There was a huge outcry on both social media and news coverage recently because of a Burger King advertisement. In the commercial, a man clad in a flannel shirt and a large cowboy hat said “I’m a damn fool,” when he was unable to guess that what he was eating was the restaurant’s famed Whopper.
The commercial received a lot of backlash from people who did not think that kind of language was appropriate in an advertisement which could easily be seen by children. As recently as last night, I saw an ad where an older woman said “Hell yeah,” in agreement with the spokeswoman for the product.
Years ago, nearly every member of society would have been up in arms over the profane commercial. However today, there are only certain groups which get upset over something like this; society as a whole just doesn’t seem to mind widespread profanity as much as it did even 15 years ago.
So, what has changed? As society in general has grown more accepting of different people groups and languages being the norm, that seems to apply to swearing as well.
Michael Aceto, an English and linguistics professor at East Carolina University, said just because these words exist, doesn’t mean they are “bad” by default.
“I don’t consider profanity bad,” Aceto said. “Linguistics is a science, so just like in biology you wouldn’t necessarily say there are ‘bad’ species of fish and ‘good’ species of fish.”
Aceto said there are many languages in the world, most being spoken rather than written. Every one of these languages, according to Aceto, contain cursing or taboo language (which in this case, ‘taboo’ means it is restricted rather than forbidden).
Aceto said it largely depends on audience and context whether these words are truly taboo, and that a lot of sexual talk (which is often viewed in the same vein) is present in daytime television today.
“I wouldn’t say that people don’t talk about sex; that would be empirically false,” Aceto said. “But when people use curse words, they’re indexing some taboo area of thought.”
Aceto pointed out that most of our most prominent swear words are related to things like body parts, sexual activity or religious blasphemy. He said swear words often come down to euphemisms.
“If you say ‘(oh my) gosh,’ you still get the cursing power of ‘(oh my) God,’ it’s like cursing light if you will,” Aceto said. “You’ll notice that with all these euphemisms that are more socially acceptable, or just less strong words, there’s always that similarity between the first sounds. ‘Sh*t, shoot;’ ‘damn, darn.’”
Eric Shouse, a communication professor at ECU who also works as a stand-up comedian, said he doesn’t think profanity is viewed as taboo by the majority of people, but rather by a minority.
“If you look at broadcast television, profanity is a constant part of it, at least to some degree,” Shouse said. “Back in my grandparents’ day, there was (the movie) Gone with the Wind; ‘Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn. That was a big deal. Now, if Spongebob said “damn,” especially if it was like a pun, like ‘Damn that dam,’ you could probably get away with it on a children’s show.”
Shouse’s comment reminded me of when I was a kid. I was a huge fan of the Cartoon Network show Regular Show for a long time, and there was a moment in the show where one of the main characters said the other had “pissed him off.”
I’m sure many others who grew up around the time I did had a similar experience, that of going to school and hearing all the kids who watched talking about the moment excitedly the next day. But it wasn’t in a negative way; we all loved it, as cursing wasn’t typically something we were allowed to see.
Shouse emphasized this point, mentioning that in the world of comedy he will sometimes change the jokes he makes in a show if there are kids present.
“If I got hired to perform, and I show up and I’m not expecting it but there are like 10 kids there from like 10-12 years old, I’m going to change what I’m going to do,” Shouse said. “What I am going to do is drop all the profanity, but I still might tell that clitoris joke and I’m going to tell the adults, ‘Don’t worry, they have no idea what that is.’”
The joke in question was one Shouse made years ago. His joke was based around the fact that his wife made him sell his Jeep when they got married, and he said he “traded it in for a ‘72 clitoris.”
While the joke was told in good fun, Shouse later found out that there was a member of the audience attending with his elderly mother who left right after the joke, because he was uncomfortable watching a show with her that featured “that kind of language.”
The story illustrates the point Aceto made, that taboo language is more about the topic than the words themselves. Despite the fact that “clitoris” is a scientific term, just the discussion of genitalia was enough to make some people uncomfortable.
Nikki Nichols, a communication professor at ECU, said profanity is viewed as taboo by certain people due to the cultural norms that have been in place for generations.
“Some words are profanity here in the U.S. and they’re not deemed that elsewhere in the world, and vice versa,” Nichols said. “Language is cultural, and profanity is part of our language.”
Nichols said the reason some words are considered worse than others is also due to social norms, but some groups try to reclaim words at the top of the hierarchy. She gave the example of the feminist movement, which is reclaiming words that are viewed as derogatory towards women.
“You call a woman a b*tch, and it’s not going to go over well,” Nichols said. “But the feminist movement has completely reclaimed that word. There is power in language.”
Nichols said she believes profane words have less power when they are overused. She said if someone uses those kinds of words often, they won’t have quite as much of an impact when they use them out of anger or in a really serious moment.
Profanity is a tool. Many use it to motivate others, to express their displeasure at a situation or even just to vent after stubbing their toe. These words have power when used correctly or incorrectly, but as Shouse said, it’s all about context and intent.
In my opinion, words are just words. They only have the power we give them, and society has given a seemingly arbitrary collection of sounds the power to make people uncomfortable in some situations, laugh in other situations and not react at all in others.
If we as a society continue the way we are progressing now, these words will go back to being what they really are: just words, with no harm or foul to be associated with.