Walk the halls of any high school in America, and I can practically guarantee you will hear two words: “f-ck” and “sh-t.” This figurative promise indicates how commonplace curse words have become in the vernacular of younger generations. But what is more debatable is whether cursing remains shocking, and if by keeping on this trajectory, future generations will become even more desensitized. Some parents think that cursing is incredibly surprising and should not be included in adolescents’ regular vocabularies. However, others may believe cursing has no shock value, regardless of where, when, and by whom it is said. I believe this perspective does not consider the nuance nor comprehend the shock value of swearing in society. In addition, to state that cursing is never shocking is to discredit the variables that are present in everyday life and the differences in how people articulate. After researching this topic and forming my own position, the shockingness of profanity really depends on the circumstances in which someone curses and the person who curses.
Many of my peers say that the rate at which people are cursing has skyrocketed in recent years, but the shock value has not dampened. To better understand these shock-inducing principles, I surveyed anonymous community members of all ages at my school about their experiences and beliefs. People agree that the shock value of curse words is dependent on both the situation and the individual, as 80.9% of the community tends to curse all the time when engaging with peers and people of a similar age, whereas 72.3% say they never swear when talking to authority figures. Interestingly, when asked if individuals curse at their parents, 57.4% say never, 29.8% say they rarely do, and 12.8% say all the time. When prompted with a scale of 1-5 about how shocking cursing is currently, most people declared it is a 2-out-of-5 shock value. The commonality between all the data is clear: shock value depends on any given situation and the ages of individuals within that situation.
One individual writes, “[The shock value] will depend on how close someone is with the person and if the dynamic is more casual or formal. It’ll also depend on if the person curses usually; if they don’t, it will be more shocking when they do.”
On the contrary, another person “believe[s] that cursing is just a form of expression, so as a result, it is primarily social” and among peers. Though it is only a microcosm of the entire country and an even smaller one of the world, it can provide a smaller-scale and accessible understanding of the nuance of cursing and its shock value.
Compared to the media-conscious Generation X and Millennials, Generation Z and Alpha have grown up in the age of social media and an era of incessant swearing. Among faculty/staff and students at my school, I found that the shock value will increase when students curse at their friends in a social setting since listening faculty find this behavior out-of-place and unacceptable. For its shock value to always be high, I believe that one must remember the nuance of context, speaker, and audience, as each factor directly affects the shock value of explicit language. Shock from profanity is also dependent on each individual’s unique views, exposure, reasoning, and decision-making. I would consider adding “exposure” to the equation if it makes sense to you.
This is reflected in our media. Take South Park. The marketing and animation of the show make it seem like a children’s program, however, take one look at an episode, and that notion quickly dissipates. Not only is there vulgar language, but the satirical content creates a world of pure raunchiness. In season five, episode one, “It Hits the Fan,” the titular characters watch a fictional television show that uses “sh-t” for the first time, become enamored with the word, and begin to incorporate it into their regular speech––so much so that the creators of South Park included a curse word counter throughout the episode, totaling its count to over 200.
A Google search of South Park’s airtimes reveals that the show airs reruns on Comedy Central throughout the day. As there is no restriction limiting young people from accessing the show on cable, there are some who find its vulgar content and language unsuitable for the public. South Park isn’t unaware of this, either, and often mirrors the rising epidemic of cursing in the real world and the shock value of swearing.
We can also look at how movies must publicize what the Motion Picture Association (MPAA) rates the content and language of their film. The MPAA’s official Rating Classification of PG states, “The more mature themes in some PG-rated motion pictures may call for parental guidance. There may be some profanity and some depictions of violence or brief nudity” (MPAA, inc.), thus not requiring parental guidance. Because it leaves the decision in the hands of parents, their child’s exposure to that content is based on their beliefs. It is unfair to say all PG-rated films are unsuitable for minors simply because parents choose to introduce them to profanity. However, it is also unfair to say all PG-rated films are suitable for children because swearing is a form of expression and shouldn’t be censored.
So, are curse words still shocking? It depends on several variables. These factors can vary, but it depends on the context in which someone curses and the person cursing. To me, it does not matter if someone is cursing in person or online or consuming profanity in a piece of media; humans have exponentially increased their curse word usage over the last several decades, and this trend will continue well into the future. As more Baby Boomers pass and more Generation Alpha children are born, cursing will become a regular part of the vocabulary. The more commonplace curse words get, the less significant they become. As this process of desensitization of cursing continues, more factors will also influence whether or not future humans find cursing to have shock value. All I know is that if this trend is to follow, curse words aren’t going anywhere any-f-cking-time soon.