Editor's Note: This article is part of "The Ten Today," a series that examines the Ten Commandments in modern society. This story explores the third commandment, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain."
It may come as a surprise to no one that the most-used swear word in some of the most popular U.S. cable TV shows is the F word.
What may surprise many is the second-place swear word in those shows — not a reference to excrement, sex or genitalia, but “God.”
University of Sydney linguistics professor Monika Bednarek found this out when she conducted an independent, informal survey last year of a wide variety of popular U.S. cable shows.
Bednarek watched 38 episodes each of shows like “The Wire,” “Dexter,” “Breaking Bad” and “True Blood” and tallied up the number of times common swear words were uttered. By Bednarek’s count, the F word finished first with 170 uses, followed closely by “God” with 128 uses. But religious-based swears occurred across more episodes, overtaking the F word in more than half of the episodes, whereas the F word was more concentrated into fewer episodes, occurring in only 10 of the 38 episodes surveyed.
The use of “God” as a swear word, for many people, is considered a violation of the third commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain,” despite the fact that the commandment originally was specific to making a false oath, or not keeping one’s word, according to Harvard Old Testament scholar Michael Coogan.
“(Swearing) is one way the third commandment has been interpreted, and that’s not what it originally meant,” Coogan said. “It’s taken so literally in some traditions — Jews, for example, don’t say the name of God even in prayer; they’ll say ‘the divine name’ instead. Originally, it meant that you shouldn’t use God’s name to diminish God in any way.”
But sometime in the early 20th century, Americans began to widely believe that using religious terms as swear words — whether the names "Jesus" and "God" or words such as "damn" and "hell" — does diminish God, says swearing historian and author Melissa Mohr. As Mohr wrote in her book, by the turn of the 20th century, most people equated “profanity” — the concept of disrespecting religious sanctity — with “obscenity” — the use of offensive or crude language. Now in the 21st century, with swear words that include religious references becoming more common in the less-regulated digital age of American entertainment, Mohr worries we’ll not only lose the gravity of the words, but also appreciation for their religious origin.
“What you lose (when using a religious swear word) is appreciation for God’s majesty, which is ironically what everyone in the Renaissance and the Middle Ages was so concerned about,” Mohr said.
Decline of religion
The use of religious-based swear words isn’t just disrespectful to many Christians, it’s also a sign of the decline of religion in modern society, Mohr said.
“You really only get these kinds of (religious-based) swear words with a general slide of importance of religion,” Mohr said.
It’s true that a rising number of Americans don’t identify with any one religion — according to the Pew Research Center, the proportion of people unaffiliated with any religion increased from just over 15 percent of U.S. adults in 2007 to just under 20 percent in 2012.
Neal Harmon is CEO of VidAngel, a company that edits profanity, violence and other potentially offensive material out of popular movies. Harmon thinks the use of religious swear words is part of a general relaxed attitude about things once considered controversial, be it how people use religion in their speech to how easily they accept violence in entertainment.
“There’s a trend toward being more casual about everything, and that’s showing up in language,” Harmon said.
But linguistics professor Kristy Beers Fägersten at Sweden’s Södertörn University says the uptick in profanity can be something viewers appreciate when considering a show’s authenticity.
“I wouldn’t go so far to say that we’ve lost something. Rather, I think that the kinds of shows that are popular now are evidence that we do understand that swear words have a function in particular emotional situations, like on ‘Breaking Bad,’” Fägersten said. “We’ve been socialized to know that they will provide us an emotional release. I think if these shows are realistic enough, they confer to us there’s a proper time and place for swearing.”
While religious swearing might coincide with the decline of religion’s influence on modern American life, Fägersten points out that swear words often have religious origins.
“There’s a long history of euphemistic expressions invented for reasons of avoiding explicitly saying God’s name. We have ‘gosh,’ for example,” Fägersten said. “Swear words have religious roots, and there are alternative words we use to avoid saying religious words.”
Mohr says that in the Middle Ages, words and phrases that constituted offensive swearing were directly related to religion. Long-forgotten phrases like “by God’s bones” or “by God’s nails” were every bit as shocking as the worst swear words today, Mohr says, because Christians back then believed that to use those terms was to physically harm the body of Christ.
“In the Catholic tradition of ‘by God’s nails,’ those words were considered to rip the nails out of Jesus’ body,” Mohr said. “It makes sense if you consider it as the opposite of the Eucharist — mangling the body of Christ versus creating it — those were like what the F word has been for us: Really shocking.”
But Fägersten says that just because swear words with roots in religion are becoming more common in entertainment doesn’t mean people are becoming less moral.
“I don’t think morally we’re falling apart,” Fägersten said. “I think that we are becoming more tolerant of these words as long as they’re realistically used in emotional situations. I think it’s contributing to us breathing a sigh of relief.”
Further, says Mohr, society might be letting go of the taboo nature of some words, but strong social values are still reflected in other words that “give people a jolt.”
“Sexual words (like the F word) are definitely having a heyday — they’re definitely more prevalent now,” Mohr said. “But there are other words that were once common — like the N word, for example — that have all but disappeared from everyday speech. It’s just not something you hear because there’s such cultural baggage.”
The rise of streaming
While religion’s influence might be on the decline, Fägersten says something else has been on the rise: New media and new ways of getting it.
“What we’re seeing with swear words right now has a lot to do with new media,” Fägersten said. “On the Internet, we’re so often putting our speech into writing that it’s mediated, in a way, by the keyboard, and as soon as something is mediated, we have more distance to it and that might make it easier.”
But Fägersten says the Internet is only part of the puzzle and the evolution of TV is another huge piece.
“What’s happening on TV shouldn’t be ignored. With streaming and on-demand services, there’s a way of getting to TV shows that are not under language restraints or regulation. The doors are wide open for swearing and sex.”
Fägersten’s theory is that with the wide use of services like Netflix, people all over the world have access to cable and independent shows that employ more provocative language, which not only exposes more people to swearing, but may also make them feel like swearing is acceptable.
“Not only are we hearing these words and experiencing them a lot, it’s hard to shake off that feeling that what’s on TV is OK. TV was once so regulated that it’s associated with representing a standard,” Fägersten said. “Now we’re seeing a different kind of content on TV, but we haven’t adjusted our minds, so we think that if it’s on TV it must be the standard, so that tells us it’s OK.”
While she says this theory would make a good study, Fägersten is already confident based on her own experience as an American transplant in Sweden.
“You’ll hear people on the street speaking Swedish and they integrate English swear words,” Fägersten said. “Even before streaming, Sweden and much of Europe has for years imported American television. They show ‘Sex and the City’ on their national channel at 3 p.m. There’s no filter, it’s not dubbed, nothing’s censored.”
Regardless of where the influence of swearing comes from — be it entertainment or the slide of once revered values — Mohr also says it doesn’t mean the world is necessarily a less moral place, just that the values have changed to be more relaxed toward words that were once unspeakable — whether taking God's name in vain or using a body part as an epithet in everyday speech.
“There’s always been a ton of swearing, it’s just been about different things,” Mohr said. “The strength of a swear word is just about what we focus on.”