be offensive and hurtful; taboo language can also be a source of humor and camaraderie. Fundamentally, taboo words tell us a lot about the expressive power of language — a power we do well to respect.

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