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Increased Use of Swear Words Shows Shift in Values: SDSU Study

Curse words are on the rise as millennials embrace freedom of expression

The rising use of swear words in literature may suggest an increase in support for freedom of expression in American culture, with millenials embracing the trend, according to a new study.

San Diego State University researchers said the study highlights an upward trend of individualistic values. The evolution of how society uses swear words over time captures the development of the ever-changing American psyche, explained SDSU psychology professor Jean M. Twenge.

"The increases in swear words in books is part of a larger cultural trend toward individualism and free expression,” said Twenge, in a statement. She is also the author of the book "Generation Me." 

After World War II, some Americans rebelled against the niceties and constraints of post-war American society. Comedian George Carlin's 1972 routine "The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" demonstrated his generation's rejection of restrictive speech, said an SDSU spokesperson.

Many curse words have become much less taboo over time, said Twenge. One possible interpretation is that young people are valuing free expression more. Previous studies also support that viewpoint.

"Millennials have a 'come as you are' philosophy, and this study shows one of the ways they got it: Culture has shifted toward more free self-expression,” she said.

Tens of thousands of books published between 1950 and 2008 were analyzed for the study. Using the Google Books database, researchers searched for the seven common curse words.

Twenge worked with SDSU graduate student Hannah VanLandingham and University of Georgia psychologist W. Keith Campbell to analyze the texts.

They discovered a steadily rising trend of the seven terms. Curse words were used in literature 28 times more often in the mid-2000s than the early 1950s, according to the study.

"Forty-five years after George Carlin's routine, you can say those words on television—and in books,” Twenge said.

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