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In the last few years I have noticed both with colleagues and from online discussions a tendency for English language writing and speech to become more and more vulgar. That is, I see explicatives used in casual conversation, where in other languages (or even English a decade ago) one would not curse. Specifically, it seems that any sentence in which an adjective could be added, has the adjective "the fucking" added, even in calm everyday speech.

Just as an example, I had intended to add a comment to a Wikipedia Talk page for a technical subject, not some pop icon. I would expect that such a page would draw the more professional and learned audience. Some comments from that page:

Why the hell is there a picture of an aeroplane on this page?

and:

What the hell is a Gaurav?

Why is "the hell" added to both those sentences?

Off-line, I notice this phenomenon both from native English speakers (from Canada and from the US) and from ESL speaking colleagues from Hungary, Russia, Israel, and Argentina. Hardly a conversation goes by without the use of vulgarities.

Online, I might explain the phenomenon by the fact that in years recent the Internet has become more accessible to lower classes, but this does not explain the use of vulgarities in a professional setting. Perhaps there is a popular English-language television show that uses this language? Perhaps when the phenomenon started we should have been more diligent in asking people to be polite, and having failed that now such language is considered acceptable? Perhaps the situation has always been such yet as I've become older I'm now more conscious of it? What might explain the prevalence of obscene language in the past decade?

See the comments on this question for a recent example here on the SE network.

EDIT: As DietrichEpp observes in the comments, more informal communication is now recorded (i.e. written/online) than in the past (mostly verbal). I would like to address with this question the phenomenon of spoken profanity, especially the use of "fucking" as an adjective where no adjective is called for.

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    In the past, informal communication was almost always verbal. Today, people are writing more than ever before, and much of it is in informal contexts like text messages and Facebook. So it may appear that people are cursing more often, when perhaps the only difference is that now the curses are written down. I suspect if you limited your corpus to sites where participants use a more formal register, like the Stack Exchange network, you would find a fairly low occurrence of swear words. This is not to say that people aren't cursing more often. Finding the right data for this is hard. – Dietrich Epp Dec 28 '14 at 13:48
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    @DietrichEpp: Thank you. I actually do find that off-line cursing has increase (markedly) as well, and that is the crux of the question. I'll clarify that. – dotancohen Dec 28 '14 at 14:24
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    I can see no indication whatsoever that the English vernacular as she is spoken colloquially has become more vulgar or experienced an increase in the frequency of employing profanities. We just happen to have access only to current colloquial usage. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 29 '14 at 11:30
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    Why would you expect "a professional and learned audience" on a wikipedia talk page? – Jon Hanna Dec 30 '14 at 1:34
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    What the hell do you mean by "explicatives?" – The111 Dec 30 '14 at 7:03
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Why do people use expletives?

They use them to intensify or add emotional commentary to the bare statement, or convey the speaker's attitude to the statement, as one of the other answers mentioned.

Why do expletives act as intensifiers?

Because you're not supposed to use them - in polite company, at least. That is, they are taboo. Using a taboo word or phrase is a flag - an indication that the speaker is in a heightened emotional state - sufficiently annoyed or upset or thrilled to be driven to break the taboo.

Useful things, intensifiers, particularly in written language where you can't convey attitude or intensity by tone or volume or physical action. And SHOUTING IN ALL CAPS has limited utility.

There are lots of other intensifiers - superlatives etc.

But all intensifiers suffer from overuse. They start off powerful, then people who are drama queens, or just prone to exaggeration, use them for less and less intense experiences, and they lose power, and become more ordinary. That's why people keep needing to invent fresh new ones. Totes amazeballs, isn't it?

What's changed in contemporary culture, IMHO, is that the modern advertising industry is responsible for gross overuse of intensifiers, swamping us with completely inappropriate usages, and rapidly removing any power from newly created intensifiers.

Except expletives.

Most marketeers are too cowardly to use rude words, luckily, so they are the only intensifiers left with any power at all, that haven't been corrupted by corporate misuse.

Of course, since they're the only ones left, they're also being overused, as the original question notes, so soon the remaining taboos will be gone, and we'll be left with nothing at all.

OMG.

  • Thank you, this is very insightful. I am accepting this as the answer as it seems to corroborate with my own observations. However, if anybody else can a more evidence-based explanation, or an attribution to a linguistics professor, I am open to accepting another answer. – dotancohen Dec 30 '14 at 8:51
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There are many factors explaining a seemingly larger use of a language profanity, indeed.

First off, we should remember that during thousands of years, only few people were literate, mostly monks and priests (however, check comments for some interesting exceptions). Hence, many of artifacts (obviously, written ones, not spoken) have been created by highly-educated, well-mannered, highly religious people.

Naturally, they did not use vulgar words. If they did, they would quickly lose social respect, which may mean losing their high social status.

Even the term Profanity has its origin in Latin profanus, lit. "before a temple".

Conclusion 1. What we see in written artifacts, may not represent the entire variety of socio-cultural phenomenons existed by the time.


Apart from that, languages evolve. In 17th century, some people would say it is rude to use you/your instead of thou/thy.

If the Lord would show thee but this one thing, -- that to use "thee" and "thou" to a particular person is proper language, and Scripture language; and that to say "you," is improper, and arose from pride, and nourisheth pride, and so is of the world, and not of the Father; and thou should bow thy spirit to him in this one thing, thou little thinkest what a work it would make within thee, and how strongly the spirit of darkness would fight against thy subjection thereto.
-- Isaac Penington, 1670.

I see the same phenomenon in modern Thai. Thai has different pronouns depending on relative social status of a speaker and a listener — "formal" and "informal" ones. However, in mass media the more and more people are using "informal" ones, despite using them even 30 years ago would certainly mean that a speaker admits their "lower" social status.

Conclusion 2. Languages evolve. What was rude yesterday is not rude today and likely will be a language norm tomorrow.


As we know, "everything was better in the past". :) Of course it is not true. Everyone has established as a person at a certain time. Whenever we see something unusual, we tend to give it a bad name.

The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.
-- mis-attributed to Socrates (469–399 B.C.)

Conclusion 3. The same person would perceive those changes as "the language gets worse".

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    Thank you, that is a rather insightful commentary. I'm getting old! – dotancohen Dec 28 '14 at 13:20
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    Isaac Penington was a Quaker, and his viewpoint on pronouns was a distinctly Quaker viewpoint. One theory is that Quakers objected to the thou/you distinction on egalitarian grounds because it reflected class distinctions, another theory is that the Quakers used "thou" to distinguish themselves and identify each other. Suffice it to say, the Quakers were seen as an odd bunch, and it was generally not rude to use you/your in the 17th century. – Dietrich Epp Dec 28 '14 at 13:38
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    You write: "we should remember that during thousands of years, only few people knew writing, mostly monks and priests." This is totally untrue. Classical Greek and Latin literature is not written by "monks" or by "priests". Nor is classical Chinese literature. These literatures are overwhelmingly secular in their content. They also have lots to say about sex. – fdb Dec 28 '14 at 16:42
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    Your you/your-vs.-thou/thy example is mistaken. You was the formal (polite) pronoun; no one would have called it "rude". Penington disapproved of it for theological reasons, but the usage he was advocating was actually the "rude" one. (I don't think this is very analogous to profanity, but if you want to take that route: Penington was saying that we should use the word "fucking", since it is prideful to avoid it.) – ruakh Dec 28 '14 at 18:20
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    Also, to add to fdb's comment: It's not that there are various "exceptions" to "during thousands of years, only few people were literate, mostly monks and priests"; it's that the "mostly monks and priests" part is completely false. In Medieval Europe, the literate folk were mostly priests and monks; but this was not true for "thousands of years", and it was not true elsewhere even during that time. – ruakh Dec 28 '14 at 18:31
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When used extensively, profanities tend to get adopted into standard language, thereby losing their "profane" meaning. This does not just happen in English, there are similarities in other languages as well.

Consider the german word sehr, which has the same word stem as the english sore, and originally meant bloody, wounded. At some point in time, it got used more and more as an intensification; by now, it has lost its original meaning completely, and is used just like the english very. Germans typically don't even know about the original meaning. Go figure what's going to happen to bloody in Australia in a few centuries - unless the internet gets the various versions of english to converge before that.

  • +1 for the TIL. For a citation, see Duden Herkunft – March Ho Dec 29 '14 at 10:32
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    For another example, in French they often say "je m'en fous" to mean "I do not care". But literally it means... well... I dare not write it. – Bob Dec 29 '14 at 21:46
  • Out of curiosity, why did you fail to capitalize every reference to "English" (with one exception) and properly capitalize every other reference to a country (with one exception on German)? – user6878 Dec 30 '14 at 5:28
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    @user6878, there is an inconsistency between the first and last E/english in the text, but apart from that I assume that Guntram's native language is German, and in German nouns are capitalised and adjectives are not, without special treatment of country names. – Carsten S Dec 30 '14 at 17:06
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    @user6878 - Carsten is right. I'm used to not capitalize words that are used as an adjective (the english [word] sore), but capitalize nouns (... happen in English). A lot of this is happening subconciously, and mistakes don't "stand out" for me like they would in a german text, so it's less likely i spot and correct them. So there's no purpose to it at all. Of course, you're welcome to correct any spelling mistakes you notice. – Guntram Blohm supports Monica Dec 30 '14 at 17:18
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Note that you are looking at written communication. When you communicate with written language, any meaning usually transported by inflection, mimic and gesture is lost.

Let's see what this poster means:

Why the hell is there a picture of an aeroplane on this page?

Does the user want an answer to this question? No, this is a rhetorical question. The user wants to express their opinion that this picture needs to go. In face-to-face communication the author would use inflection and facial expression to convey his disagreement. But this is impossible in written communication. So the user uses vulgarity to substitute.

When the user would write the same sentence without "the hell":

Why is there a picture of an aeroplane on this page?

He could be misunderstood as someone genuinely interested in this design choice who has not formed an opinion yet and wants a serious answer.

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    That is certainly an interesting perspective. – dotancohen Dec 28 '14 at 19:57
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    Interesting explanation. I have frequently encountered "Why the hell ...?" questions, but as a non-native speaker of English, it had never occurred to me that "the hell" could indicate that the question is rhetorical. On the contrary, my understanding so far was that "the hell" underlines the desire of the speaker to learn about the reasons for (here) the aeroplane on the page; the use of the strong expression "the hell" seemed to emphasize that the speaker cannot remotely think of any reason and hence requires and asks for an extensive explanation. Always learning something new here :) – O. R. Mapper Dec 28 '14 at 20:01
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    @O.R.Mapper "The hell" does indicate that the speaker can't think of any reason; the implication is that there is no good reason, and it should be gone. – cpast Dec 28 '14 at 20:28
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    I would write "Why on earth is there a picture ..." to get the same effect with less profanity (and less implied anger). "the heck" is also available, as are others. – Dronz Dec 29 '14 at 20:41
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    I have a strong suspicion that this varies by cultural context, but "what the hell" just isn't vulgar to me (my background: New York and Massachusetts). It's informal and familiar, but you wouldn't have to feel guilty about saying in front of a child, say. In my experience contemporary reservations about saying "hell" are specifically religious (i.e. a belief that to say it is to disrespect its seriousness). I don't think I know anyone who would actually consider it a swear though. – Semicolon Dec 30 '14 at 2:35
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Part of the explanation lies in changing cultural values over the past 50 years, especially starting with the late 60's. Certain words have become less socially acceptable (the N word or "retard" – the noun) and swear words have become more acceptable, reflecting ideological changes (that denigrating people based on physical handicap or race is improper; that there is nothing intrinsically bad with a word referring to feces or sex). This is paired with changes in law, so that censors no longer bleep "damn" (the famous 7 dirty words are largely avoided on broadcast TV).

1

Guy Deutcher's book "The Unfolding of Language" offer a possible explanation which I will summarize here.

Two forces drive the evolution of languages: 1. the desire for greater expressive impact, and 2. efficiency/compactness.

The desire for efficiency is how "I am going to..." becomes "I'm going to..." and finally "Ima...", and the quest for ever greater impact is how "That was a big dog!" becomes "That was a huge dog!" to "That was a f*cking gigantic dog!"

In other words, the more times you hear a particular phrase, the less emotional/evocative impact it carries, so the speaker is forced to employ words from other contexts to amp things back up and achieve the same effect.

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The increase in vulgarities is due to the increase in moral decay on this planet.

I've noticed more "hell variant" phrases tossed about in the last 2 years than I've probably encountered in my whole life.

There is a clear intent to de-sensitize people's ears to the word hell. I can remember when hell was only talked about by preachers.

Matt 12:34: O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.

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    This answer makes broad and unverified claims. No reason is offered to attribute "moral decay" to every culture on the planet. No party is identified whose "intent" it is to desensitize people to the use of the word "Hell." This is a religious sermon presented as an answer to a socio-linguistic question. Religious sermons, however inspiring, don't constitute answers to questions about socio-linguistics. – James Grossmann Dec 29 '14 at 1:48
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    Understood,but I wasn't aware that there were people who would ACTUALLY want proof of something glaringly obvious like moral decay. – Qwan Lee Dec 29 '14 at 3:00
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    @QwanLee: It's not as glaringly obvious as you think. All that's obvious is that distinctly Judeo-Christian ideas of morality don't have as special a status as they did a few decades ago. That alone does not prove "moral decay", just change. – cHao Dec 29 '14 at 6:25
  • @cHao- don't close your eyes to reality. Here is a website listing some of the changes which have occurred over the years. All the studies aren't religious related either. peacebyjesus.witnesstoday.org/RevealingStatistics.html – Qwan Lee Dec 29 '14 at 17:15
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    Even if the statistics in that site can be taken as evidence of "moral decay", there is still nothing linking the increase in use of profanity to "moral decay". – Doktor J Dec 30 '14 at 3:22

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