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Why is the road to the White House suddenly so salty? A look at why the candidates are swearing

SHARE Why is the road to the White House suddenly so salty? A look at why the candidates are swearing

Democratic presidential candidate and former Texas U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke speaks at a campaign event, Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)


SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump and Democratic contender Beto O’Rourke have little in common in terms of policy. But the thing they have in common — the propensity for using profanities in public — may cost both of them support, particularly among families with young children.

As Politico reported Monday, some of the president’s supporters are recoiling from the president’s use of a common profanity prefaced with the word “God” at a recent rally in North Carolina.

And O’Rourke, the upstart Texas challenger whose ascendancy to the national stage has been peppered with expletives, has had to apologize for using vulgar language in front of his children.

But Trump and O’Rourke are not alone; other candidates are tossing out expletives as if their mothers had never once brandished a bar of soap, leaving Americans who prefer more dignified language to wonder why the road to the White House has to be so salty.

Cussing isn’t new, even among politicians. George Washington once cursed so violently that “the leaves shook” on a tree, historian Ron Chernow wrote in “Washington: A Life.” Richard Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson are among more recent presidents who would have been welcome on a galleon of sailors.

But what’s new and troubling about the profanity used by political leaders today is that the cursing appears calculated, not spontaneous.

“The profanities deployed by the candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination suggest performance. They suggest strategy at work,” Megan Garber wrote in The Atlantic.

If so, the swearing is not just a commentary on the candidates themselves, but also on the culture.

Cursing connotes a certain brashness, a departure from convention; it is, in many ways, a verbal tattoo. But it’s also crude and disrespectful. It intends shock; it welcomes offense. And even as profanity becomes more commonplace, to include prime-time presidential debates, many Americans still object to its use and teach their children that they should never use such language.

Since “Avengers: Endgame” director Joe Russo was recently censored for his language, why doesn’t America demand the same from its political candidates?

Salt of the earth

The use of profanity has recently been endorsed by some researchers who say using curse words can alleviate stress. In her 2018 book “Swearing is Good for You,” Emma Byrne cited the work of a behavioral psychologist in the UK who found that people could hold their hands in icy water longer when they were asked to curse than if he they instead said a neutral word. Other researchers have said that swearing releases adrenaline, sharpens memory and make us feel better about the very thing we are swearing about.  

To be cathartic, however, a curse word has to have an element of taboo, Byrne wrote last year in Time magazine. “This isn’t just a value judgment; experiments prove that minced oaths — the ‘sugars’ and ‘fudges’ — just don’t work as pain relief, nor do they offer the same catharsis to people suffering from Tourette syndrome.”

Barnacles, as SpongeBob might say.

Although older people have always complained about younger generations, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, who teaches at Stanford University, says that there has been a coarsening of language over the past half-century. In a commentary on the history of swearing he wrote for NPR.com, Nunberg said, “This language has become more widespread and more audible than at any time since the early 19th century.”

And it’s especially noticeable on the campaign trail, observed Garber in The Atlantic, quoting several candidates saying and tweeting things that propriety prevents us from repeating here.

Some of the candidates also cussed freely at the recent Democratic debates, even using some of what the late comedian George Carlin said were the seven dirty words you could never say on TV, Adam K. Raymond wrote for New York magazine. O’Rourke, in particular, is especially prone to swearing, which he did in his concession speech when he lost to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018, and also does in front of his children, according to The Hill.

Both O’Rourke and Trump have said, in years past, said they would stop using profanity publicly. It hasn’t yet happened.

President Donald Trump waves as he boards Air Force One as he departs Friday, July 12, 2019, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

President Donald Trump waves as he boards Air Force One as he departs Friday, July 12, 2019, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.

Alex Brandon, AP

The cursing candidates (and the swearer-in-chief) may be using profanity to try to create a sense of intimacy between the candidate and the crowd, the idea being that they wouldn’t use such language in a more formal setting, but it’s OK here because we’re all friends, nudge-nudge, wink-wink.

Vulgar language may be a fact of modern life, but it’s more troubling than potholes

Some people also use swearing as a way to convey authenticity, Claire Luchette wrote on Smithsonian.com.

“Among his supporters, President Trump’s profanity is often considered a sign of honesty — e.g. ‘he tells it like it is,’” Luchette wrote.

Of course, one could argue that President Johnson was telling it like it was, too, when he said the difference between a senator and a representative was akin to the difference between chicken salad and chicken excrement. (And that was one of the milder comments attributed to Johnson, according to TIME magazine.)

In fact, it’s hard to find a president who hasn’t been caught cursing. Even Ronald Reagan, who famously wouldn’t write curse words in his journals (instead writing, for example, “h..l” for the netherworld), would occasionally use an expletive, presidential historian Doug Wead told The Hill.

What’s different today? According to Cleve R. Wootson Jr., writing in The Washington Post, it’s “the near ubiquity of recording devices, social media and a 21st-century public that parses a president’s every utterance in real time.”

But there also seems to be a subtle loosening of standards when it comes to profanity related to Providence. As society has become more secular, respect for God’s name has eroded in some quarters; witness the ubiquity of the phrase “OMG,” which to some is a form of casual blasphemy.

As taking the name of the Lord in vain (the third of 10 venerable commandments) has become more commonplace, other words have become more offensive, according to Byrne. “Blasphemy was once the true obscenity,” she wrote, while “modern unsayables include racist and sexist terms used as swear words.”

Words matter

The English word profanity derives from the Latin “profanus” which means “outside the temple” or unholy, wrote Jim Priest last year in The Oklahoman.

While the president once dismissed profanity as “fun,” and people who bemoan a coarsening culture are often derided for inciting moral panic over trivialities, Nunberg, the linguist, wrote, “The moralists have a point.

“Vulgar language may be a fact of modern life, but it’s more troubling than potholes. It’s infuriating to hear someone behind you in the movie line swearing energetically, even if you don’t happen to have a 6-year-old in tow.”

In making that point, he brings up another aspect of the cussing culture that candidates might want to consider before they fire off another profane zinger: the effect that hearing those words has on children.

In one study, Nunberg said, three-quarters of the respondents said parents should teach their kids that “cursing is always wrong.” In fact, being a good role model for their children is one reason many parents swear off cursing, with some parents setting up a “swear jar” to which family members have to contribute if they say a forbidden word. (And it doesn’t have to be one of the words you can’t say on TV; some families decide, for example, that “hate” is a word that they don’t want to use.)

 Tim Jay, a psychology professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and the author of “Why We Curse,” has said that most children learn cursing in their homes.

“In the surveys we’ve done, especially with people looking back at how they learned cursing, show that they learn from family, siblings and friends,” Jay said in the Deseret News.

When dealing with children who swear, the Child Development Institute has some tips, which might work when we’re dealing with candidates who swear, too. They include: Don’t overreact, do your best not to laugh, and watch your own language. If you accidentally swear, apologize. Offer acceptable alternatives to swearing. (If SpongeBob is too juvenile for your tastes, there’s always Shakespeare. The Telegraph in the U.K. offered “15 great William Shakespeare insults that are better than swearing.”)

Of course, for older children, discipline may be required, the institute notes. “Depending on their age and the circumstances, time out, suspension of certain privileges or grounding may be appropriate,” the CDI says.

For the record, O’Rourke is 46; Trump, 73.