Magazine article The Christian Century

Foul Words Permeate Pop Culture Lexicon, Eliciting a Backlash

Magazine article The Christian Century

Foul Words Permeate Pop Culture Lexicon, Eliciting a Backlash

Article excerpt

Rasheda Williams, 24, recently walked through the Detroit neighborhood where size grew up. She observed a girl of about 12 calling to a friend across the street. "Hey, bitch," the pre-teen said. Had Williams used such language at that age, she said, "I might have a bar of soap for lunch."

But today, foul language is common, and not just among potty-mouthed children or radio shock jocks like Howard Stern. Consider John Kerry using the f-word in describing President Bush's war effort in Iraq, rock singer Bono using similarly raw language at the Golden Globe Awards or Garrison Keillor singing a ditty that included "pissed" and "ass" on his A Prairie Home Companion show.

Any sailor will tell you that foul language is nothing new. Even in political settings, cussing has sometimes been part of the vocabulary, as Richard Nixon's Watergate tapes showed. Language experts concede that outside of studies of network television, it's difficult to document a societal increase in offensive words.

But what is clear, these language experts say, is that society's standards are changing, with previously taboo words finding their way into the public lexicon.

A backlash may be brewing. The Federal Communications Commission reversed itself March 18 and decided Bono's f-word was indecent whether used as a noun or adjective. It has warned broadcasters that any future use will not be tolerated. Clear Channel recently dropped Stern's radio show from its stations. CBS aired the Grammy Awards with a five-minute delay in order to edit out any offensive words.

The House of Representatives voted 391 to 22 on March 11 to increase substantially the penalties on broadcasters and performers who violate federal standards. The bill would force the FCC to act more quickly on complaints. A similar measure has been taken up in the Senate.

Anecdotes abound that standards have changed. In the 1970s, comedian George Carlin did a routine about the Seven Dirty Words you couldn't say on TV, but two of those--"piss" and "tits"--are now frequently uttered.

In the 1950s, it was common for people to say "H-E-double-toothpicks." Today it's arguable whether words like "hell" even qualify as cussing. "'Hell' and 'damn' have lost their power in our society, not through prohibition but through overuse," said Timothy Jay, a professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and author of five books on profanity. "We did an analysis, and 'hell' and "damn' are in the newspapers all the time. …

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