My kids have entered their swearing phase. They curse now, openly, in front of my wife and me, on a fairly regular basis. They’re not really kids anymore, I guess; the youngest is 15. But they’re freely dropping f-bombs and all the other bombs whenever they get a chance. The dinner table. Watching TV. I’ll walk past the closed door of the den and hear what sounds like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas but it’s just my fifteen-year-old playing League of Legends on the computer and Skyping his friends.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a goody-goody, all gosh darn it and golly-jeepers. I’ve probably said every curse word and blaspheme there is at one time or another. I know they’re only words. And the hurtful ones aren’t your typical swears.
And I get it. It’s a rite of passage for adolescences. Swearing makes kids feel like grownups--- grown up teamsters! I was the same way around their age.
Been there, said that
When my dad brought home our first tape recorder--- a snazzy, reel-to-reel deck, a Rosscorder 1000 ---one of the first things I did was swear into the mic. It’s what any self-respecting grade school kid would do. I’d play it back: oh, there it is, the swear word I just said. Rewind, stop, play. There it is again! I said it again!
I picked up Class Clown, George Carlin’s classic album, at E. J. Korvette when I was in high school and listened to his Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television bit over and over. Carlin got arrested for using those words on stage, like Lenny Bruce a decade before. In these naked-wrecking-ball-riding days, they routinely say at least half of Carlin’s list on the air, more if it’s cable.
I’m no stranger to profanity and saying raunchy things for shock value. Back in my improv comedy days, I co-wrote and performed in a show at a club called the Funny Firm that’s a real estate office now. We did a midnight show every Friday, billed as The Blue Show: “a sick and disgusting XXX comedy show” where everything and anything goes. (Radio personality Kevin Matthews later co-opted it as his own.)
One of The Blue Show skits was a raunchy Jeopardy game. Another, special for Easter, involved the size of Jesus’ penis. And then there was the Password sketch where the secret word was the four-letter kind, the one that women hate, the one that starts with “c.”
I fell out of the swearing habit when my kids got old enough to repeat everything to grandma or the cashier at Jewel. My wife and I invented substitute swears that we’d use, ironically. We’d call someone a dink or a poopy butt or my favorite: tinkle wee-wee.
Experts say, “every language or dialect ever studied, living or dead, spoken by millions or by a small tribe, turns out to have its share of forbidden speech.” There are curse words in the bible and Shakespeare used his share of words, like zounds, considered profane in his time.
Studies show people have a physiological response when they hear a swear word--- the hair on their arms rise, their pulse quickens, and their breathing becomes shallow. Dirty words get a literal rise out of the people who hear them.
TV, broadcast and basic cable, has seen a profanity creep in the past couple years: a nearly 70% increase between 2005 and 2010. The swear word choice is harsher and the times you can hear them earlier in the evening.
Motion pictures have upped the cuss ante as well. Wolf of Wall Street recently set the Guinness f-bomb record with 506. At a nearly three-hour running time, that averages 2.81 per f-ing minute.
What’s the effect of so much profanity? Harvard professor and author of the best seller, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature, Steven Pinker says the “emotional response in the brain weakens after repeated exposure” to curse words. The words go “from taboo to normal and don’t have the same effect. We’ve seen that happen in the twentieth century.”
Cleaning up my act
After my toddler-induced curse word diet, I use them sparingly now, like a spice. When I’m speaking or writing, a sprinkling of colorful language, a dash of pepper, is all that’s needed. No reason to overdo it. Sure, hit my thumb with a hammer and an expletive is the perfect word choice at that moment. But there’s a whole dictionary full of words I can use in the meantime.
I don’t know, maybe while I was busy having a quadruple bypass and getting old, times changed. Maybe a potty mouth is really no big deal. Maybe profanity is the backlash to how politically correct we’ve become.
The thing is: my youngest is almost as tall as me but I can still picture him as my little baby with that cute, cherubic face. Except now my little cherub curses like an R-rated drill sergeant. It's just a phase, I keep telling myself, just another @#!*ing phase...
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