Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why (and How) Your Students Swear: The Science of Swearing

Here are the results from an interesting (and really important) scientific study on Teen Swearing, originally reported by science blogger and psychiatrist Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks (and covered by David Dobbs, from Wired Science.)

London Teens

East Coast American Teens:

Bell found it disheartening that London teens were forsaking the work “bollocks.” Perhaps he was feeling nostalgic or maybe he fears that classic British slang is being lost, like classic Yiddish. I find it disheartening that whenever I call someone a putz they think say, “thanks.”

It is interesting that East Coast American teen girls overwhelmingly preferred “god” as a pejorative compared with boys, who preferred “Jesus Christ.” My hunch is that “Jesus Christ,” (as in “Jesus fucking Christ,” or “Jesus H. Christ,” or “Christ on a fucking crutch,”) is seen as more vulgar and forceful than plain old “God,” or “Oh my God!” This might also explain boys’ preference for “Goddamn,” compared with girls’ preference for the less emphatic “damn.” (However, this hypothesis belies my own prejudice that boys and men are more provocative and belligerent).

I also found it surprising that “gay,” or “that’s so gay,” did not rank on the list. My guess is that the study had a heterosexist bias and didn’t even consider these to be pejorative or vulgar. (It would be difficult to compare British and American teens’ use of the word “fag” for instance). And what about the huge preference for “bitch” by girls? Does this indicate that feminism is losing ground among teen girls (or that the boys are civil enough to avoid the insult?) Or have young women reclaimed the word, as many in the LGBT community have reclaimed “dyke” and “queer,” or many black youth have reclaimed the word “nigga.” This seems unlikely. Based on my own 14 years working with teenagers, I have seldom heard the word “bitch” used to express camaraderie, like “Was up, bitch?”

I’m also curious why the American teens had no profane references to sex organs on their list. Do American teens really use the words penis and vagina with each other when adults aren’t around? Seems unlikely, but they were east coast teens, who everyone knows are considerably more conservative and prudish than other teens in the U.S.

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