Have We Become Immune to Curse Words?

Even the Supreme Court isn't so sure that people still care about F-bombs on broadcast TV.

That the Supreme Court is currently deliberating whether the government still ought bother to regulate cursing on broadcast TV says a lot about how far we’ve come (fallen?) since the dawn of the television era. Back then, married Rob and Laura had to sleep in separate twin beds lest any hint of impropriety work its way into our homes through the glowing box in the living room.

Justice Ginsburg, the New York Times recently reported, wondered aloud whether restricting swearing made any sense at all in a culture that communicates regularly in expletives.

I know that I, for one, have a mouth like a sailor. It’s not something I’m proud of; when I hear other people cursing (cussin’, we called it growing up), dropping F-bombs casually on the bus, uttering obscenities in line at the Wawa, I judge them a little in my head. Oh, nice talk, I think. Class act. And then my cell phone breaks or Rick Santorum says something insane or the printer runs out of paper and I am suddenly the queen of the four-letter word, freely weaving new combinations of expletives that no world-weary truck driver has ever even thought of.

At these moments—or on the frequent occasions when I throw in a swear simply for emphasis in everyday talk—I sometimes hear myself and think many of the adults I grew up around, the women who cried “Oh sugar” and the steady men who said it was hot as blazes. I knew one family whose children weren’t allowed to say “heck” because it was just shorthand for “hell,” and so instead they said “What the cheese?” On the language propriety scale, my own parents ranked nowhere near this sort of anti-cursing zeal (indulging as they did in occasional salty language themselves), but they nevertheless gave me and my sister the stink-eye if we said “butt” rather than “rear” or “bull-crap” instead of the preferred “bull-honkey.” In short: There is no reason at all that I should have turned out to swear with such verve or regularity, other than the fact that Ginsburg is correct. Like love and toxins, cussin’ is all around us.

As a writer, I like to think that I understand the vast power that control of language gives a person, and yet it’s only when I try—and generally fail—to forgo the four-letter words like the gracious Oh Sugar Ladies from home that I realize the power language actually has over us. I would rather not be defeated or defined by a curse word, but damn it all if I can’t help myself.

A particularly well turned-out and mannered work friend (whose mother is a lifelong Oh Sugar Lady) finds herself similarly troubled by her own “dock worker” mouth, and we’ve talked about swear jars (not enough coins in our lives) and Lenten sacrifices (“Yeah, but feel like I owe it to God to at least try to give up something I will actually succeed at giving up,” she sighs. Something like cheese.).  I don’t know how I’ll do it, but I do hope that by the time I get to be a mom, I’ll be saying bull-honkey with a straight face. (Maybe my husband and I will come up with something less lame, but you get the idea.)

But for now, while it may appear a tad hypocritical, I’m rooting for the continued control of language on television: Such restraint comes as something of a comfort, I think, in a time when language feels so hard to keep civilized. I suspect (as the New York Times seems to) that the justices will hold fast to the rule, not so much to protect society from language that might corrupt the way we communicate with each other every day—that ship has long since sailed—but because not saying certain words on network TV is sort of an accepted habit at this point. And like all habits, it’d just sort of a pain in the, um, neck to try to change.