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Marjorie Cortez: Curse the demise of our sensibilities about swearing

Many mothers of the baby boomer generation had a reasonably foolproof means of disciplining children who swore or talked back to their parents.

Offenders were marched to the bathroom sink where their mothers washed their mouths out with soap. Others applied a pinch of cayenne pepper to the tip of their child's tongue. Most offenders got the message the first time.

My parents had a zero-tolerance rule for swearing. They modeled the behavior they wanted and leveled consequences for offenders. Most parents I knew subscribed to the same unwritten rule.

Nowadays, swearing can be heard just about anywhere. Walk through the mall, the halls of a junior high school or any public place and you'll hear all variety of expletive. Words that weren't tolerated a generation ago are spoken with little regard for offending others.

Our collective sensibilities about swearing and coarse language have, indeed, changed, according to a recent article by my Deseret Morning News colleague Elaine Jarvik. Some blame the popular media for this dumbing down of our civility. That's part of the problem, I suppose, but Elaine's article, "Our sensitivity about 'curse' words has changed with the times," convinces me that this phenomenon is more complex than that.

Our society's desensitization to coarse language and acceptance of swearing have occurred over many years, but I've observed a big difference in just one generation. The language of some of my 11-year-old's friends has become increasingly harsh. They don't swear, exactly, but their language is full of coarse words such as "sucks," which is used as an all-purpose adjective. They have any number of words that I consider faux or rehearsal swear words, such as "flip" or "fetch."

Sometimes, my children try to interject these words in their speech, which earns them a stern rebuke from me and my husband. We can't control what they might hear when they're out in the world, but we do like to reinforce the idea that people who use such language have poorly developed vocabularies and lack imagination. I tell them it's crude and reflects ignorance.

The challenge of taking such a hard line is that we have to live up to these standards, too. Most of the time we do. When I stub a toe or burn myself on the stove, a few regrettable words may tumble out of my mouth from time to time. The kids are quick to bring it to my attention, which is only fair.

I fear, though, as a society, many people won't refrain from cussing until their livelihoods depend upon it. Just as workplaces have banned smoking and two-martini lunches, some have instituted "language-control" policies. In some workplaces, violators can be referred to counseling or even fired. Private concerns such as the "Cuss Control Academy," of Westbrook, Ill., offer corporate seminars to rein in this bad behavior.

Academy founder James V. O'Connor says cleaning up one's act requires hard work. "Breaking the swearing habit might prove to be no easier than losing weight, giving up cigarettes or correcting any other habit. It takes practice, support from others and a true desire to be a better person not only by controlling your language but by the emotions that prompt you to swear," O'Connor writes on his Web site.

It almost sounds like a 12-step program, which I suppose some people could benefit. I should hope that such interventions are only necessary for the worst offenders.

Others among us could be counted to fall in line with a whiff of whatever brand of hand soap our parents had on hand during our childhoods. A snootful of Safeguard would do the trick for me.


Marjorie Cortez is a Deseret Morning News editorial writer. E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com