April 27, 2014
If the Internet hasn’t made our culture more profane, certainly it has diminished our collective shock by curse words. According to a study reported in digitaltrends.com, one in every 13 tweets contain profanity (nsfw, but in case you are at work and curious, you may be as surprised as I was that the C-word ranks 16th). Now, one in 13 is not a shocking figure when you consider anyone with opposable thumbs has a media platform. But for those of us who believe there is more to writing than the ability to navigate a keyboard or message chat acronyms on a smart phone, our audience and message determine the words and language we use.
The lax on the taboos of profanity goes back farther than the Internet and has been happening for decades. It’s been almost ten years since Vice President Dick Cheney told Senator Patrick Leahy to f*** himself, and even though it probably wasn’t the first time that suggestion was offered on the Senate floor, it would have been far more shocking 50 years earlier. It would be even less shocking if it happened today. Perhaps social media and the plethora of smart phones are simply revealing that we were always a culture of potty mouths. But back when a virtual conversation meant something tweeners imagined having with the latest heartthrob on the cover of Tiger Beat, profanity was considered taboo in “mixed company,” meaning when both genders were present. I’d have to try pretty hard to fain shock by the use of “naughty language” today, even though I was raised where my permissible threshold for cursing stopped after darn and before hell (outside its religious context). Mom said the use of profanity demonstrated not only a lack of cultural civility, but a lack of an abundant vocabulary. And even after I rattle off a string of profanity that would prompt Chelsea Handler and Roseanne to rise for a standing ovation (mostly when no one’s around), I remind myself that Mom was right. Words matter.
Whether defining your own voice or that of the organization you represent, the right words will always matter. Broadcasting through social media offers greater freedom but also a greater opportunity to cause damage to your brand if you don’t choose your words carefully. It pays to think before you post because no matter how fleeting your messages may be in the world-wide web of words, remember all posts are permanent and will come back to haunt you if they can. If using one of George Carlin’s famous seven curse words you can never say on television is right for your brand or the audience you want to reach, use them, But the S-word or F-word can be just as dull or jarring as using a fancy, multisyllabic word when it’s not the right word. Using the right language or even inventing new words and phrases will attract the people you want to your site. Think how popular Thirty Rock’s Liz Lemonisms, like blergh, myirt, whuck and jagweed have become.
Recently the AP stylebook, the journalist’s bible, defined “N-word” and “F-word” as the proper style rule when writing those words in print. But Jesse Sheidlower, author of “The F-Word, The Complete History of the Word. Yes, That One,” contends that the media should reflect the real world and use the actual word when reporting. After all, everyone knows what those acronyms mean, so you could argue substitutions are silly or, at best, only there to protect the innocent. But I doubt there are many children over five who haven’t heard or seen these words many times before. Are the acronyms any less ugly than the words themselves? Would using them shine more light on their vulgarity or are they too offensive for that experiment?
Time will tell whether social media changes the bleep-word practice or other current language mores, like it seems to be changing nearly everything else. And were he alive today, Carlin would agree social media has blurred the lurid language line and he’d have a new, brilliant riff on the subject. WWCT – what would Carlin think – or tweet?