What's the word? Whatever it is, these days it's probably four letters

November 26, 2007|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,SUN REPORTER

Tim Winter stood at a Manhattan cab stand hearing passers-by spewing a torrent of four-letter words. He was, oddly enough, headed to a seminar partly about profanity in society.

"I heard more F-bombs at that moment than I've heard from other communities in an entire year," said Winter, president of the Parents Television Council, a media watch group. It recently accused major television networks of "hijacking" prime time by airing shows laced with sex, violence and coarse language during the early evening - what used to be known as the "family hour."

"I believe that you have to think about community standards," he said.

It appears, however, that profanity has become the community standard, or at least much more common in media, music, fashion and beyond. Nearly three-quarters of Americans say they experience the use of profanity in public frequently or occasionally, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll last year.

Popular music - particularly hip-hop and heavy metal - is inundated with profane references. Celebrities and athletes drop curse words during live broadcasts, such as the Orioles' Aubrey Huff, who described Baltimore as a "horses---" town during a radio show. Cursing is widespread in alternative magazines and movies, and on T-shirts and blogs. The NCAA recently announced a crackdown on college coaches who swear at referees.

Michigan State University linguistics professor Dennis Preston contends that people don't curse any more than they did decades ago. They simply do it more publicly, he said. He also believes it's become less taboo for women to curse in public.

A proliferation of cursing, or at least the perception of it, might also be fueled by the rapid growth of media technologies beyond the reach of the Federal Communications Commission. Cable television and satellite radio can air raunchier fare because they don't rely on government permission to use the public broadcast spectrum. Digital downloads to portable music players and cell phones also allow racier tunes to spread faster than before.

Early next year, cursing on the airwaves could become a topic before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court may hear a case involving a lawsuit brought by television networks defending themselves against heavy sanctions imposed by the FCC. The agency held networks responsible for profanity uttered by celebrities during live broadcasts.

The case could mark the first time in 30 years that the Supreme Court would decide when foul language is appropriate for the airwaves. A 1978 case, FCC vs. Pacifica Foundation, involved Pacifica station WBAI-FM of New York. It had broadcast excerpts from comedian George Carlin's routine "Filthy Words," a follow-up to his earlier "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television." The FCC sanctioned the station for broadcasting what it considered indecent material.

The Supreme Court upheld the FCC sanction: It ruled that the Carlin material was indecent and accepted the FCC's stance that it intended to shield children from such material.

The current case stems from live broadcasts that contained curse words by music artists: Cher at the 2002 Billboard Music Awards, Nicole Richie at the 2003 Billboard Awards and U2 lead singer Bono at the 2002 Golden Globes.

Use of offensive racial epithets by celebrities made headlines several times last year, but bad language often seems to amuse more than shock. Gone are the days when public utterances of foul language prompted the speaker to apologetically claim a slip of the tongue.

Some cursing incidents become etched in pop culture: President Bush swore this year while describing progress by U.S. troops in Iraq to an Australian reporter. Vice President Dick Cheney shouted a curse at Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Democrat, on the Senate floor a few years ago, and later said he had no regrets about it. Actress Sally Field cursed as she became flustered during this year's Emmy Awards, prompting the Fox network to cut the audio as she wrapped up her apparent anti-war speech.

"Swearing has been around forever, and it serves some purposes," said Dr. Timothy Jay, a psychology professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and author of the books Cursing in America and Why We Curse. "It allows us to express ourselves emotionally at a depth that other language doesn't.

"We're the only animals who can express our emotions symbolically through language. Swearing represents a revolutionary step away from aggression. When you're angry, you can say, `[Expletive] you,' instead of risking harm to yourself," Jay said. "You have to think of language as organic. It grows what it needs and kills off what doesn't work."

Like other forms of language, curses change in form and usage. Some become socially acceptable; others fade away.

"Pshaw," an expression popularly used to denote disgust, contempt or disbelief in the early 1900s, is scarcely used anymore. Dung, once a curse word for excrement, is now considered a polite synonym for it.

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