Some people argue that scholarly inquiry about profanity is pointless, and even laughable. Timothy Jay, PhD, has some choice words for them. The Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts psychology professor is a goddamn expert, and in a newly published study he alleges it's a fucking tragedy that so many academics don't give two shits about how and why we curse.
"Within linguistics and psychology — which are very conservative disciplines — you don't see much of what I do," says Jay, who says that even his school's media-relations team is sometimes slow to advertise his studies. "It's a concern, really, because as a result, we have an inaccurate view of human nature."
In a report published in the March issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, Jay analyzes various interdisciplinary attempts to understand the culture of cussing, as well as the implications of past and present research. Some of his findings are obvious; others are surprising; and nearly all are hilarious. Among the highlights are:
"Most taboo word use involves 10 frequently used terms (fuck, shit, hell, damn, goddamn, Jesus Christ, ass, oh my god, bitch, and sucks)."
"Researchers have often overlooked the fact that many episodes of taboo word use are casual conversational habits (e.g., 'This CD is fucking great.') in the absence of any social motive other than fitting in with others' informal use of taboo words."
" 'Eat shit!' is acceptable, maybe even expected, in a locker room, but it is impolite at the dinner table."
In other words, our countrymen and -women are brutes and savages who curse for no reason, but who — in some cases — acknowledge that it's rude to request that folks chow feces. According to Jay, even neuropsychiatrically challenged Americans are excessively profane: "American Touretters," he says, "usually shout words such as 'fuck' or 'motherfucker' but not 'poop.' "
Still — despite the unavoidable absurdity that surfaces whenever words like "fuck" and "poop" are used in serious discourse — he stresses that vulgarity is an important aspect of linguistic analysis.
"Not acknowledging that we curse is dishonest," says Jay, who earned acclaim for writing about the word "asshole" in the June 2008 Esquire, and for addressing locker-room flatulence in the NFL documentary Autumn Ritual. "It's like not acknowledging that we fart — these things are only natural."