“I like swearing; I think it’s very healthy,” Ewan McGregor told a celebrity gossip magazine last week. Good for Ewan. He could have added: swearing is so common it’s mundane. It can make you more persuasive. And it’s less offensive now than ever.
No one apparently cared when actor Jean Dujardin yelled “putain!” in his 2012 Oscar acceptance speech. “Putain” literally translates as “whore” but means “f— yeah!”. And remember when the Gillard camp released that video of Kevin Rudd swearing before the federal leadership spill? Nobody could even pretend to be offended. How refreshing. How honest. But really, any other stance would have been rank hypocrisy.
The leading scholarly authority on swearing, US psychologist Timothy Jay, estimated in a 2009 paper “The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words” that the average speaker of English utters around 80 to 90 swear words every day. That’s only about half as frequent as we use first person plural pronouns such as “we” and “us”.
Certainly, the offensiveness of swear words varies. Jay found 10 words dominate. Some of them are gentle: “goddamn” and “sucks”. But the F-word is both the most common and the most extreme in the top 10. So it’s entirely possible the former foreign affairs minister swears less than most people do.
Yet we seem to think people are swearing more often, and more harshly. It isn’t true. There’s no statistical evidence to suggest swearing has increased over the past few decades. Studies of recorded speech demonstrate swearing has remained steady and we’re using the same words we did 30 years ago.
But swearing is more public, more frequent in film, television, on radio and in print. It’s been normalised. The prevalence of swearing hasn’t changed, but its cultural status has.
The result, as a New South Wales magistrate noted in a ruling in 2002, is that the F-word “has lost much of its punch”.
We don’t blink at French Connection UK’s acronym “FCUK”. The name of the new snack “Nuckin Futs”, approved by Australia’s trademarks examiner in January, is playful rather than obscene. If profanity can sell nibbles and knitwear, can it be considered profane at all?
This is all surely a good thing. More swearing doesn’t mean society is becoming less polite.
One can be deeply racist or sexist or homophobic without swearing. On the other hand, we have all met friendly and well-intentioned people who pepper their speech with profanity. The former (racism, sexism) has become rightly unacceptable, and the latter is becoming innocuous. This is great. Any moral compass that treats mere words on par with malicious intentions is a badly calibrated one. That’s why the N-word is now much more offensive than the F-word – it indicates racist intentions.
Traditionally, swearing has also been governed by a double standard: men would curse freely among other men but bite their tongue around women out of patronising respect. Gender equality has eroded that anachronism.
Nor does the “think of the children” mindset offer any clear restraint on profanity.
As Ewan McGregor said: “I like hearing my kids swear, and I’ll pretend they’re not allowed to … but actually I think it’s quite funny.”
McGregor shouldn’t bother pretending. Jay points to findings that parental sanctions have no effect on how much a child swears when they reach adulthood. The scholarly evidence tells us children learn rude words from kids, not adults.
Last year, research psychologists established that swearing can help with pain relief. A 2006 study published in the journal Social Influence even found swearing “significantly increased” the persuasiveness of an argument. As the authors wrote, “the use of obscenity could make a credible speaker appear more human”.
When the Baillieu government introduced on-the-spot fines for swearing in June last year, there was an understandable outcry. Almost everybody swears, and swears a lot. Punishing extremely common language is obviously a bad idea. Something so banal should not be a police matter. Even prime ministers do it, after all.