Visiting Speaker Explores the Psychology of Swearing

February 13, 2009

Visiting Speaker Explores the Psychology of Swearing Good manners and religious precepts generally prohibit swearing and cursing, and yet, every language has its own vulgarities.

The fact that some words are taboo has fascinated Timothy Jay ever since he was a young college student enrolled in a course on language and thought. There wasn’t much written about the psychology of obscenities at that point in the 1960s, but Jay could see and hear through the films and music coming out that “our standards had shifted." Our cultural standards may still be shifting-- and Jay has been watching carefully to see when Americans tolerate foul language-- and when we won’t.

Today, Jay is a full professor of psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and the author the textbook, “Cursing in America: A Psycholinguistic Study of Dirty Language in the Courts, in the Movies, in the Schoolyards and on the Street." He has also written some advice-oriented guides, including “What To Do When Your Students Talk Dirty."

Professor Jay will be sharing his findings at the main campus, at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 25, in the Student Community Center. The public is invited to the lecture, which is sponsored by the university’s Distinguished Speakers Series.

Jay says he likes to start his discussions by sharing research on what words are considered off-limits, who uses them, under what circumstances and how frequently people curse, and what differences men and women exhibit. It’s an adult discussion that requires him to give examples of commonly used vulgarities.

As a social scientist, Jay generally isn’t called upon to condemn or condone vulgar talk.

He does observe how people act and react, and as a consultant, he gets plenty of questions. For instance, when does vulgar language constitute sexual harassment, or what speech can be considered harmful or injurious to someone? And what influence has cable television had?

Professor Jay says he likes to leave plenty of time during his lectures for people to ask their own questions and discuss issues.

Saint Leo University’s main campus is located at 33701 State Road 52, four miles east of Interstate 75 (Exit 285). Free parking is available.