6 thoughts on “Vulgarity over time

  1. How sure could you be that the diminished use of such words in writing isn’t because they appear so frequently in speech now as to have lost their capacity to shock? We might do well to turn the problem on its head and examine which words, coarse or otherwise, are most in the ascendent.


  2. Berian – We can’t actually tell from this analysis whether they have become less frequent in absolute terms; only that they are less common relative to other words. Indeed, the way they all turn down together at about the same time is a bit suspicious – it suggests a relative decline in the kind of books in which these words are likely to appear. On the other hand, playing around with the different databases the decline is showing in fiction, where I would have thought they were most common as they can be authentic dialogue for particular types of modern characters. Doing some more database changing, the vulgar words continue to increase relatively in American books but are declining in British books.

    My suggestion that language has improved was taking some liberties with the data.

    FWIW, I agree that with the exception of the c-word they have lost their power to shock. But that I think would drive a net increase in use, since people who think they can use them casually without loss of social standing will outnumber those with a delinquent desire to offend.


  3. Interestingly, if you restrict it to “American English”, the trend is still steadily upwards, and the frequency is twice as high…


  4. Perhaps an all-purpose trend explainer can help us here?

    Doesn’t all this swearing line up suspiciously with the rise of neoliberalism?

    Maybe the recent decline is a result of increased reliance on technology or perhaps a leading indicator of climate change?


  5. What a fascinating page! Try comma-separated pejorative terms like boong, abo, coon and nigger to see the change of usage since about 1940.


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