This is a story about words we can’t print in this story.
You probably hear these words often, and more than ever before. But even though we can’t print them — we do have our standards — we can certainly ask: Are we living in an Age of Profanity?
Nearly three-quarters of Americans questioned last week — 74 percent — said they encounter profanity in public frequently or occasionally, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll. Two-thirds said they think people swear more than they did 20 years ago. And as for, well, the gold standard of foul words, a healthy 64 percent said they use the F-word — ranging from several times a day (8 percent) to a few times a year (15 percent).
Just ask Joe Cormack. Like any bartender, Cormack, of Fort Dodge, Iowa, hears a lot of talk. He’s not really offended by bad language — heck, he uses it himself every day. But sometimes, a customer will unleash the F-word so many times, Cormack just has to jump in.
“Do you have any idea how many times you’ve just said that?” he reports saying from time to time. “I mean, if I take that out of your vocabulary, you’ve got nothin!”’
And it’s not just at the bar. Or on TV. (Or on the Senate floor, for that matter, where Vice President Dick Cheney used the F-word in a heated argument two years ago.)
‘What we hear, it’s gross’
At the community college where Cormack studies journalism, students will occasionally inject foul language into classroom discussions. Irene Kramer, a grandmother in Scranton, Pa., gets her ears singed when passing by the high school near her home.
“What we hear, it’s gross,” says Kramer, 67. “I tell them, ‘I have a dictionary and a Roget’s Thesaurus, and I don’t see any of those words in there!’ I don’t understand why these parents allow it.”
For Kramer, a major culprit is television. “Do I have to be insulted right there in my own home?” she asks. “I’m not going to pay $54 a month for cable and listen to that garbage.” And yet she feels it’s not a lost cause. “If people say ‘Look, I don’t want you talking that way,’ if they demand it, it’s going to have to change.”
In that battle, Kramer has a willing comrade: Judith Martin, who writes the syndicated Miss Manners column.
“Is it inevitable?” Martin asked in a recent interview. “Well, if it were inevitable I wouldn’t be doing my job.” The problem, she says, is that people who are offended aren’t speaking up about it.
“Everybody is pretending they aren’t shocked,” Martin says, “and gradually people WON’T be shocked. And then those who want to be offensive will find another way.”
People divided by age, gender
Perhaps not surprisingly, profanity seems to divide people by age and by gender.
Younger people admit to using bad language more often than older people; they also encounter it more and are less bothered by it. The AP-Ipsos poll showed that 62 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds acknowledged swearing in conversation at least a few times a week, compared to 39 percent of those 35 and older.
More women than men said they encounter people swearing more now than 20 years ago — 75 percent, compared to 60 percent. Also, more women said they were bothered by profanity — 74 percent at least some of the time — than men (60 percent.) And more men admitted to swearing: 54 percent at least a few times a week, compared to 39 percent of women.
Wondering specifically about the F-word? (For the record, we needed special dispensation from our bosses just to say ‘F-word.’) Thirty-two percent of men said they used it at least a few times a week, compared to 23 percent of women.
“That word doesn’t even mean what it means anymore,” says Larry Riley of Warren, Mich. “It has just become part of the culture.” Riley admits to using the F-word a few times a week. And his wife? “She never swears.”
Have a good reason to swear
A striking common note among those interviewed, swearers or not: They don’t like it when people swear for no good reason.
Darla Ramirez, for example, says she hates hearing the F-word “when people are just having a plain old conversation.” The 40-year-old housewife from Arlington, Texas, will hear “people talking about their F-ing car, or their F-ing job. I’ll hear it walking down the street, or at the shopping mall, or at Wal-Mart.
“What they do it their own home is their business, but when I’m out I don’t need to hear people talking trashy,” Ramirez says. She admits to swearing about once a month — but not the F-word.
And Donnell Neal of Madison Lake, Minn., notes how she’ll hear the F-word used as a mere form of emphasis, as in: “That person scared the f--- out of me!” Neal, 26, who works with disabled adults, says she swears only in moments of extreme frustration, “like if someone cuts me off when I’m driving, or if I’m carrying something and someone shuts the door in my face.” Even then, she says, she’ll likely use “milder cuss words” — and never at work.
The AP poll questioned 1,001 adults on March 20-22, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
For those who might find the results depressing, there’s possibly a silver lining: Many of those who swear think it’s wrong nonetheless.
Like Steven Price, a security guard in Tonawanda, N.Y., who admits to using swear words — including the F-word, several times a day — with colleagues or buddies, “like any old word.”
Price, 31, still gets mad at himself for doing it, worries about the impact of profanity (especially from TV) on his children, and regrets the way things have evolved since he was a kid.
“As I get older, the more things change,” says Price. “And I kind of wish they had stayed the same.”