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Why might the F-word be on the rise?

In addition to pandemic-induced frustration, pandemic-induced isolation could also play a role. 
Illustration of camels spitting, a dynamite stick, a hammer and nails, and snakes spelling out a censored F-word.
We’re more likely to swear in private, and working from home in our sweatpants may feel more private than being in the office.Nick Little for NBC News

A few years ago, I remember scolding my teenage daughter when she used the “F-word.” Now? I just don’t give a $#^%&.

It seems like other people feel the same way. Everywhere I turn, I hear the F-word in songs and on TV shows. My local friends often use it to describe how hot it is (we live in Florida), and at a recent 70th birthday party, I was surprised and kind of impressed by the “Old AF” banners my friend made for her husband.

After reviewing a database of global conference call transcripts, researchers reported that transcripts from 2021 showed a soaring increase in the amount of swearing.

Why does it seem like more people are using the F-word and other expletives now? It might have something to do with the C-word (Covid-19), said Michael Adams, chair of the English department at Indiana University, a language expert and the author of the 2016 book “In Praise of Profanity.”

“We’ve all experienced more frustration during the pandemic, and profanity is the language of frustration,” Adams said. “It’s what we use when the rest of vocabulary runs dry and we can’t express what we need to express.”

While it’s hard to find data confirming an increased use of profanity in everyday life since Covid began, one recent small study by Sentieo, a financial and corporate research platform, showed people using more expletives in business. After reviewing a database of global conference call transcripts, researchers reported that transcripts from 2021 showed a soaring increase in the amount of swearing. There was a rise of 60 percent from 2020, and an 80 percent increase from 2018.

Surprisingly, managers were the most common users of swear words, according to the study. That’s a stark difference from a 2012 survey from CareerBuilder and Harris Interactive, where the majority of 2,000 hiring managers reported thinking negatively of employees who swear at work. In fact, 81 percent believed that swearing showed a lack of employee professionalism, 71 percent said it showed a lack of control, 68 percent said it showed a lack of maturity and 54 percent said it made an employee seem less intelligent.

Adams said he is not surprised by this apparent uptick of cursing in the workplace. In addition to the pandemic-induced frustration, pandemic-induced isolation could also play a role. 

“Separated from co-workers and supervisors, we feel the need, reasonably, to construct bonds with them. One time-honored way to establish intimacy is to commit a crime together — shoplifting, for example,” he noted. “For those who prefer not to go that far, a well-placed exchange of profanity works just as well; we trust those with whom we break a rule or violate a taboo.” 

We’re also more likely to swear in private, according to Adams, and working from home in our sweatpants may feel more private than being in the office.

Speaking of sweatpants, spending more time listening to the radio and watching TV during the pandemic may also have contributed to an increased use of expletives.

According to Jacobs Media’s Techsurvey 2021, music streaming increased by 15 percent since the advent of Covid. We’ve also become addicted to paid TV streaming services. According to findings from research technology firm Lucid, as reported in nScreenMedia, 63 percent of U.S. adults surveyed said they had added a paid streaming service during the pandemic.

Profanity in traditional broadcast radio and television is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. Streaming radio and TV, however, are not subject to those restrictions and are free to use expletives. 

The music industry has long released songs that include the F-word, perhaps because popular music appeals strongly to teenagers, and the F-word has been a favorite of U.S. teenagers for a while. But it seems like every other song now includes an expletive — sometimes even in the title. The song “abcdefu” by Gayle is a recent example.

Streaming TV shows, meanwhile, are building on the tradition of cable channels HBO and Showtime, with services such as Netflix having no qualms about including profanity in their adult-themed programs. 

If you’re one of the masses of Americans who watched “Ted Lasso,” you couldn’t help but notice the prevalence of the F-word being used by Roy Kent, the aging soccer star played by Brett Goldstein. Season one of the Apple TV+ series launched in August 2020, when most of us were staying at home and open to a distracting, delightful comedy.

Goldstein’s delivery of the F-word, while relentless, was often unexpected, empathetic and funny. He even managed to lovingly work it into a rumination on how a guy who got him flowers could know that he loves white orchids. His creative embrace of the term allowed us to reflect on and even appreciate new ways to use it.  

That could be at least one positive thing to come out of an apparent increase in swearing fueled by mostly negative developments over the past few years. As Roy Kent might say, “That’s f---ing awesome.”