Perceptions of Profanity: How Race, Gender, and Expletive Choice Affect Perceived Offensiveness

By Jacobi, Lora L. | North American Journal of Psychology, June 2014 | Go to article overview

Perceptions of Profanity: How Race, Gender, and Expletive Choice Affect Perceived Offensiveness


Jacobi, Lora L., North American Journal of Psychology


Many factors affect what is considered profane language and the relative offensiveness of different profane words. Perceived offensiveness is affected by mere exposure to profanity (Kaye & Sapolsky, 2004), the profanity spoken (Jay, 2009), the gender (Selnow, 1985) and ethnicity of the speaker and perceiver (Popp, Donovan, Crawford, Marsh, & Peele, 2003), as well as the context in which profanities are spoken (Johnson & Lewis, 2010). Additionally, the use of profanity has long been found to affect individuals' perceptions of the speaker and impression formation (Cohen & Saine, 1977; Mulac, 1976). The current research examined gender and ethnicity of the speaker as well as the choice of expletive with regard to perceived offensiveness of the profanity spoken.

Profane Language

There has been a general increase in the use of profanities spoken in both public and private settings. Words that would have been censored by the media twenty-years ago are now commonplace. Within the broadcasting media, 9 out of 10 programs contained at least one obscenity, and most television programs have an incidence of risque language approximately once every five minutes (Kaye & Sapolsky, 2004, 2009). As the media have changed their standards of acceptance of profane language, the public's exposure to words that were traditionally considered taboo has increased. There are potential negative consequences of increased public exposure to profanities through media sources. Mere exposure to excessive cursing can desensitize listeners to the use of profane words (Kaye & Sapolsky, 2004). Additionally, based on the principles of behavior modeling, increased exposure to profanities increases their use in everyday language, particularly when reinforced (Kaye & Sapolsky, 2004). Whether the use of obscenities is reinforced is dependent upon the purpose and context of use. Individuals curse for a variety of reasons; reasons include serving to release negative emotions in the speaker, to shock or insult the receiver, and out of sheer habit (Rassin & Van der Heiden, 2005). An estimated two-thirds of all incidents of profanity usage are for the purpose of expressing anger and frustration; in such instances, a decrease in the speaker's perceived anger or frustration would negatively reinforce the use of profanity under similar circumstances in the future (Jay, 2000). The taboo words individuals speak are typically contingent upon the situational context, thereby affecting the formality/informality of speech (Jay 2009; Johnson & Lewis, 2010). As context varies (e.g., a formal dinner versus a casual conversation between friends), so does the perceived offensiveness of coarse language.

Although the frequency of hearing obscenities has increased, the top 10 most frequently used taboo words have remained consistent over time and contains words such as fuck, shit, and variants of the word ass (e.g., a-hole; Jay, 2009). Various researchers have grouped taboo words by type, such as the "seven dirty words," sexual words, excretory words, body parts, religious blasphemy, references to animals, social deviations, and ethnic/ethnic slurs (e.g., Foote & Woodward, 1973; Kaye & Sapolsky, 2004). The seven dirty words semantically focus on aspects of the physical body and includes the words fuck and shit (Beck, 2009). Although the seven dirty words have historically been banned from broadcast, these specific curse words are heard approximately once every three hours in prime-time television, with the word fuck being heard most often (Kaye & Sapolsky, 2004). Excretory words/body parts, such as ass and butt are also used with great frequency in the media, and are second to only the most mild of taboo words (e.g., hell, damn; Kaye & Sapolsky, 2004). Other taboo words that are considered to be even more offensive (e.g., nigger, cunt, cocksucker) are used less frequently in public and have remained highly offensive (Jay, 2009). …

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