Skip to main content

The Pervasiveness of Profanity

New research tracks the rise in swear words in books over the decades.
George Carlin at a book signing in New York City.

George Carlin at a book signing in New York City.

The sacking of White House Director of Communications Anthony Scaramucci following his profanity-laden tirade to a reporter suggests that, in certain contexts, obscene language remains taboo. But—pardon the expression—it's a hell of a lot more common than it was a half-century ago.

A new analysis of the content of books published in the United States finds "a steady, linear increase in the use of swear words," reports a research team led by San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge.

"Books published in 2005-08 (were) 28 times more likely to include swear words than books published in the early 1950s," the researchers report in the journal Sage Open.

Twenge, author of a provocative new book on how smartphones may be harming teenagers, has conducted a series of studies looking at word usage over time. In a 2012 paper she argued that changes in our language reflect an increasingly individualistic culture.

Her new study focuses on George Carlin's seven words you can never say on television. In a legendary 1972 routine, the insightful comedian listed the words and mused about what made them too scary for the public airwaves.

Using the Google Books Ngram database, the researchers analyzed how frequently each of the words was used in published books during a given year. The search was restricted to English-language books published in the U.S. between 1950 and 2008.

They found use of all seven terms increased over time—and, for several, the rise was dramatic. For example, use of the word shit was 69 times more frequent in 2005 to 2008 compared to 1950 to 1953. Use of fuck was 168 times greater.

Use of tits, arguably the most benign of the words, increased by only a factor of five, but use of motherfucker, arguably the most offensive, was 678 times more frequent.

"Swear words allow the free expression of emotion, especially anger."

Twenge and her colleagues call this shift "massive," and note that it "is consistent with a cultural shift from more collective or communal values to more individualistic, self-expressive values."

In other words, as attending to the needs of the individual have gradually come to supersede traditional norms of civility, writers—along with the general public—feel freer to express their feelings using colorful language. "Swear words allow the free expression of emotion," the researchers note, "especially anger."

They add that swearing has been linked to personality traits such as extroversion, dominance, narcissism, and neuroticism, all of which have increased over time among Americans. So it makes sense that the use of four-letter words has surged.

Was Carlin a catalyst? It's hard to say. The comedian "captured, and possibly amplified, an emerging cultural trend," Twenge and her colleagues write.

But the trend toward the use of swear words in books clearly began prior to his now-famous 1972 routine. As Cole Porter wrote in his 1934 song "Anything Goes":

Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Writing prose.

He had no idea.