George Carlin’s monologue about the seven words you can’t say on televisionis not just hilarious, it’s a thoughtful look at how society censures, and then censors, certain words. It’s a watershed moment in American comedy and American thought, opening the door to discussing how we talk and think about talking. The whole bit seems particularly relevant today: As a study reveals that American literature is full of potty-mouths.
To be fair, we’re not joking about Carlin’s points. In fact, academics have picked up the torch, arguing that profanity has an important role in language (a discussion that rages to this day). But there’s a big gap between academic theory and writers out there wading into the s#!t. Which is why researchers from San Diego State University and the University of Georgia decided to see how frequently each of the magnificent seven were used in literature between 1950 and 2008, with an eye on whether this indicated a desire to break with social taboos and further pursue certain forms of individuality.
With admirably straight faces, they assembled the data by running the words through Google Books and checking the frequency of each word, all of which rose dramatically and steadily over time. To be fair, it’s not like Margaret Atwood has turned into a Kevin Smith character. The most popular word, “shit,” only turned up 0.0018% of the time in the supposedly profane 2008. That said, that’s still way, way more than you saw it back in grandpa’s day:
Readers of books in the late 2000s were 28 times more likely than those in the early 1950s to come across one of the “seven words you can never say on television.”
These findings suggest a notable decline in social taboos against swear words consistent with previous research finding evidence for increasing individualism (e.g., Greenfield, 2013). American culture increasingly values individual self-expression and weaker social taboos, and these trends are manifested in the increasing use of swear words. If books reflect broader cultural trends, it suggests that other cultural products such as movies and TV shows may also demonstrate increases in the use of swear words…
Really, that’s just silly, they may swear a bit more on TV but when was the last time you heard somebody go full Deadwood?
That said, while you see steady increases for some of these words, there are moments where their usage shifts that are just baffling, especially when you look at the included charts tracking increase in use over time. Why, in 1980, did American letters suddenly become enamored of country matters, and then again in 1986? Why was nobody really a “motherf***er” until 1970? Why was suddenly everybody an oral enthusiast in 1994? Why did we all stop dropping f-bombs just a little less in 2001, really a year where that one word summed it all up? We may never know. Fuck it.