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September 27, 2010
Paul Asay
Saving Swear Words From Themselves

Saving Swear Words From Themselves


Long a part of American-style entertainment, curses have taken a new prominence in our culture. CBS' new sitcom $#*! My Dad Says is just the latest in a rash of profanity-centric entertainment titles. It's become the fall's most talked-about show, not because of its snappy writing or outrageous content or even because it might contain a bit of humor. It snagged attention simply because of its name. Much the same can be said about Cee Lo Green's song "F‑‑‑ You." And it's become a YouTube sensation, racking up close to 5 million views. The song uses an f-word every 14 seconds, on average, according to the Parents Television Council. Meanwhile, Investigation Discovery is running a show with the title Who The (Bleep) Did I Marry? On DVD is the recently released Kick-A‑‑. And coming soon to theaters is another Jacka‑‑ film—in 3-D!

All these curse-infested titles make for a bothersome trend for us at Plugged In. And not just because we'll soon need to buy new keyboards for all the computers we've worn out the hyphen keys on.

But in the big, broad, secular marketing world, all this bad language makes a certain (albeit misguided) sense. Marketing is all about making a splash. And one of the easiest ways to do a big ol' cannonball in the pool of public consciousness is by popping out a naughty word. Like fussy toddlers, they demand attention.

Ye Cursed Language, Forsooth!
It's not a new phenomenon. Ever since language was created, users have shaped, twisted and invented words to shock. But much of their power, at least over the last several hundred years, has come from the fact that they weren't used that often—certainly not in polite, educated society. They were used sparingly, and often with great intent. People of the Victorian era, Christian apologetics expert Alex McFarland mentioned on a recent Plugged In Podcast, were especially careful with their curses, because they took to heart the fact that we were all created in the image of God. To use bad language was thought to demean our sacred model, and thus our sacred Maker.

So profanity largely policed itself. Bad language wasn't used because it was so shocking. It was so shocking because it wasn't used.

We live in a coarser age now, and people—even some Christians—swear all the time. Our movies are filled with obscenities, our music is saturated with them, our Internet is practically overwhelmed with them. They've become part of everyday discourse—so much so that even senatorial hearings broadcast on C-SPAN soon may need a seven-second delay. George Carlin's infamous "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" have been whittled down to two or three … on broadcast television … in prime time. Oh, and if they're just fleeting profanities, no worries: The federal courts have given the networks a pass there, too.

The use of profanity is so common now—in even "polite" society—that in some ways trying to rein it in feels futile. Any 7-year-old with access to a computer and an inattentive parent can find Cee Lo's uncensored song on YouTube with a click or two.

The Last Crass Word
The big irony of all this language talk is this: The coarser our society becomes, and the more we hear and use profanity, the less it retains its ability to shock. Society no longer blinks if a film such as The Town has 155 f-words. It still earns critical accolades and becomes a date-night outing for millions. Uncensored songs from Lil' Wayne are mimicked in lunchrooms across the country by middle school or even elementary school rapper wannabes. Profanity just isn't shocking anymore. It's so common as to be practically a cliché.

And so the ante's been raised. No longer do we find curses hidden within the body of a work, but on its cover page. Titles scream out to the world, "Look at me! I'm swearing!" And when we get used to bleeped profanities in our titles? What then? Will we begin to see uncensored cuss words in them? In our television advertisements? On our billboards?

Disciples of the late George Carlin might say that's a good thing: Words are just words, they'd say. But language is a powerful tool, and words are meant to move people. If a curse word loses its ability to move people—to offend people—in everyday conversation, what "good" is it?

Truth is, if the profanities we use today gets used too much, Ben Affleck and Sarah Silverman will be all to happy to create new naughty words to replace them.

So, perhaps we should begin a new campaign—uniting CBS and the Parents Television Council, foul-mouthed comedians and Christian culture critics alike. Those of us who care about wholesome language and those who express undying affection for certain, unmentionable words should agree to give all those words a rest. Let's move them to the fringes of society, banished from polite conversation. Let them fester there. Let them fret. Let them once again become so rare that when someone dares to use one, it will once again truly shock. For the good of us all, let's save our swear words from themselves.

Well, it was worth a try.