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.
A similar pattern is revealed by [f***]:
Now for the C-word:
A little more random, a later start, but more of a backlash in the 1980s. As a control, here's [Apple Pie]:
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.