Is the Internet making us curse more?

computer swear

Illustration via Max Fleishman (Licensed)

The use of curse words has increased significantly over the last 10 years.

It’s no secret our national politics have taken a stark turn away from decency and politeness and towards rudeness and vulgarity. In the hotly contested Republican primary alone, candidates—including one in particular—have attacked each other’s wives, called one another obscene names, and even mocked the size of each other’s genitals.

But it’s not just our politics—we, too, have become more obscene. Or so suggests a new report from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. According to the survey, more and more Americans are finding behaviors once deemed rude and impolite as acceptable and normal. The use of curse words, in particular, has jumped significantly over the last 10 years. A quarter of Americans admit to saying the word “fuck” on a daily basis, compared to just 15 percent in 2006.

While a majority of respondents consider such language unacceptable in public life, it’s clear curse words are slowly becoming more frequent markers of our language. Anyone who spends a significant part of their free time online is likely not shocked by this—cursing is such a regular feature of online talk that one might neglect to even mention it, let alone raise protest. As much as the Internet and our behavior on it effects our language, there’s a solid case to be made that the Internet is making cursing not just more frequent, but more acceptable.

Any trip into a Reddit thread or Twitter feed can make cursing seem like wallpaper. 

Data for cursing in real life can be hard to come by, reliant as it is on self-reporting and the inherent bias some may have in hiding how much they actually do curse. What the AP-NORC study does reveal with certainty, however, is an increased acceptance of foul language in public life. Of the 1,004 respondents to the study, 25 percent agreed using “fuck” in public is perfectly acceptable behavior, with a majority (64 percent) agreeing it remains unacceptable. This is a shift towards tolerance. A 2006 AP-Ipsos study found only 12 percent of respondents said the word didn’t bother them at all.

On the current set of data released this week, AP-NORC found a significant gender gap in what behavior is considered rude and what isn’t—31 percent of men suggested cursing in public is perfectly acceptable, compared to just 16 percent of women. A wider valley is found when respondents are split among age. Half of people over the age of 60, for example, said cursing in public was rude while just 14 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds thought the same. Interestingly, both groups suggest cursing online is acceptable—32 percent from the older group balked at it and just 4 percent of the younger group did.

Part of the reason cursing in public is more acceptable among the younger group simply be the recklessness of youth—one might think people with children are likelier to have more fragile sensitivities and more stringent boundaries on what they consider obscene and what they don’t, and younger people are simply less likely than the older group to be raising or have raised children.

But even people with kids are cursing more, and the biggest evidence for this is kids themselves are cursing more. According to the work of Timothy Jay, a psychologist from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, children are learning to curse earlier and more frequently—and they’re learning it from adults. According to Jay, who has made a career out of studying the psychology of verbal profanity, cursing has risen significantly over the last generation, and this is affecting how kids learn to curse and how frequently they attempt to do so.

One of the factors tying this generation of parents (and future generations) clearly goes back to that “acceptability gap” between what we endure offline and what we can stomach online vs. offline. Despite the border we might imagine between our personal and digital selves, how we speak online influences how we speak in real life. This is particularly true of slang, profanity, and other improper speech. Traditionally born out of casual conversation between subgroups, the Internet has become a petri dish for an inviting slew of new slang and methods to offend someone.

Any trip into a Reddit thread or Twitter feed can make cursing seem like wallpaper.

As much as the Internet affects our speech, it makes sense to suggest the disparity between how we curse online would bleed into our everyday speech. 

According to a 2014 report presented at the ACM Conference On Computer-Supported Cooperative Work % Social Computing, we do in fact curse more online than we do in plain speech. The analysis, which included a random sample of more than 51 million English-language tweets,  found one in thirteen contained a curse word. Whereas a normal person’s speech might be 0.5 percent obscene, 1.15 percent of our speech online is, meaning we curse more than twice as much online as we do in the real world.

As much as the Internet affects our speech, it makes sense to suggest the disparity between how we curse online—which the AP-NORC study found to be more universally acceptable—would bleed into our everyday speech. Not simply because we might use it more often, but because we see it. Language is a social phenomenon, and we adjust our own to model that of the people around us. What makes the Internet such a frothing mess of this kind of language, however, is the inherently social nature of it over other kinds of media.

George Dvorsky at io9 entered the words “shit” and “cunt” and “fuck” into Google’s Ngram tool—which analyzes English-language texts from between 1900 and 2000—and found an explosion of cursing not 20 years ago, not 30 years ago, but over 50 years ago, beginning at the start of the 1960s. This is, not coincidentally, also the start of a larger movement in mass media. It’s likely the evolution of our own cursing has matched that of how much profanity we allow through our literature, movie screens, and televisions. Here, too, it’s an upward slope—a list of the movies with the most “fucks” in the script finds six out of the top 10 came out this century and all were released after 1990.

Cursing begets cursing, simply because all language works proliferates through repetitive use. The open, accepting atmosphere of the Internet, combined with the degree we are encouraged to be social, means the most common and important form of media we consume—social media—is encouraging and allowing us to curse more frequently.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the late comedian George Carlin or any high school freshman currently sitting in their principal’s office could tell you. Psychologists have found no causal relation between cursing and any other mental harm or wrongdoing. 

Instead, it's a ground-level report on how the Internet adjusts our attitudes and our behaviors. It might be easy to blame the anonymity that is so easy to come by online, or the lacking empathy created when all you can see of a person is an avatar on a computer screen. But the norms we use to learn and accept and judge and be offended still traffic online, even if our boundaries for decency do not.

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter

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