- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2000

Americans are more foul-mouthed than ever, says the author of a new book about cursing, and many do not view their offensive language as a problem.

James V. O'Connor, 55, a retired Army lieutenant and the owner and operator of O'Connor Communications, a suburban Chicago public relations firm in Northbrook, Ill., is a self-admitted but reformed cusser. He has come out with a book, "Cuss Control: The Complete Book On How to Curb Your Cussing," that describes its corrosive effect on American culture.

"People need to be made aware that swearing does damage to relationships, to the individual and to society," he says.

"People judge you by the way you speak. Our language and choice of words is a reflection of our character and personality. No one wants to be around a negative, grumbling or offensive person."

The 235-page book describes how the bad language that swearers assume is acceptable is really only tolerated by their listeners. Swearing, he says, is a blot on everyone's reputation.

Mr. O'Connor also researched people who do not swear. "They have incredible tolerance," he said. "When they get really angry, they take a deep breath and count to 10 or they walk away."

While Mr. O'Connor insists that he is not trying to eliminate all swearing, he would like to see a conscious effort made to curtail it. "My book is called 'Cuss Control,' not 'Cuss Elimination,' " he says. "Everybody who swears knows there are times that it is completely offensive, and I just want people to be made conscious of the language they are using."

In August 1998, Mr. O'Connor opened a "Cuss Control Academy" in Northbrook offering adult evening classes twice a month. Eight to 12 persons attend each one. "No one is afraid to admit that they swear, but they may have a tinge of guilt about it," he says. "I think a number of people will get this book anonymously. Some people may get five or six copies."

No one disputes his point that swearing is deeply imbedded in American life.

"Swearing is something I have always done," says Sarah Miller, a 20-something free-lance writer who has written on the topic for Cosmopolitan. "My parents swear, and I swear. I grew up around it, and I don't find it particularly appealing or unappealing. To me, it is a way that I can gauge who I'm going to get along with."

Although the Third Commandment forbids taking the Lord's name in vain that is, attaching it to a swear word not everyone finds cursing to be wrong or offensive. Timothy Jay, a psychologist at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and author of "Cursing In America" and "Why We Curse," views swearing as a normal and essential part of the English language.

"It is the one kind of language that we use to express our emotions," he said. "We could never eliminate cursing unless we eliminate our emotions."

What about the people who do not swear, or those who swear only around their most intimate acquaintances? "Those individuals who do not swear do so because they most likely had a religious or moral upbringing, and they were probably punished when they let a bad word slip," he said.

"I relate swearing to the horn on a car," he said. "When we use it, it becomes reflexive. Some of us may stop using it, but that does not necessarily mean we have stopped thinking about it. We still know it's there and that it has an intended use."

Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said driving and swearing are definitely related. "Driving is one of the more emotionally trying experiences people face daily in the D.C. area," he said. "And do tempers get lost? Yes, and that clearly results in many angry exchanges."

The Washington area has the nation's second-worst traffic congestion. According to AAA Potomac's 1997 Transportation Poll, 8 percent of the drivers questioned admitted to gesturing and exchanging unpleasantries with other drivers. The percentage jumped to 15 percent within the District.

In his book "Cursing In America," Mr. Jay provides some additional swearing statistics.

• Curse words account for 8 percent of leisure conversation among college students and 13 percent among adults.

• A male coach is the most likely candidate to be heard cursing on campus, a female librarian the least.

• A male dorm, the school newspaper office and gym are all likely places to hear cursing, but seldom would it be heard coming from a day care center, the piano lab or career planning office.

• Mixed-sex cursing is rare. Men and women were found to curse more around members of the same sex.

Eve McBride, a former journalist for the Montreal Gazette and mother of four teen-age daughters, also has written on the topic. She said in an interview that swearing gives her a certain sense of assertiveness and freedom. She pointed out, however, that she is considerate and respectful of other people.

"I swear, and my kids swear," she said. "But I think there is too much swearing, in that it is used without thought or implication."

Steven McCornack, professor of language and discourse at Michigan State University, says his acting vocabulary, outside class, is somewhere between a rock musician and a truck driver. "I was in a band, and I drove a big truck, but I don't use that language as a teaching tool," he said.

He says language is an ongoing, living, organic entity in the sense that it is constantly changing. "Until 150 years ago, there were not any rules in the English language," he explained. "English is a bunch of junk that was borrowed from other languages and peoples and thrown together by a bunch of British grammarians.

"Profanity varies widely within cultures. Language is a symbol system. So profanity boils down to what reference or symbol is seen as profane by that culture. Some may think that movies and TV shows are profane, but they are simply reflective of the times."

Said Mrs. McBride: "People don't like those swearwords that talk openly about sex or blasphemously about religion. To speak derogatively about those two things is to put down something that is still very important, even reverent, in our society."

The recorded history of swearing dates back to the 15th century. British soldiers fighting in France introduced one particular curse word that combined God with something that had previously served only to stop the flow of water. The word later became a nickname for all Britons.

During the 16th century, Anglo-Saxons used the word "fachon," which means "to take or seize." Germans preferred "ficken," meaning "to strike," and Americans have since adapted the two words to fit into a variety of meanings.

In Middle Eastern cultures, it is still a severe insult to call a man a woman or anything having to do with a woman. "Profanity related to female sexuality is a lot more offensive," Mr. McCornack said. "Why else would it be so insulting to tell someone they play or act like a girl? You don't do it."

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