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American Authors Are Swearing More. So What?

A new study represents a new low for pop psychology.

Illustration by the New Republic.

Jean M. Twenge published an article in the Atlantic this year about how smartphones are making teenagers suicidal, lazy, and friendless. The long and short of it seems to be that teens have no interest in driving cars but a lot of interest in lying in bed scrolling through Instagram, and that this is making them commit suicide. In eras past, Twenge has written other condemnatory volumes about the youth, like 2007’s Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before and 2010’s The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.

Twenge, who is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, appears to be a self-appointed thinkfluencer whose bonnet is inhabited by the bee of the youth. O tempora o mores! Twenge cries. She is our anti-cellphone Cicero.

Now, Twenge and two colleagues, Hannah VanLandingham and W. Keith Campbell, have published a paper called “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television: Increases in the Use of Swear Words in American Books, 1950-2008” in SAGE Open, a peer-viewed but non-specialist online “mega-journal.” It seems to be the place to publish if you want your little academic splash to ripple out through the media.

The group studied incidences of the “seven words you can never say on television” that George Carlin listed in 1972—shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits—in American English titles living in Google Books’ corpus. They found “a steady linear increase in the use of swear words, with books published in 2005-2008 twenty-eight times more likely to include swear words than books published in the early 1950s.”

The group’s big conclusion is that American culture is drifting towards greater “cultural individualism,” a system “that favors the self more highly than the collective.” Since swear words allow individuals to express themselves, especially in anger, a more individualistic society will use more swear words. Furthermore, swear words are taboos. The erosion of taboos in language reflects social taboo erosions in America, for example “against premarital and homosexual sex.” On the downside, however: “Research suggests that swearing is linked to personality traits such as extraversion, dominance, narcissism, and neuroticism.” Meanwhile “individualism” itself is also sadly linked to “high extraversion, especially boldness and assertiveness,” as well as “low agreeableness, especially low modesty and high grandiosity.” Rats!

It seems that Twenge has found another link between the production and consumption of culture and the great bottoming-out of America. Instead of grabbing her data and running with it, however, as some have done, one might offer alternative explanations for what is really happening.

The paper’s method section has some worrying aspects, for a start. It is very difficult to know exactly what kind of books the researchers were looking at: “The American English corpus does not note any changes in the types of books (fiction vs. nonfiction).” And there were years when the balance between fiction and nonfiction certainly changed. The researchers got stats from the Statistical Abstract of the United States to find out roughly what proportion of books published were fiction. In 1982, the abstract noted that “an increase in the number of books between 1980 and 1981 was ‘due in part to a major improvement in the recording of paperbound books,’ and more of these paperback books are likely to be fiction.” But, in any particular year, they couldn’t know this proportion for sure. In the end, they decided that their “interest was not specific to either nonfiction and fiction books.”

So, this supposed window into the soul of the American people is a very broad and ill-defined one. That Twenge et al are not interested in the types of book that they are looking at is odd, because of the enormous differences in the registers used by different literary genres. It’s true that in fiction and nonfiction alike, it might be that the industry gatekeepers (agents, editors) have been more willing to publish works with transgressive content and “bad” language as social taboos around, say, sex have relaxed.

But in novels, words like shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits might have appeared more in recent decades because novelists are on the whole less interested in writing in a register of respectability and more interested in social verisimilitude.

On a broader level, there is no one-to-one correspondence between the art of a culture and the psychology of the society that produced it. Furthermore, noting word frequency in published writing does not have a one-to-one correspondence with spoken language in everyday life. Further furthermore, without any contextual information about how these words are used, we just have semantic fragments floating in history’s void, free of any of the things that turn them into actual language.

Twenge’s depressing Atlantic piece was a hit online, which ironically enough meant that a bunch of Americans read it miserably while staring at their mobile phones instead of frolicking through the fields. Commenters like Twenge seem awfully keen on being visible online, for people who supposedly think it represents the death of civilization.

It is easy to see why an internet journalist might chew this study up and spit it out into a blog post decrying the degradation of American English, like some kind of swallow building a self-defeating nest out of its own neuroticisms. But may god forgive the literary critic who swallows the guff of Twenge and her ilk. Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits may all be on the rise—but so is bad science.