To Curse or Not To Curse: Is Digital Media Shifting When and Where We Swear?

    by Salwa Khan
    October 19, 2016
    Illustration based off of graphic from Stéphanie Walter. CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

    Here’s the thing: I find expletives offensive because in my opinion, they are ugly and because there are so many other words in the English language that can be used to express strong emotions. In my role as a college instructor in Journalism & Mass Communication, I see the use of crude language in student work and find myself taken aback, even shocked. In thinking about this, I wonder whether I am being unrealistic, a dinosaur.

    I teach a course on the fundamentals of online and social media at Texas State University. That’s right, online and social media. Take a look at online and social media, and you will see that expletives, words that are considered by some to be obscene or profane, are a fairly common part of this landscape. Whether you call them obscenities, profanities, curse words, swear words, or simply “language” you will find it on Twitter, Snapchat, Vine and other social media platforms, and in online media news sites ranging from the Huffington Post to Motherboard Vice.

    By the way, the terms obscenity and profanity do have different meanings. Profanity refers to words that are offensive to religious groups, while obscenity is a legal term referring to words that are sexual or scatological in nature. What exactly is obscene in a legal sense depends largely on the context and people involved.


    Predating social media, for years, we have heard all manner of expletives in all forms of popular media, from the music we play on our ubiquitous headphones, to the movies and shows we watch, to the social media we create, share and consume. Has the use of such language increased in popular media or does it just seems that way to me?

    Language in the digital classroom

    In a digital media curriculum, students would use blogs, Twitter and Storify for mobile reporting projects. Photo by David Nolan, Texas State University.

    File photo by David Nolan, Texas State University.

    Let’s get back to my students. The major assignment in my online and social media class is the creation of a blog by each student. Students choose their topics which range from fashion, beauty, sorority or fraternity life, cars, food, DIY projects, travel, nature, sports, crime, entertainment, books and more. The intent of this real-world assignment is for students to get expertise in a topic, and more importantly, to get practice in writing and creating media for a broad online audience. The blogs are created in WordPress and are open to the public. Students are encouraged to share their blogs and to promote their blog posts using Twitter. I tell students that their blog represents them. Depending on the ultimate quality of the blog, I often suggest that they use it as part of a portfolio to present to a potential employer.


    In the past four years of teaching the course, both as an on-campus course and online, I have seen most students write in what I consider a professional manner, without the use of expletives. But more recently, I am seeing the use of such language more often. I see it in the blog posts and in the video some students create as part of their blogs. In several cases students have included videos containing obscenities that they found online, as part of their blog post.

    When I see this kind of post, I tell students that such language is not appropriate, because it is not professional. When a student includes a video from YouTube that contains expletives, I tell them that, at the very least, they should include a warning to their audience. But am I leading them astray?

    If the line between obscenities and acceptable speech in professional online media has moved to where such language is acceptable, then my advice is unrealistic.


    Chris Krewson. Photo from BillyPenn.com

    To get an idea of what is happening in professional online media, I talked to the editor of Billy Penn, a metro news site in Philadelphia. Billy Penn’s ideal demographic is younger people in the 18 to 44 age range, living in the city of Philadelphia. Editor Chris Krewson describes Philadelphia as a city that is used to “earthy talk.” Billy Penn’s editorial style, says Krewson, is to be “as conversational as possible” including the occasional expletive or a derivative word. He says Billy Penn has no issue with including the four-letter words people use in their quotes, in news reports on the site.

    Krewson says Billy Penn readers are enthusiastic about the publication because it speaks to them. “This though,” says Krewson,“ is a generation that was weaned on the Daily Show and John Oliver and is therefore used to a certain amount of frankness in the discourse.” Krewson shares a story about meeting a Billy Penn reader who told him “I fucking love Billy Penn!” Krewson, who has worked at other publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer and Variety, says he hadn’t before experienced that kind of delight from readers.

    Krewson sees Billy Penn’s approach as the right one for his readers, but I wondered whether he sees the inclusion of obscenities in other professional online sites becoming more widely accepted because as he notes, younger people accept it as commonplace. Krewson does see more loosening in online news and information sites that are native to the digital world – places like BuzzFeed and Vice. He expects traditional publications like the New York Times to maintain “a certain degree of decorum” but notes that standards do change all the time.

    “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if given the way things have been moving, if profanity in people’s quotes didn’t start to make more of a showing,” says Krewson. Krewson explains that there is a difference in accurately quoting someone “…let’s say Donald Trump when he says he’s going to bomb the shit out of something,” and using a four-letter word or derivative as an adjective in a news story.

    The loosening up of language

    Another shift, according to Krewson, is that whereas traditional publications like the New York Times would at one time, describe expletive-laden quotes in a circumspect fashion, today, their approach would be more straightforward. That in itself is a shift.

    While I don’t have any research to back me up, anecdotally, it appears that exposure to expletives in popular media like movies, cable television, music, in our social groups and now perhaps in our professional groups might make us more likely to accept it and to even start using expletives more ourselves. There is a story my husband Bob tells that helps to illustrate this. As a young man, after several months in basic training in the Army, Bob went home to his family in North Carolina for Thanksgiving. Family members were gathered around. The Thanksgiving dishes were placed on the table, and after a prayer and some polite conversation, Bob casually asked a family member to “Pass the fucking peas.” An astonished silence ensued. As you might imagine, this kind of discourse was quite commonplace in his Army milieu. No eyebrows would have been raised if he had said exactly the same thing at a meal in the mess hall. It was quite a different thing with his family.

    What Chris Krewson describes as the loosening up of the use of language seems to me to be a trend that will continue and expand. It appears to be a very real thing. It is important for educators to know this and to be prepared to deal with it appropriately when they encounter it in student work. Exactly how they deal with it is another story. I am not prepared to pronounce a set of rules.

    Personally, I am still struggling with accepting the use of language in my student’s blogs. I know it is an online reality, but I cannot bring myself to wholeheartedly accept it. At the same time, I hear the words of Chris Krewson saying,” It is just hastening your irrelevance if you don’t loosen up.”

    If you are interested, you can find out which curse words are used most often in your part of the United States here.

    Dr. Salwa Khan is an instructor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Texas State University. She produces video at vcYES Productions (www.vcyes.com) and hosts a radio program on sustainable living called Mothering Earth. Find her on LinkedIn and on Twitter @docudr

    Tagged: curse words language obscenity swearing

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