Let no one say a comedian can’t influence culture. A new study from psychology scholars at San Diego State and the University of Georgia have found that books have become increasingly more profane since the 1950s, and that George Carlin’s famous 1972 comedy routine “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” is to blame.
The researchers used those seven words—shit, piss, fuck, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits, and cunt—as the crux for their study, cross-referencing the words with American literature via Google Books to conclude that books are 28 times more naughty than they were in the early 1950s. “Motherfucker,” for example, was used 678 times more often in the mid-2000s than it was in the old days, while “cocksucker” has also enjoyed widespread proliferation. What’s curious, however, is the use of “cocksucker” peaked in the mid-90s and not during the run of Deadwood.
Check out this chart created by the researchers chronicling the rise of each of these dirty words:
Another interesting conclusion of the study is that this rise in verbal smut coincides with what the study describes as “increasing individualism” in culture:
These findings suggest a notable decline in social taboos against swear words consistent with previous research finding evidence for increasing individualism (e.g., Greenfield, 2013). American culture increasingly values individual self-expression and weaker social taboos, and these trends are manifested in the increasing use of swear words. If books reflect broader cultural trends, it suggests that other cultural products such as movies and TV shows may also demonstrate increases in the use of swear words (a potential future topic for research; that said, any increases in swear words in broadcast media may be confounded with the introduction of media not regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, such as premium cable and streaming video). Overall, these findings are consistent with the observation that American culture has become more accepting of crude and coarse language.
The above quote also notes how swears are regulated in film and TV, which is what makes literature such an appropriate vessel for this study. Books, after all, aren’t regulated in nearly the same ways, if at all. If they were, we wouldn’t have 50 Shades of Grey, now would we? Wait, would that have been a good thing?
Nah, swearing is way too fun.