Swimming against a foul tide

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Posted: May 26, 2013

Debra Nussbaum

is an adjunct journalism professor at Rowan University

Last month, a North Dakota news anchor was fired on his first day of work when in frustration he blurted out two swear words, including an F-bomb. His outburst came when he saw that he would have to pronounce the name of runner Tsegaye Kebede on air.

Not realizing the cameras were rolling, A.J. Clemente cursed - and viewers heard him loud and clear. His bosses were not amused.

Clemente made a foolish mistake, but I feel a little sorry for the young college graduate. Foul language has become so pervasive in our society, with no boundaries on what people will say and when they will say it, that he probably utters that language when he's nervous or angry and has never been taught that it's wrong.

In 2006, USA Today reported that 74 percent of Americans interviewed said they hear profanity used in public, and two-thirds said people swore more than 20 years ago. But just because something is more common doesn't mean it's not rude.

When I was in my 20s, I gave up swearing the way other people might give up carbs or cigarettes. I decided that it was just too difficult to figure out when and where it was appropriate to use foul words. It was easier to just delete them from my vocabulary.

I don't miss them, although I sometimes have been known to spell one out when I am really annoyed. But I find they don't usually add any meaning and you never know whom you might offend.

Like an ex-smoker who is vehemently opposed to cigarettes, I find that an abundance of bad language, particularly the F-word, makes me cringe. When I was in fourth grade I heard a friend's older brother use that word. A week later, while on vacation in Florida, I worked up the courage to ask my mom what it meant. Her reply was, "If you heard that word on vacation, we are packing our suitcases and going home."

That was back in the 1960s, when the comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested for using that word in a stand-up routine. In 1972, the very funny George Carlin included it in his famous "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" routine.

Of course, that was before cable, so now you can sometimes say the F-word (and the six others) on television - though apparently not on the news. And it's pretty much everywhere else, too. There's no escaping it. I have been sorry to hear it constantly in movies. (It was used throughout This Is 40, and I couldn't help but think it was to cover up for a script that wasn't very funny.)

But I also hear it at restaurants, even just walking down the street. I have had to ask students not to use it in my college classroom, and it would be a rare elementary-school student who didn't know that word now.

"The issue seems to be that all the rules we grew up with have lost their power over us," said Ken Baskin, a Philadelphia resident and Inquirer reader who has responded to other manners columns. "Over the years, the power of the rules that governed people's lives has slipped away."

He's sorry to see the change and so am I.

Language, like so many facets of society, is always in flux. "I think things have certainly changed, but things have always been changing," said Mark Liberman, renowned professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. Society has always had taboo words and speech said in anger. In the last 50 years, there has been "a loosening up" of language related to sex, Liberman said. And, as a society, we become anesthetized to certain terms. "The more they get used, the less taboo they become," he said.

For example, 100 years ago religious expressions were considered the most offensive. Now, even devout people will say, "Oh, my God" or, in text-ese, "OMG." "Only some are deeply offended by that now," Liberman said. The words that are now the most offensive in our language are the words of prejudice, he added.

In terms of language and civility, words offensive to another person's race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation are never good manners. If you have an opinion about someone's lifestyle, body type, or spirituality, keep it to yourself.

As for those shouting obscenities into their cellphones or while sitting at the bar in a nice restaurant, believe it or not, most of us don't want to hear you. Cursing is not making you look worldly, just out of control.

I'll let Drexel professor Stephen Gambescia, who has weighed in on this column before, have the last word on foul language. As assistant dean of academic and student affairs, he works to get students ready for a competitive outside world.

"Quite simply, poor, inappropriate, or offensive language just does not work in public, in the workplace, and at school," he said. "While some apologists can be found to defend poor or bad language under the guise of freedom of speech, open-mindedness, or, interestingly enough, diversity, we still come to the conclusion that, regardless of the history, context, and who used what type of language and got away with it, it just does not work."

If only someone had passed along that wisdom to A.J. Clemente, maybe he'd still have his anchor job.


Debra Nussbaum writes regularly for Currents on manners and civility. Send suggestions for future column topics to debranussbaum1987 @gmail.com.

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