When is profanity acceptable?

An appeals court has struck down the FCC’s indecency policy, saying its harsh ban on expletives could have a chilling effect on free speech. Today’s Question: When is profanity acceptable?


    During a job interview.

  • Suzy Ridenour

    When you hit your thumb with a hammer.

  • Khatti

    This question is really quite important to me as a fiction writer. It’s important to me that my characters do what I think they would do–and talk like I think they would talk. If, say, your doing a piece where your charecters are soldiers in Iraq, and they’re in the middle of a firefight, you should expect to read profanity–and a lot of it!

    If you’ve kept an eye on my posts on this website, you know that I’ve used profanity frequently. There are times when only profanity expresses the emotion that revolves around the subject matter.

  • Steve from up North

    I think it’s all a matter of context, these are words that express a certain amount of emotion, and they should be able to be used as such.

    On the other hand, one needs to know the right times to use them, growing up I was told by my parents a few simple rules as to the use of profanity:

    1. Respect adults…try not to use profanity around them…

    2. They didn’t care one bit if I swore like a sailor around my friends.

    It’s all a matter of company and when it’s appropriate.

  • Sue de Nim

    Where did we get the idea that certain words should be taboo? It’s not like the sounds have some kind of evil magic power, or that avoiding certain words makes what is said socially acceptable. I know how to say some really nasty things without ever uttering a single “profanity,” and I’ve heard some really kind things said that included some of those Anglo-Saxon four-letter words.

  • Amy

    Its all about where you are at. If you are at a family gathering where there are 10 kids under the age of 5, probably shouldn’t start dropping F-bombs. At work I’m not going to start swearing when I am meeting with my clients. I’m not going to drop the F-bomb when I am talking to my grandma. But any other context, who cares? I am completely unaffected by profanity because it has become such a part of my life and conversational patterns. I think the FCC has a valid point and if people make the choice that they don’t want to hear certain words, guess what, turn off the TV.

  • James

    When a wrench slips and my knuckles spring a leak.


  • Steve

    profanity should be forbidden under any circumstances unless extreme circumstances like physical pain-but it is vulgar and rude.

  • jamex

    All the previous posters have brought up good points. Context is important. Profanity expresses a particular emotion or attitude. There are words that I reserve only for very particular situations, and others that I use in everday language.

    What constitutes “profanity” anyway? “I can’t tell you but I know it when I see/hear it” ? Several years ago at a birthday party, a friend was struggling to open one of her gifts. It was sealed in that hard plastic that is impossible to open without hurting yourself. After a couple of minutes of fussing, she shouted “PACKAGING!” It was clearly meant in the same way as one might use the word “fuck”, but it would escape the censor’s bleeper. Was it profane?

    And what about words like “dick”? It’s perfectly fine to refer to my uncle Dick on television, but if I drop the word “uncle”, I’d be censored. That’s weird.

    If someone excitedly includes one of the “seven words” on live TV, should they be fined for their excitement? They weren’t planning to offend or insult anyone. They got caught up in the moment and spoke as they would in nearly every other situation.

    Which is not to imply that “crimes” of passion should go unpunished, but perhaps when there is, in fact, no victim of the offense, uptight busybodies could just go protest a gay marriage or something.

  • Michelle

    When you’re certain that what you’ve said won’t come back to bite you in the butt!

  • Kirk

    Acceptability of profanity is determined by the ears and actions of the listeners. If offended, they can vote with their feet (leave), or fingers (change the tuning dial).

    If enough people “leave” then the behavior will adjust itself. To try to legislate profanity is as pointless as to legislate morality (despite the obvious, foolish addiction our nation seems to have for THAT).

  • Jeremy

    If you are afraid you might hear a naughty word don’t watch TV.

    If your kid hears profanity perhaps your should be a parent and talk to them about it rather than making the rest of us raise your kids.

    If you’re a decent human being, perhaps you should consider how others might feel when you say things.

    just a few thoughts.

  • Erin

    My question is why is this country so concerned about censoring profanity? I’ve spent a lot of time abroad and other countries do not seem to be bothered by it at all. Even those “proper” countries like England. Why are we so sensitive??

    On a personal level, I recognize that some people are sensitive to profanity and modify my words to avoid making others uncomfortable. But it bothers me to do so. Guess it’s that annoying MN nice thing.

  • James J. Johnson

    On television or radio it’s OK with me if it is broadcast between 4:11 am and 4:14 am on the 3rd Monday and Tuesday in months that begin with “N”

  • Willie

    Quite the question wording. Profanity isn’t ever “acceptable” but it is “realistic” – and there are times when the FCC’s mothering of us all does create a chilling effect. CBS has been fined more for the accidental micro-second showing of a nipple than some mining companies have been charged when workers are killed.

    Sure, we should work to keep it clean, but when an exuberant musician or athlete accidentally (or even purposefully) lets the f-bomb fly, we should chalk it up to lazy and not predict the coming doom of society.

    C’mon has anyone here ever ridden a school bus? Gone to public high school? Worked in the real world? S*#t happens.

  • http://minnesota.publicradio.org/publicinsightjournalism/ comments texted to MPR

    Comments texted to MPR:

    Profanity is acceptable within a context of a war movie, or where the sweating is crucial to the story telling. -William, Minneapolis

    Profanity is acceptable in private conversation. Not in public discourse. Whether on tv/radio or in speeches. -Bill Windsperger, Montrose

    Profanity is acceptable when you’re hand slips off the wrench and you smash your fist into the engine block -Mike Klemm, Lakeville

  • bsimon

    Who gets to decide what is profane?

  • Jordan

    What the fuck is profanity?

  • Ally

    Profanity is for people with a limited vocabulary.

  • Kevin M

    Profanity is part of living in a culture of discourse. If anyone is actually deluded enough to think their children will never hear someone say “shit” if it isn’t on television, we have much deeper problems as a society than a few potty mouths mucking it up for the rest of us decent folks. I don’t think gratuitous vulgarity is becoming in polite company or in most situations (job interviews, court appearances, meeting a lover’s parents, etc), but in day to day life it does occur, and we shouldn’t try to pretend it doesn’t in fictional accounts of real life. Remember Cheney’s outburst at Patrick Leahy? That was on the floor of the United States Senate. That said, I agree that much more risque sentiment can be construed without using a single profanity. To quote “The Modern Gentleman” by Phineas Mollod and Jason Tesauro (10-Speed Press, 2002), “A well-rounded gentleman possesses a mature vocabulary, from sublime to inappropriate… …Don’t be a prude; those who can handle sophistication, but not its antithesis, are missing the grotesque beauty of vulgarity.”

  • http://truthlove.blogspot.com Philip Benson

    I believe, but do not swear, that Jesus was more concerned with people misleading people through vainly swearing something is true than with their exclamations or vernaculars. Condemning exclamations and vernaculars and being vain with conclusions are the sins we need to understand.

  • Steve the Cynic

    What irks me is when people get worked up about petty things like the f-bomb on tv but don’t give a shit about things that matter, like millions of children in this richest country in the world going without affordable health care.

  • T N

    Who was it that said, “profanity if the crutch of a weak mind”.

    I watch zero television with only one exception, football. (This discussion is about TV isn’t it)? I pay the city to pump toilet waste out of my house, not pay the cable company to pump it in. Here we go again in our schizophrenic society where it’s OK to encourage extra-marital sex on TV, accept homosexuality as normal behavior and portray brutal violence but heavens forbid, use the F-word? Oh horrors what ever they do, don’t smoke! Why bother?! Go ahead, swear with reckless abandon like a drunken sailor. TV is a pot of raw sewage anyway, so go all out. Why stop there, use the N-word along with the F-word. Why not? Let’s make TV as filthy as we can so we raise our kids right. Swear baby, swear!

    And to those who have to use foul language in every sentence, I can only think, you eat out of that mouth?

  • suestuben

    Interesting question for my day… I truly disagree with public profanity but can also see humor in it when used strategically. I understand that it is descriptive of an unimaginative mind or of limited education. I do not swear myself and tend to avoid those who do. But today I ran into a situation that flipped all my rules on their head.

    I tried to refill a prescription at Target, who manage my many ‘scripts.’ They had to contact my doc as one of the most benign drugs had run out of refill. As I was totally out of the drug I asked for a few to tide me over until the script came in. Well, the pharmacist, a young guy who scarcely been around the block, said no, it’s against our policy. I explained that it was a drug that could not be abused, that I’d been on it daily for 8 years, that I had a chronic disease that the drug helped keep under control, and that I’d never been turned down when I requested a few pills. He said he couldn’t do it, it was company policy. I told him that I recently visited the east coast where a pharmacist gave me 20 pills till a perscription came in. I explained that 2 pills could absolutely not be abused. He still said ‘No way.”

    I was out of words at that moment; I was struck my his lack of experience and stupidity. I said, “Oh, fuck you,” and walked to the register to pay for the completed perscription, where I thanked the cashier–my usual style of public discourse.

  • Justin Smith

    Two comments:

    First, someone above “…it’s OK to encourage extra-marital sex on TV, accept homosexuality as normal behavior and portray brutal violence but heavens forbid, use the F-word?”

    It’s things like that that make me want to swear. Sex outside marriage isn’t good or bad, unless it has good or bad consequences. Homosexuality may not be the majority behavior but science (and common sense) tells us that it is not abnormal either. I can’t believe that it’s 2010 and someone still believe things like that, particularly the remark about homosexuality. Wow.

    Second, profanity is acceptable whenever the person using it thinks it is. Words are words. Some offend people. Some don’t. But they all are just collections of sounds and, in print, letters, that we attach connotations to. If you get offended by hearing the sound “fuck,” bummer if you hear it. I get offended when I smell really strong perfume. But some people swear and some people wear perfume and some people are bad drivers and some people steal and so on and so on. What’s right for you may not be right for any other being on the planet.

  • John Robinson

    Whenever I damn well think so.

  • Dave

    Under the first amendment profanity is acceptable at all times. Profanity is a word or expression which is socially constructed or interpreted as insulting, rude, vulgar, desecrating, or showing disrespect. That being defined if I were a veteran having given limb and seeing fellow soldiers give life to defend our god given freedoms an insidious beep molesting words in my music or television or blurred female nipples, male genitalia, and certain fingers should by all means associated be considered profane. How disrespectful is it that I am edited from enjoying the reality in my art because some big wigs think I might not be able to handle a word. What’s next then? Is my internet going to be censored? My cell phone calls? My voice itself? I understand the morality of keeping children from seeing the human form or human expression or human speech. It keeps them from becoming human. Apparently humanity is vulgar and desecrating. Our procreation is championed when it comes to oppressing gays and opposing safe sex; but the act of it, the parts involved or the very description of it is profane and pornographic. Do you tell your child what sex is before or after he tries to rape a stork? The minute we censor the word fuck is the very moment you give up your right to say fuck you to government and allow those in power the right to do all the fucking. Of all the vulgar filthy perverted books I’ve read the dictionary is by far the worst.

  • arlene williams

    If in your heart it feels better than not using profanity …. go for it. you are probably lying anyway ‘cos you will lie to cover up for your lack of education or desire to part of a group which is unacceptable in society anyway. you impress no one.

    You will empress by being nice ‘from the mouth’ which reflects how your mind works.

    You will also grow up one day!