In using an expletive last week to tell a rally of hockey fans, “This is a big fuckin’ day,” did Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti cross a line?
There are real data now to help answer such a question. Relatively recent technologies—cable television, satellite radio, and social media—provide us with a not-too-unrealistic picture of how often people swear in public and what they say when they do. People now are capable of recording and being recorded at any time. Before these new forms of reporting, the media provided a fairly sanitized view of spoken English. Newspapers today still report swearing euphemistically, as in “N-word,” “F-bomb,” or “an eight-letter word for animal excrement,” instead of telling us what was really said. Fortunately, YouTube now offers people like me, who study language and profanity, a more accurate picture. By all accounts, those in public places were swearing in the past; we just weren’t able or equipped to record it.
Are widely reported acts of swearing by public figures like Garcetti’s typical or not? And are the rest of us any different—how frequently do regular people swear and what do we say?
Language scientists actually attempt to answer these questions. In one study reported in the journal Science, less than one percent of the words used by participants (who were outfitted with voice recorders over a period of time) were swear words. That doesn’t sound like very much, but if a person says 15,000 words per day, that’s about 80 to 90 fucks and shits during that time. (Of course, there’s considerable variability—some people don’t say any swear words and some say hundreds more).
When I was a visiting scholar in the psychology department at UCLA in the 1990s, my research team counted how frequently people used swear words in and around Los Angeles. I reported these data in Why We Curse and compared them to previous swearing estimates. It came as no surprise to me that fuck was the most frequently recorded swear word. Fuck and shit, which first entered the English lexicon in the 15th century, usually end up first and second in our observational research, having long ago surpassed more religious profanities such as damn and hell in popular usage.
More recently, we reported in The American Journal of Psychology that fuck and shit appeared consistently in the vocabularies of children between 1 and 12 years of age. Yes, preschoolers say fuck—most parents already know this, of course. And we shouldn’t worry about it. There is no social science evidence to suggest a swearword would harm a youngster physically or psychologically—even if she were watching a newscast of a respected politician swearing in public. The idea that children are harmed by hearing swearwords rests on the assumption that children are naïve about profanity, and our study suggests they are not.
So please, don’t be shocked by these swearword statistics, or by public people like professional athletes and politicians swearing in public. Politicians get caught swearing all the time. This was obvious in the 1970s when we read all those “expletive deleted” references in the transcripts of President Richard Nixon’s Oval Office tapes. In 2000, we caught then-candidate George W. Bush referring to New York Times reporter Adam Clymer as a “major league asshole.” In 2004, we heard Vice President Dick Cheney tell Vermont Senator Pat Leahy to “go fuck” himself on the floor of the U.S. Senate. In 2010, Vice President Joe Biden called the passage of President Obama’s healthcare legislation “a big fucking deal.” From Canada, transcripts reveal Toronto Mayor Rob Ford saying, “I’m so fucking sick of politics, dude.” I could go on with these gaffes. If you want more, take a look at Steve Anderson’s documentary, FUCK, which offers plenty of swearing by politicians (I appear toward the end of the film to describe children’s swearing).
I put Mayor Garcetti’s profane celebration of the Kings’ Stanley Cup in the Biden category. Whatever else you say about the mayor’s use of the term, it is not creative or original. In fact, Garcetti’s overt enthusiasm in this sports-centric context is oddly reminiscent of what happened in Quebec this March. Justin Trudeau, a liberal leader in Canada’s House of Commons, was speaking before a boxing match for a charity fund. Trudeau, who had boxed before, noted that one’s past and fortunes were not important in boxing: “None of that fucking matters,” he said.
If you haven’t seen the clips of Trudeau and Garcetti on YouTube, watch them. It’s obvious that these politicians (who are also both the sons of politicians) are talking to arena-filled, sports-minded audiences, but not to you and me sitting at home. In both cases the audiences at the arenas react enthusiastically with mirth; they laugh and applaud. Why not? These men were talking to predominantly male audiences about two wildly aggressive, testosterone-filled and adrenaline-soaked sports.
To sportsmen and sports enthusiasts, fuck is not a foreign word. Profanity in sports goes back a long time. In 1995, I was invited on NBC’s Today show to comment on what it meant when NBC Sports went in the locker room and recorded the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Greg Lloyd saying, “Let’s bring this damn thing [the conference trophy] back here next year along with the fucking Super Bowl.” By my count, the professional athletes who’ve been in trouble for swearing widely outnumber our politicians.
Yes, I swear when I play sports. Many years ago, I played hockey at Miami University (the same school attended by Alec Martinez, scorer of the Kings’ championship-winning goal). I still play hockey, and today I also play golf. When I play sports (especially golf) I say fuck because I make so many stupid mistakes. I also hear my mates yelling out a few shits, hells, and goddammits. Ours isn’t trash talking to put others down. Ours is emphatic emotional speech that accompanies moments of frustration, anger, surprise, and joy. So was Garcetti’s joyful, “This is a fuckin’ big day.”
But what happens when the viewer at home encounters these expletive-laced speeches on their TVs or the Internet? Some viewers take it personally, calling these guys degraders of morals and classless because they’re only thinking of the historically sexual meaning of the word fuck. Notice that both Garcetti and Trudeau (along with Bono at the Golden Globes) used fucking as an intensifier, not as a sexual obscenity. Most swear words are used connotatively (to convey emotion), not for their literal meaning, as in these examples. In the past, the Federal Communications Commission viewed every use of fuck as sexual. But the examples I’ve cited and others have nothing to do with sex—a point I’ve made as an expert witness in court.
The FCC waffles back and forth about what to do about Garcetti- and Trudeau-type “fleeting expletives,” which are spontaneous and difficult for broadcasters to control. Fox Sports apologized for Garcetti’s “inappropriate” speech, but it’s not clear if Fox will be fined by the FCC. (My best guess: probably not, since Obama’s commissioners are dovish on profanity). The FCC ruled less liberally during the Bush years when conservatives had more sway and swearing incidents were demonized by media watchdog groups such as the Parents Television Council. It’s interesting that these groups don’t complain similarly about alcohol ads in professional sports. Alcohol can kill you, but swearing won’t; swearing might even help you cope with life’s stressors, according to some recent research.
Of course, the offended will always be watching. Their exact numbers and characteristics are not entirely known, but media research reveals them as exhibiting personality characteristics that are conservative, religious, and sensitive to overt sexuality. They want to see broadcast standards made less lax. Older generations who are less understanding of technology may see more profanity and perceive that there is a change in language or societal habits, even when that is not the case or not the whole story. Swearing by people in positions of power has always been there; it just used to be better hidden. We have to learn to accept that we are now going to see, and hear, more Garcettis.
But there is good news. The day after any swearing incident—maybe you’ve noticed—nothing happens. No children have been harmed. No one has to be hospitalized, medicated, or admitted to a mental health facility or trauma center. Yes, some sensibilities may get joggled a little bit—but coping with slight deviations from the expected or moments of minor discomfort is part of life (and even a “teachable moment” if you’re a parent). No one, not even your mother, dies from hearing the word fuck.