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May 15, 2003 - Cursing in America - 2003-05-15

Broadcast on "Coast to Coast": May 15, 2003

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- curse words in American English.

RS: We can't say them on the air, but a listener in Sokoto, Nigeria, Paul Ezeani, would like us to talk about them. So we found an expert who has dedicated his career to studying the role of cursing in America.

AA: Timothy Jay is in the Psychology Department at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. Professor Jay points out that while freedom of speech is protected under the U-S Constitution, there are increasing restrictions on language.

JAY: "We have the freedom of speech, right, the First Amendment, but then you can't sexually harass someone, you can't use racial language to discriminate against them, you can't produce obscene speech, you can't use indecent speech -- those are kind of laws that we have about the workplace and school."

RS: So when it's OK to curse, what words do Americans choose, we asked Professor Jay.

JAY: "The obscenities that we have in our culture are hundreds of years old, you know, the Anglo-Saxon words, and we can chase those all the way back to the time of Chaucer. So those are pretty stable. What does change is slang, and slang becomes obsolete and exhausts itself, and we make up new kinds of sexual slang.

"What's happened in our country over the last hundred years is we've shifted from a focus on profanity and blasphemy, which are religious words -- either an indifference toward religion or an attack on religion -- we've shifted away from that to focus more on words about sexuality. Most of what we think about obscenity has to do with sexual acts or sexual deviance. So that's the shift, probably along with the decline of the church in modern societies."

AA: "Now there's certainly a lot more cursing around us nowadays, it seems -- you turn on the TV, you turn on the radio, you hear words you never would have heard, you know, ten or twenty years ago."

RS: "Is there more permissiveness in our society, and perhaps in our media."

JAY: "Well, media standards have changed. It think it's harder to answer the permissiveness question because at the same time we have more explicit media we also have things like sexual harassment and voice mail being monitored and e-mail being monitored. So I don't think we're becoming more permissive, but I think the media that we consume is becoming more explicit.

"I think a lot of this begins in the late '60s, where you've got the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the Vietnam War, a shift in the standards for producing movies. Now we have cable TV and satellite. So all of these media are competing with each other for our interest at night, and when one person turns up the steam, then so does the other. That's what we're seeing every year now."

AA: "So money, maybe it comes down to."

JAY: "Yeah, I think that's the other side of this, is to look at this again as power and also, you know, big corporations who make a lot of money kind of setting the standards but playing with the standards at the same time."

RS: "What is the student of English as a foreign language to do, to learn when and when not to use profanity?"

JAY: "That's a good question. My sister was a teacher in English-as-a-second language programs out in Los Angeles for a long time, and these kind of questions about sexuality and body parts and taboos isn't part of the curriculum, for some good reasons I guess. But the women she taught would always ask her after class. But, you know, there's plenty of slang books. I think people learning English as a second language also pick it up in the media, they pick it up in records."

AA: "I've got to ask you, do you ever use profanity or swear words in your lectures, other than when you're talking about these words as words?"

JAY: "Yeah, I do, for two reasons. One, I do it sometimes for surprise. And then, in my -- I just finished a class on language and censorship, and to really to get them talking, I have to break down these barriers and traditions in the classroom. And still, I mean here in 2003, many of my students just won't talk about it, they just won't use this kind of language."

RS: Timothy Jay is a psychology professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, in North Adams, Massachusetts. His books include "Why We Curse," "Cursing in America" and "What to Do When Your Students Talk Dirty."

AA: And that's all for Wordmaster this week. Our e-mail address is, and you'll find our programs on the Web at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC: "Daddy Could Swear, I Declare"/Gladys Knight and the Pips