It’s not just your @#%& imagination: American books have gotten a lot more profane over the last six decades, according to a study led by a San Diego State University psychology professor.
A team of scholars reports that there’s been a “dramatic” increase in curse words in American literature since 1950, the Guardian reports. (Note: the linked article itself contains strong language.)
The academics, led by San Diego psychologist and author Jean Twenge, used Google Books to search for seven swear words in American books published since the middle of the last century. None of the words, which range from the scatological to the sexual, can be printed here, although comedy fans might recognize them from George Carlin’s monologue about the “seven dirty words” you can’t say on television.
The researchers found that books published between 2005 and 2008 were more likely to contain the profane words by a factor of 28.
Twenge said the increase in profanity can be chalked up to an increase in American individualism over the last several decades.
“Individualism is a cultural system that emphasizes the self more and social rules less,” she said. “So as social rules fell by the wayside, and people were told to express themselves, swearing became more common. I think this cultural lens is the best way to view it, rather than as bad or good.”
The study found that one particular swear word is 678 times more likely to appear in American literature now than it was in the early 1950s. No, we’re not going to give you a hint.
Profanity is a common reason why books are challenged or banned in schools and libraries. The American Library Assn.'s most recent list of the top 10 challenged books contains four that were flagged for language, including Chuck Palahniuk’s “Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread” and Rainbow Rowell’s “Eleanor & Park.” The authors of the study note that swearing “is linked to personality traits such as extraversion, dominance, narcissism, and neuroticism.”
“Average levels of extraversion and dominance, narcissism, and neuroticism have all increased among individuals in the United States,” they write. “Thus, the frequency of swearing may increase as well.”