When I was in middle school, I was an anti-swearer. I made my position obnoxiously clear. When the boys in my class would swear — and it really was mostly the boys — I would immediately look to see who the offender was, glare at him and roll my eyes. This was such a defining characteristic of mine that one time I said “shoot” and a boy in my grade went around and told everyone that “Yael said shit!” which I, of course, vehemently denied.
This anti-swearing position was relatively consistent with my middle school persona. I was the new kid in a private school of kids who had been together since kindergarten. Although I had always loved school, I found my niche in my class by becoming obsessed with grades. Indeed, several boys in my grade called me “the overachiever,” which I secretly cherished, although they probably meant it more to tease me. Thus, I doubt anyone found it surprising that the goody two-shoes, school-obsessed girl also did not have an affinity for the word fuck.
Other than being a chronic rule follower, it’s hard to say for sure why I felt so personally affronted by swearing. I remember thinking that it felt immature and dirty — an embarrassing effort to feel grown up. I told myself I hated swear words because there were so many other words in the English language; swearing was indicative of a limited vocabulary and lack of imagination. I was probably uncomfortable with the way swearing so openly defied the norms that regulated our social environments. Swearing felt like a big “fuck you” to everything we were supposed to respect, which I suppose it is.
It also didn’t feel right for me, a smart and wholesome girl who was so focused on school, to swear. In some ways, I felt like I had made my choice clear: I had chosen to be nice, smart and a rule follower. I could not choose to be all of those things and also swear. Except, looking back, I notice that many of the boys in my grade did not have to make a choice between these various attributes.
Secretly, the idea of swearing exhilarated me. One time, during the height of my anti-swearing campaign, I was alone in my room doing homework. I whispered under my breath, “fuck!” Although the whole universe didn’t collapse around me, I felt incredibly ashamed of myself: I had switched from a complete non-swearer to someone who had sworn. What would happen if my mom found out?
It turns out that my reaction to swearing wasn’t necessarily overdramatic; swear words do actually have a unique function in our language, and in some ways I was missing out by not swearing. Robin Queen, linguistics professor and department chair of the communication and media department at the University of Michigan, explained that swear words are processed in a different part of the brain than most other words according to neuro-linguistic observation. Queen describes how they are used in highly emotive scenarios and can actually reduce the perception of pain and keep away from a physical altercation.
Originally, profanity was much more religiously tied, for example, saying “God” or “damn.” In modern times, profanity is much more related to the body — for example, words like “shit” or “fuck”, the latter of which is the most commonly used swear word in the United States. Queen explained that as religious life has shifted in the U.S., religious taboo has become less concerning, although in places like Europe, this cultural shift has not necessarily occurred.
“So, you know, it’s going to vary cross-culturally, but in the U.S., there’s just been a loosening of taboo, the tabooedness of things, as well as a shift in what kinds of things are especially taboo,” Queen said during on our conversation.
Apparently, swearing in the United States is at an all-time high. I spoke to Susan Douglas, U-M communication and media professor, and while discussing the history of swearing in the media, she explained that the Communications Act of 1934 restricted obscenity for any content broadcasted over the air, which still holds true today. When paid cable was introduced, media producers were able to air content that had swear words, like “The Sopranos,” for example. She explained that as swearing has increased in music, streaming, pay cable and podcasts, we are more surrounded by this language — which may have played a role in the loosening of using swear words as taboo. Douglas also talked about the kind of norms that existed regarding swearing before the turn of the 21st century, which is when Douglas believes the change occurred.
“You know, young people were not supposed to curse in school, but girls especially were not,” Douglas said. “You know it was deemed unladylike, unfeminine, you know, it violated various taboos about femininity, and like you know that girls should be more polite than boys and more well spoken and all of that.”
Douglas credits the weakening of these old structures to the evolution of women’s gender roles as new generations have pursued higher education, entered the workforce and gained more authority in society. In fact, nowadays, women are starting to use the word fuck more than men, which is also correlated to a 500% increase in women’s use of the word over the past two decades.
So, in some ways, the perspectives of my middle school self were based on seemingly antiquated dynamics. Additionally, contrary to popular thought, it was found that smarter people, or those with higher IQs, are more likely to curse. And, while most people, like middle school me, assumed that those who swear simply ran out of other words to use, it turns out that those who swear in appropriate situations actually have a larger vocabulary.
After my anti-swearing days in middle school, I went to a public high school that none of my middle school classmates attended. I had matured and didn’t care as much about what the people around me were doing. Without the semi self-imposed constraints of my previous persona, I started swearing more and more. By the time I graduated, I was swearing a lot. “Shit” became a reflex and “That’s so fucking annoying” became a phrase that I used to describe even the slightest inconvenience. My swearing habits have only become more intense in college. I swear almost all the time: with my friends and even in class, where even some of my professors and Graduate Student Instructors swear in front of students.
Even though I feel that swearing is more or less the norm on campus, I still take pleasure in surprising people with my unsavory language, specifically with those who know me from classes exclusively — especially classes with discussion sections in which I am an avid participant. When I swear, I feel like I’m sending out a signal. I’m smart and I care about this class, but I’m also cool and down to earth. I’m not afraid of expressing my emotions, even if I feel my external presentation as a woman who often participates in class indicates I should have a cleaner vocabulary.
So, even if women, including myself, are swearing more and more, there still might be some kind of differentiated expectations for the language women are supposed to use. In my conversation with Queen, she explained that while she has not done active research on the kind of backlash women may receive for swearing in the media, she thinks anecdotally that they might receive more sanctioning for swearing in public. At the same time, she explained that women cursing in the media could indicate a type of social empowerment that is used to signal women who are in powerful positions.
“I would hypothesize for sure that as people on the more woman-identified side of things want to project masculinity, that cursing is a very strong tool for doing that,” Queen said. “So kind of on the idea that our language is one of the ways and a pretty consistent way that we project or perform ourselves in particular ways and also read others in particular ways.”
Upon reflection of my college-era swearing habits, I think that part of the satisfaction I get in swearing has to do with Queen’s idea of swearing as empowerment. When I present myself as school oriented and also as someone who swears, I am almost borrowing swearing from the male legacy, a legacy which projects power.
However, this sort of projection could be totally wrong. If women’s roles have evolved to the point that women are swearing at comparable rates to men, it is possible that my exclaiming how “hard the fucking test was” to my male classmate might not be as surprising as I think it is. Certainly, it seems that the current literature suggests that in some ways, any sort of differentiated perception or expectations based on gender may be somewhat outdated. In a 2018 language study, it was found that people who swear, completely independent of gender, are judged more negatively than those who don’t. Another study from 2010 found that there was no significant relationship between the sex of the speaker and the degree of surprise — meaning that women swearing is not necessarily considered more unexpected than men swearing.
At the same time, there is still evidence out there that suggests that the legacy of patriarchal gender norms regarding swearing may be somewhat intact. According to a 2010 study on the correlation between swearing and judgment, women who did not swear — specifically using sexual profanity — were rated as much more attractive by male respondents. Additionally, women rated men who swore as more attractive. There is also a general trend in the media where women who swear make headlines, like U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib — which demonstrates how there is still a cultural reaction when women in power swear.
I spoke with Leah Litman, law professor and a co-host of a podcast called “Strict Scrutiny” which focuses on the “cases, culture, and personalities” of the United States Supreme Court. I reached out to Litman because she and her co-hosts sometimes swear and call the Supreme Court justices nicknames during their episodes. In fact, Litman told me that from the beginning, she had intended for the podcast to be “somewhat irreverent in tone.” She explained that while the podcast got lots of reviews, some of which are appreciative of the candid tone, others are are critical of the nicknames Litman and her co-hosts use to reference justices — complemented by negative feedback regarding Litman’s voice and the swearing and irreverent commentary. I asked Litman if she believed that some of this backlash could be connected to the somewhat academic context of the podcast.
“It’s hard to say, it doesn’t seem like a lot of the reviews necessarily link the fact that we are swearing to the fact that we are professors or the irreverent commentary to the fact that we are professors,” Litman said. “It just seems like that register seems to be problematic for some people and it is usually linked to the fact that we are women or progressive women — like those tend to be the things that travel together.”
The kind of reviews and feedback Litman describes make me believe that a double standard for women who swear may still be pertinent. As we begin to enter the workforce as young adults, we should be cognizant of differing norms depending on the setting. Although swearing in workplaces has become increasingly more common, women may need to be more careful in their language usage in professional settings since they risk being perceived more negatively when compared to men who swear.
It is also important to understand the ways in which the risk that women may face for swearing may be magnified for people of Color. In fact, it was found that Black individuals using non ethnic profanities were perceived as more offensive compared to white people using non ethnic profanities. Although I can’t speak from my own experiences regarding this kind of injustice, it is important to acknowledge and continue researching the ways in which women of Color and minority communities may be further impacted by double standards regarding external presentation and language.
As I continue to navigate my language choices both in social situations as well as in future professional environments, I hope that all people who are negatively impacted by the current social power dynamic are able to swear as they choose without fearing double standards. I have realized that my own internalized and evolving perceptions as to who should and shouldn’t swear might reflect the highly dynamic norms and expectations regarding the external presentation of women — specifically in the context of language and tone choice. Overall, I am glad that contrary to my anti-swearing days in middle school, I feel comfortable in letting out a good “fuck!” every once in a while.
Statement Correspondent Yael Atzmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org