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American Collections blog

17 December 2010

What the #?~!?

Two of the things that happened this week were: (1) A Celebration of Swearing and Profanity, with participants from Viz and In the Thick of It, as part of our Evolving English exhibition; and (2) the launch of the Google Books Ngam Viewer Beta.  Important, sensible research has taken place on this corpus of words, as the New York Times has noticed, but I did what I suspect many others did and combined (1) and (2).

What did I learn?  Well, there is steady increase in the proportion of a word beginning with S, starting in the '60s, and plateauing in 1980s, before rising in the '90s.

Sword 

A similar pattern is revealed by [f***]:

Fword 
Except, there is more of a pronounced lull in the '80s, and its rise starts a little later.

Now for the C-word:

Cword 

A little more random, a later start, but more of a backlash in the 1980s.  As a control, here's [Apple Pie]:

Applepie 

What explains this?  Can we tie it into a narrative of progressive easing up in censorship (or a decline in literary standards), followed by a backlash, perhaps lead by Reagan-era cultural politics and embodied by Tipper Gore's explicit lyrics stickers?  Does the line of the C-word graph point to the extra-layers of profanity attached to that epithet?  And what does it mean in terms of gender politics? I'm sure we'll here a lot more about this sort of research, not least as a starting off point for more in-depth enquiry and for raising questions.  That's my excuse.

Update: more in the Grauniad.

[M.S.]

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