Researchers have just found another thing for millennials to be blamed for: the last few decades have seen a major increase in swear words in books. A study of almost one million American novels found that swearing has increased dramatically since the 1950s. Jean Twenge, the professor in charge of the study, had predicted a rise in the use of curse words in literature, but she had never imagined that the difference would be so huge. According to her study, American literature published between 2005–2008 is 28 times more likely to include swearing than it was 60 years before. I guess we all need to wash our mouths out with soap.
When you break down the specific swear words used, the differences get even more dramatic. During the study, Twenge and her team searched for the seven curse words that comedian George Carlin once said in 1972 that "you can never say on television": "sh*t," "p*ss," "f*ck," "c*nt," "c*cksucker," "motherf*cker," and "tits." (I don't think that last one needs censoring; come on, it's not 1972 anymore.) The word that has had the biggest increase in popularity is "motherf*cker," which is a whopping 678 times more likely to be found in books published in the mid-2000s than in books published in the 1950s — and even "f*ck" on its own is 168 times more popular now than it was back then.
But don't worry, Twenge doesn't have anything negative to say about these findings. Instead, she explained that this increase in cursing "happened at the same time that the culture increasingly promoted self-expression and individualism. Individualism is a cultural system that emphasises the self more and social rules less. So as social rules fell by the wayside, and people were told to express themselves, swearing became more common. I think this cultural lens is the best way to view it, rather than as bad or good.”
No matter what your grandma says, swearing can be a completely valid and powerful way to express yourself. In fact, one of the most recent books to shock reviewers with the sheer volume of curse words it contained was Paul Beatty's The Sellout — and that one went on to win the Man Booker prize. Author Jenni Fagan agrees, hoping that Twenge's findings "will help us move on from the idea of literature as a solely elite form - unaccountable to the truth, plurality and diversity of real life... Life contains swearing. Of course if it fits a character’s identity in a novel, it should be there too.” Now excuse me, I'm off to show this to every teacher who ever told me that swearing was a sign of poor intelligence.