Some presidential candidates, past and present, sure have cursed up a storm.
The Washington Examiner notes Julian Castro said the “BS” word on HBO, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan called on Republicans to “get their ‘s-word’ together,” Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard used the “b-word” to describe President Trump, and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told a group of activists that “if we are not helping people, we should go the ‘f-word’ home.”
Then there’s the queen mother of today’s cussing campaigners: Beto “f-bomb” O’Rourke.
He has used the “f-word” as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, preposition, conjunction, interjection - pretty much everything but a dangling participle, whatever the “h-e-double-hockey-sticks” that is.
O’Rourke has been struggling in the polls since Mayor Pete “Trump ‘P.O.’d’ our allies” Buttigieg stole his thunder. O’Rourke’s cursing appears to be a ploy for attention, which is all it’s getting him.
I agree with political observers who cite two reasons for the increasing use of salty language.
Emma Byrne, author of “Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language,” tells Smithsonian there is a science to why we curse. She says “peppering our language with dirty words can actually help us gain credibility and establish a sense of camaraderie” - if it’s done properly.
She distinguishes between “propositional swearing, which is deliberate and planned, and non-propositional swearing, which can happen when we’re surprised, or among friends or confidants.”
O’Rourke’s swearing comes across as contrived - a sign of weakness from an unserious candidate trying to make headlines.
That brings us to the second reason for politicians’ increasingly salty language: President Trump, who, according to Factba.se transcripts, has cursed publicly at least 87 times since 2017.
The thinking is that Trump’s “everyday Joe” cursing has lowered the bar for political discourse, but that other politicians emulating him fail to understand that he’s a master of non-propositional swearing, which - at least among his supporters - may actually boost his political status.
When Trump curses, says Byrne, it comes across as a “sign of honesty” from a non-politician who “tells it like it is.”
It’s enough to make a Trump opponent curse.
Trump certainly isn’t the first president to use profanities. Time reports that after a Revolutionary War battle, George Washington “swore ... till the leaves shook on the trees.”
During the 1948 election, President Truman acquired the nickname “Give ‘Em Hell Harry” - at a time when “hell” offended no small number of Americans.
Once his now-infamous tapes went public, President Nixon turned out to be a master of naughty words.
And Lyndon Baines Johnson - perhaps our most gifted presidential user of curse words - had a reputation for verbal obscenity.
In the past, political leaders cussed in private, not in public. Today, though, it’s not just politicians swearing more - it’s everyone.
A 2017 study by San Diego State University psychologist Jean M. Twenge showed a dramatic increase in cursing, which she attributed to America’s growing individualism, “a cultural system that emphasizes the self more and social rules less.” She explained that “as social rules fell by the wayside, and people were told to express themselves, swearing became more common.”
That doesn’t bode well for our cussing politicians. The more that they and everyone else use taboo terms, the less taboo those terms become - and the less impact they have.
If the use of salty language in our increasingly strident political discourse troubles you, here’s a key takeaway from the 2020 campaign season:
We’re all cursed.
Tom Purcell is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist. Send comments to Tom at Tom@TomPurcell.com.