Books Chapter & Verse

What's behind the dramatic spike in swearing in books?

A new study finds a 'dramatic' increase in swear words in American literature over the last 60 years.

Books line the shelves at the new Rizzoli flagship bookstore in New York' NoMad district. A study shows that books published between 2005 and 2008 are 28 times more likely to include profanities than books published in the early 1950s.
Richard Drew/AP/File
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“There are 400,000 words in the English language and there are 7 of them that you can't say on television,” comedian George Carlin famously said in a monologue in 1972 in which he listed “the heavy seven,” the words “that’ll infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war.”

How the times have changed. While those words were anathema in TV, and to a lesser degree, books, decades ago, a new study has found a “dramatic” increase in swear words in American literature over the last 60 years.

The study found writers are “significantly more likely to use each of the seven swear words in the years since 1950.” In fact, books published between 2005 and 2008 are 28 times more likely to include profanities than books published in the early 1950s.

The paper, which was published in the journal Sage OPEN, analyzed text from the almost 1 million books that make up the Google Books corpus of American English books published between 1950 and 2008.

It found an overall spike in swear words as well as a dramatic increase in the use of certain words like “mother--cker,” which was used a whopping 678 times more often in the mid-2000s than in the early 1950s.

What’s behind the proliferation of profanity in literature? Researchers say modern culture prizes self-expression over social niceties.

“American culture increasingly values individual self-expression and weaker social taboos, and these trends are manifested in the increasing use of swearwords,” according to the paper.

“The increase … happened at the same time that the culture increasingly promoted self-expression and individualism. Individualism is a cultural system that emphasizes the self more and social rules less,” lead author Jean Twenge, psychology professor at San Diego State University, told the UK’s Guardian.

“So as social rules fell by the wayside, and people were told to express themselves, swearing became more common. I think this cultural lens is the best way to view it, rather than as bad or good.”

That’s especially true for younger generations. Teens and millennials are swearing more, according to recent research.  The average adolescent uses roughly 80 to 90 swear words per day says Timothy Jay, a psychology professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, Mass., and one of the leading scholars on cursing in the United States.

Which explains why another study found that young adult books tend to be full of swear words. On average, teen novels contain 38 instances of profanity, according to a study by Sarah Coyne, a professor of social sciences at Brigham Young. Some 88 percent (or 35 out of 40) of the books Professor Coyne analyzed contained profanity, more than double the rate of cursing in video games (34 percent), according to the New York Daily News.

For those who don’t like their books with a dose of profanity, there’s an app for that. A new e-reader, Clean Reader, allows you to remove profanities from books and replaces them with clean alternatives. Just choose “clean,” “cleaner,” or “squeaky clean,” and Clean Reader will, for example, replace “damn” with “darn.”

But some argue that the trend is harmless or perhaps even positive.

"Our language values are shifting, and it's just different, not better or worse," Professor Jay told the Deseret News.

And author Jenni Fagan said a spike in swearing makes books more inclusive.

“Perhaps it will help us move on from the idea of literature as a solely elite form – unaccountable to the truth, plurality and diversity of real life,” Ms. Fagan told the Guardian. 

Good or bad, the study reveals a dramatic cultural shift, says study author Twenge. “Forty-five years after George Carlin's routine, you can say those words on television – and in books.”

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