By Robert Folsom | January 18, 2013
There’s a strong case to be made that a rising trend in the use of swear words is an indicator of negative social mood.
I realize this hypothesis is hard to quantify — which words, who says them, where and how often, etc. — and that the evidence deserves more space than I can give it here. So please bear with me, and be assured that
- Whether you’re relieved or disappointed, no R-rated language will follow, and
- I’ll limit my examples to a pair of recently published books that represent the larger trend.
Ascent of the A-Word by Geoffrey Nunberg published this past August; the book “briskly and entertainingly traces how a bit of World War II GI slang became an ubiquitous epithet and a moral category that’s come to embody our polarized politics.”
Mind you, author Geoffrey Nunberg defines “respected academic” — linguist, adjunct professor at UC Berkeley, former principal scientist at Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center, and emeritus chair of the American Heritage Dictionary usage panel.
Then in October came ***holes: A Theory by Aaron James (Ph.D. Harvard, philosophy professor UC Irvine). The review in Harper’s magazine asserted that the author
…neatly does what philosophers must do: he defines his terms, organizes and codifies, declares his own loyalties; he locates himself on the spectrum of ***holery and suggests origins both psychological and sociological. The result is a delightful combination of the [common] and the technical.
Each of the two books was authored by a respected academic, speaks to a general audience, and was widely reviewed in the major media…
… And, each book offers its own astute reflection on the use and meaning of the same formerly very vulgar word.
So, does negative mood make bad words less “bad”?
Perhaps so, in the practical sense that negative social mood means more people do seem to indulge vulgarity. This begs the deeper question, “WHY do we see a rising trend in the appeal and tolerance of vulgar language?”
As is so often true of the “Why” of collective behavior, socionomics offers a uniquely satisfying and credible answer.