More conversations are peppered with salty talk

November 26, 1992|By Chicago Tribune

One night while working the late shift in a newborn ward of Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, Ed Walczak kept tally: six s-words, three f-words, one a and one b.

These were the obscenities he overheard a group of co-workers use in their private conversations about football, the election and the weather.

"The profanity flows freely," Mr. Walczak said. "I don't know why -- maybe it was the way I was brought up -- but I cringe when I hear one of those words."

There is a widespread feeling in America that language is going to heck, to put it politely. And a growing number of people are complaining about the problem, or at least studying it.

"We're inundated," said Timothy Jay, author of a scholarly new book, "Cursing in America."

"We hear more episodes of cursing when we drive in the car or go to the shopping mall, and we experience more through the media," said Mr. Jay, a psychology professor at North Adams State College in Massachusetts.

While some of these words have been in use for hundreds of years, and even President Richard Nixon was heard using obscenities on the Watergate tapes, the question of acceptable language use seems to have taken on a greater urgency recently.

Last year, the Clarence Thomas hearings raised the issue of vulgar language in the workplace, and this fall, a book by film critic Michael Medved echoes Vice President Dan Quayle's accusation that Hollywood ignores traditional values by being overly reliant on dirty words, among other unpleasantries.

Two weeks ago, national radio personality Howard Stern was reprimanded by the government for using indecent language. The Federal Communications Commission leveled a $105,000 fine against the Los Angeles station that broadcasts his show.

Even Bears coach Mike Ditka has become the subject of controversy, making headlines in October by unleashing an expletive-laced tirade on reporters that so offended one writer that he stormed out of a press conference.

"I have never called anybody that name. And that is the first time I have ever been called that name," Phil Theobald of the Peoria Journal Star told Mr. Ditka.

Whether the nation really needs its collective mouth washed out with soap isn't certain. While Mr. Jay's book is so thorough that parts of it read more like a conversation between two sailors than an academic paper, it can't offer scientific proof that Americans curse more today, because there is no previous benchmark study for a comparison.

Certainly, some in society, like athletes, soldiers and physical laborers, have always used salty language. Complicating matters, the definition of an obscenity is in the ear of the beholder. But many believe that the barrier between the locker room and the living room is slowly eroding, giving profanity a new acceptance.

"We should be very much ashamed," said Bob Tuite, a 73-year-old church volunteer in Illinois. "I don't know when it started, but when I was a youth I never heard young people, or my parents, use that kind of language."

Indeed, profanity seems to be everywhere.

It can be seen on snide bumper stickers in parking lots and on T-shirts at political rallies. It is used on the radio, where "shock jocks" like Mr. Stern freely spurt scatological slang, and even in restaurants, where curse words slip out during normal conversations.

"I do it all the time; it comes out naturally," said Tracy Haslip, a 24-year-old Chicago waitress, who uses the s-word when

startled or upset.

Paige Greytok, 30, a Chicago executive, said she believes that profanity is heard more today because more women are climbing the career ladder and feel compelled to cuss.

"In order to be taken with the same seriousness as your male counterparts, or to be accepted, you have to curse," she said. "We don't have the physical strength, so we curse to seem more aggressive. I don't think we like to do it, and I would certainly

never take it outside of the office."

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