Before we begin: This episode is about swear words. In the course of their discussion, Stephen and Angela say a lot of swear words. We’ve bleeped out the most objectionable ones, but you’ll still hear some unpleasant language. So, if you don’t like swearing, or you’re listening with kids, you might want to skip this one. Now, here’s our show.
DUCKWORTH: Remember: I’m the one with “potty mouth.”
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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: Why are people offended by swear words?
DUBNER “Whoa, I can’t believe someone said that.”
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DUBNER: So, Angie, let me start with a warning to whoever is doing the bleeping on this episode: You are going to be very busy over the next half hour.
DUCKWORTH: There’s going to be a lot of censorship.
DUBNER: Here’s what I want to talk to you about today. There is a lot more swearing — or cursing — in public these days, including words that didn’t used to be spoken at all, in most circumstances. Like “motherf*****.” People call each other, “Hey motherf*****, how’s it going?”
DUCKWORTH: Is that true, by the way? Or is that just Stephen Dubner’s casual observations?
DUBNER: The data on more swearing?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Is that a trend?
DUBNER: So, there are scholars who’ve done this. This is one chart I’m looking at, where they picked — one, two, three, four, five — six pretty standard words. Hell, ass, s***, damn, f***, and b****. This is charting, essentially, the frequency of words that are found in printed sources published between 1900 and 2019. “Hell” was always higher than the others. The second-highest was “ass.” “Hell” just kept rising, and it’s still much, much, much more common than the others, but all of them rose to what looks to be between three and four times the magnitude — according to the printed sources that can be analyzed by Ngram Viewer, at least.
DUCKWORTH: Oh yes. I’m a big fan of Google Ngram. I think this partly comes from when Google was still scanning books. Like, “Let’s scan all the books ever been written.” But it’s actually not just books. So, the printed word.
DUBNER: Yeah. And there’s a 2017 paper published in SAGE Open. This is by Jean Twenge, Hannah VanLandingham, and W. Keith Campbell. And they write, “We find a steady linear increase in the use of swear words, with books published in the year 2005 to 2008 28 times more likely to include swear words than books published in the early 1950s.” In addition to what we think of as those sort of cuss words, there’s also the taking of various lords’ names in vain.
DUCKWORTH: Usually a particular lord — at least in the United States.
DUBNER: “F***ing Krishna!” I don’t know. Does that happen?
DUCKWORTH: I haven’t heard that recently. Maybe I’m not hanging out with the right people.
DUBNER: That bastard Buddha. You haven’t heard those?
DUCKWORTH: I’m feeling uncomfortable, Stephen. You haven’t even gotten to your question, and already, you’ve succeeded in making me feel a little—
DUBNER: I think that’s a big part of it, is how a word might be comfortable in some circumstances and not in others. I’ll give you an example. Unfortunately, most of my examples these days come from playing golf. I was playing golf with a guy who seemed like a perfectly nice guy — he was a lawyer, but he seemed fine. And then, he missed a putt. He said something, that — I didn’t even know how to respond. It was so horrible.
DUCKWORTH Wait, are you going to repeat it?
DUBNER: Yeah. He was talking to the ball not going in the hole, and he said, “You f***ing whore.” And I sat in the kind of very awkward silence you are sitting in right now.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know what I’m feeling, Stephen.
DUBNER: I didn’t know what I was feeling, either! It was very cringey. It changed my opinion of this person — I’ll be honest — because it seemed like such a wrong read of the situation. Like, first of all, it was language that made me very uncomfortable.
DUCKWORTH: Several layers of, I think, like, wrongness.
DUBNER: Agree. But here’s what I was saying about context. “The Sopranos,” I don’t know if you ever watched that show.
DUBNER: But in my family, some of us did. And there’s one character whose name is Ralph Cifaretto, who is hilarious, often unintentionally. And he’s always calling people “you f***ing hoouah,” and we repeat it, over and over again, because it’s his Jersey pronunciation that we find kind of—
DUCKWORTH: I’ve never heard that particular Jersey pronunciation. Is it “hoouah”?
DUBNER: It’s, “You f***ing hoouah.” And, like you, we laugh. There’s something about it that’s funny. But what I’m saying is: context matters. And, overall, there does seem to be this societally-agreed-upon standard that swearing, in certain circumstances, and for certain audiences, is still very much forbidden or looked down upon. You don’t make it in a political speech — usually, I guess we should say. Although there was an interesting political swear caught on tape years ago, when the Affordable Care Act was being signed, and Biden was the vice president, and he whispered into Obama’s ear, but loud enough for someone to hear it: “This is a big f***ing deal.” And that went down as an anomaly. Although, that’s probably not that anomalous — it just happened to be heard. But, you know, in much of the professional world, and among children, and among people who have a sensibility — religious or otherwise — that might be insulted, swearing is something we just don’t do. On this show, for instance, when one of us swears — it’s usually you. Today, I’m carrying the load for both of us.
DUCKWORTH: I get emails about this by the way, Stephen.
DUBNER: Those emails are what prompted me to want to ask you this question today. Because, on this show, we do bleep the occasional swear words. But in one recent email, at least that I saw, you used “Jesus Christ” as an expletive. And some people wrote to say that they found that really offensive, and asked us — slash, you — to stop. So, I have a few questions for you around swearing. Do you think, Angela, that we should be swearing less? Maybe we should be swearing more? And I’m curious to know what you can tell us about what swearing actually accomplishes.
DUCKWORTH: Well, I have to tell you Stephen, that, because it was more than one email about the episode in which I uttered the Lord’s name in vain, I did a little looking into the science of swearing. So, I’m not completely naive here to the research on it.
DUBNER: That is so Angela, I have to say. That shows a lot of good things about you, though. Not just “growth mindset” — like, you always want to learn — but when you have something directed at you that maybe doesn’t sit quite right, you go somewhere empirical for an exploration. I like that.
DUCKWORTH: Freud did not say, on the list of psychological defenses — you know, he had the immature defenses, like repression and avoidance, and then he had the mature defenses, like humor and sublimation — he didn’t say that Google Scholar was a mature defense, but it is for me. It is where I go when I am feeling confused and criticized. And actually, I have to say, I learned a lot about the science of swearing. I’m going to answer your question before I get into the research, which is: I don’t know if we should be swearing less — we (you and I), we (society). But I feel like Angela Duckworth should be swearing less.
DUBNER: Uh-huh. Interesting.
DUCKWORTH: So, I’m going to make the case for the upside of swearing, but I’m also going to say that, net, I think it’s unnecessary roughness.
DUBNER: I cannot wait for your f***ing explanation.
DUCKWORTH: And I’m going to give this to you totally G-rated. Let’s begin with a definition. The world expert on swearing — at least from psychological science — is this guy named Timothy Jay, who is a professor emeritus now, but spent a good portion of his long career studying the upside, the downside, the mechanism — swearing in all possible facets.
DUBNER: Is “J” — it’s his last name? Or that’s, like, his nickname? Does it stand for jackass? Or jackwad? Jagoff?
DUCKWORTH: It’s just Jay. I think it’s just J-A-Y — in case you’re wondering.
DUBNER: Not a swear.
DUCKWORTH: But the way Timothy Jay defines swearing, and I quote, “Swearing, defined broadly, is the use of offensive or taboo words to express our emotions and communicate our emotions to others.” They have a function, these swear words.
DUBNER: This is a tiny, tiny door into a conversation about a huge thing, which is language and what it means, who it means what to, and how language evolves. And so, I’m a big admirer of a linguist named John McWhorter. I think you probably know his work a bit, as well. He’s at Columbia. He writes a lot of popular books.
DUCKWORTH: Mostly through you, because you are really a big admirer of John McWhorter.
DUBNER: And, in fact, John McWhorter’s most recent book — and it’s one reason I wanted to ask you this question today — is actually about swearing. It’s called Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever. And I can share with you a few key insights from there that I think are really interesting. He describes, essentially, three historical eras of what swear words were about. So, the first one was really about God and heresy. So, someone might “damn you to hell,” or use the name of the Lord in vain. And that, for a long time, was considered the most serious, let’s say, or the most common, even.
DUCKWORTH: Blasphemous, right?
DUBNER: Deeply blasphemous. And that connotes that religion held more leverage than it may in the world today. The second period he writes about is about, as you said, the body. So, if you think about the words that are still considered curse words that have something to do with the human body and our relationship to it, or maybe disgust with it, our excitement for it. So, there are sexual terms. There’s the F-word. There’s s***. There’s when you call someone an “a-hole,” or curse words to describe our reproductive organs, and so on. There are a number of words that stand in for “penis” that are now, kind of, I would call them casual curse words.
DUCKWORTH: Like the one that starts with “D.”
DUBNER: Have you ever called someone — said, “Oh, that guy’s a real—”
DUCKWORTH: Oh, I’m sure. Remember. I’m the one with “potty mouth,” as my husband likes to say. Wait, wait, wait. So, there’s religion. There’s the body.
DUBNER: If the first two are religion and the human body, the third, John McWhorter argues — and I find this really interesting — is: words that are meant to demean other people — different races, or ethnicities, or religions, sexual preferences.
DUCKWORTH: Like ethnic slurs.
DUBNER: So, I think he’s saying, you know, in the current era, the words against religion and against the human body have been devalued, somewhat, or declawed. Whereas the words that seem to carry the most potency are the ones about other people — that make us really stand up and say, “Whoa, I can’t believe someone said that.”
DUCKWORTH: What’s interesting is that every generation has its own taboos. Somehow, we don’t move beyond taboos altogether. Right?
DUBNER: Yeah. I did find, recently, a good illustration of our current phase. So, there’s a website I found called Language, Please, which describes itself as “a digital-journalism style guide.” So, this is: if you’re a journalist, if you’re writing or speaking for the public, and you want to know what language is considered offensive by different groups that you may not have a lot of exposure to. Their purpose, they write, is: “To give guidance spanning six main categories: borders and populations; class and social standing; disabilities, neurodiversity, and chronic illness; gender and sexuality; mental health, trauma, and substance abuse; and race and ethnicity.” So, I found it interesting that, as we’re getting more sensitive to using or abusing language in one direction — like, the word “homeless” is no longer used by a lot of journalists. Instead, it might be “a person without housing” or “experiencing homelessness.” The phrase “drug addict” — a lot of people don’t say that phrase anymore. They might opt for something like “a person experiencing substance abuse disorder.”
DUCKWORTH: All these things are separating the person’s condition from the person, so as not to essentialize.
DUBNER: Exactly. One word that’s offended me for a long time is when people say, “Oh, that’s insane.”
DUCKWORTH: Why were you offended? Because it wasn’t literally true?
DUBNER: Because there are people who are literally defined as insane, and that is a mental illness.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know if McWhorter has a kind of, like: “This is why every generation invents taboo or, you know, swear words.” But I was pretty convinced by what I found from Timothy Jay and from others. I think the most compelling argument is that human beings are social, and therefore, there is the need to express and to understand other people’s emotion. Swearing enables you to communicate, and to express a variety of emotions — most of them negative, but some of them neutral or positive. So: anger, frustration — those would be the negative ones. Think about people swearing at each other in traffic. And then there’s what happens when you and I are in conversation and I’m just surprised, and I let loose with something which apparently is offensive to more than one person. And, by the way, Timothy Jay has also pointed out that it may be better to swear than some other things we could do, like shove people into traffic or, you know, hit them— He had some line in one of his articles that said he has recorded, I don’t know, hundreds, maybe thousands, of conversations and utterances, and he’s not once had evidence that swearing then led to physical violence. So, I get that there’s a function of this. But when I think of this impolite human behavior, and my ability to use other words: Like, why not? I think I’m just going to buck the trend.
DUBNER: I wonder if we should have a call-out for listeners and ask them to contribute. What do you think would be the best question to ask for listeners to send us, maybe, a voice memo on this topic?
DUCKWORTH: I guess I might ask them: Do you have a story of a time where you swore and were glad about it or lived to regret it?
DUBNER: Love that question. Okay. So, listeners, if you would: Use your phone. Send us a voice memo. Send it to NSQ@freakonomics.com. Tell us your name, if you don’t mind, and maybe a little bit about yourself. Keep it short, record it in a quiet place. And if we’re entertained by it, we will put it on a future episode.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions, Stephen and Angela discuss how swearing can lead to intimacy and friendship.
DUBNER: I see a lot of young women my daughter’s age. They ask for permission to call another friend b****. “Can I call you b****?” “Yes, b****.”
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Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about the ethics of swear words.
DUBNER: You do have one phrase that you say when something surprises or delights you, and I love this phrase. You say: “holy shmoly.”
DUCKWORTH: That’s very intentional though, to substitute “holy shmoly.” Or, by the way, in lieu of the Lord’s name, “Jeez, Louise.” Also, somebody suggested to me: “cheese and rice.”
DUBNER: There’s also “jeepers creepers.” I mean, that goes way back. There’s a lot. Mine is “Jiminy Crickshaft.” I’m not quite sure where that came from.
DUCKWORTH: Do you use “Jiminy Crickshaft”? There’s so many syllables in that.
DUBNER: I know. It feels so good. I don’t like to say the name “Jesus Christ” as a curse, or as an exclamation of distress or even surprise. It’s usually distress. If I hit a bad golf shot, there are two that I end up saying. It’s not intentional. These are just how my brain has grabbed onto— Because I don’t like to swear publicly; today’s conversation notwithstanding. So, I will say “Jiminy Crickshaft,” which is very satisfying. And the other one is, instead of saying the “S-H” word, I’ll say, “sugar bear!” and I have to say, that feels good.
DUCKWORTH: I think I could also say, “O-M-G!” Which, by the way, one could argue is better, or one could argue is no better.
DUBNER: You know, we just finished a Freakonomics Radio episode on online prayer apps.
DUCKWORTH: Online prayer apps?
DUBNER: Yeah. It’s a big business, and super interesting, and a little bit, perhaps, troubling — in part because of the way data online can be shared. So, you can imagine that maybe there’s some confessionals that may not be as private as one may think. One of the clergy members whose voices we added to this mentioned — and I thought this was really interesting — he said that when people say, “Oh, my God” as an expression of, like you were saying, maybe disbelief or surprise, he didn’t mind that. He said, “I take it as a prayer.” It’s an acknowledgement, whether you know it or not, that you’re saying, “I can’t do this on my own.” Like, “Oh, my God. I’m calling in support.”
DUCKWORTH: Or sort of, like, a recognition that this is God’s universe, and I can’t understand it all. I mean, there could be a variety of things if you were trying to justify yourself. You know, I’m Catholic. I told you I’m Catholic, right?
DUBNER: Yes. You have. But you converted to Catholicism. You were not what they call a “cradle catholic.”
DUCKWORTH: I became Catholic when I was 26 — the only person in my family, I think, to become Catholic.
DUBNER: But that’s when you started swearing, you’re saying.
DUCKWORTH: No! No, no, no, no. That is not when I started swearing. I did my Catholic conversion when I was at Oxford. And I had a PhD monk who was very patient. And so, I had all kinds of questions. I was like, “Why is this? Why is that? What about the people who don’t convert?”
DUBNER: Are they all going to go to hell, just because they didn’t have the good fortune to be exposed to Catholicism?
DUCKWORTH: I asked all of these questions, but I don’t remember asking — well, I certainly don’t remember what the response was — “Why it is that it is offensive or taboo to take the Lord’s name in vain?”
DUBNER: It’s one of the Ten Commandments, that’s why.
DUCKWORTH: God, I should know that. You know, in moral theory — the theory of moral principles in psychology — Jon Haidt very prominently has argued for there being certain general principles that underlie moral systems throughout history, and across culture and religions. I remember reading this poem by Philip Larkin, “Church Going.” In the poem, Larkin reveals he’s, more or less, an atheist, and he’s taking a bike ride, and he pulls over at this abandoned church, and he walks into the sanctuary, but, you know, immediately had this, like, hush come over him. And this is just the idea of, like: there is something sacred, or pure. And so, I think maybe that’s the reason why taking the Lord’s name, in vain in context in which it is just being used to express surprise at a new fact that Stephen Dubner let loose — I think that’s why it’s offensive. If that is creating offense and I’m just trying to express surprise, I think I should say something else. Don’t you think?
DUBNER: But the fact is, if you take 10 different people, they may have 10 totally different reckonings of what is sacred and what is profane. For some, that is a religious deity and universe, and others, it might be nature. For others, it might be whatever. And that’s where I think we get into this very awkward public/private conflict when it comes to curse words, because there is an intimacy about it, too. I can see that one purpose that swearing might accomplish is it creates a deeper intimacy or bonding. You kind of show your disdain or irreverence for a shared enemy. Let’s say you hate Joe Biden. And you might say to someone that you know medium-well: “Oh yeah, that sleepy, old mother*****” — just to see if they’re on your team or not. Or, if they are on your team, then you might be more likely to say it.
DUCKWORTH: I do think this recent paper that I read, actually, before I was called out on my own potty mouth, because it came out in a pretty prominent journal called Social, Psychological, and Personality Science. And this is a 2017 paper. The authors make the claim that the reason why we swear may be, in part, that it signals honesty. Like, I think there’s a reason why when stand-up comics start swearing a lot. It not only signals, “Hey, I’m going to be honest here. I’m going to be real. I’m going to talk about things that nobody talks about,” but also, “We’re all part of the same in-group.” Right? You know, I know you’re a big fan of John McWhorter. I have a favorite linguist. His name is Mark Liberman. Because we’re both at University of Pennsylvania, we’ve been looking at secular changes in language use over the past century. And I have to say: This trend of “more swearing and cussing” goes with what we have also documented, is basically a general increase in informality — that the written word was, you know, a lot more buttoned-up — maybe with a carnation in a lapel — than it is today, where we have the linguistic equivalent of sweatpants.
DUBNER: Do you think that this embrace of the casual, which translates to language, which translates, perhaps, to more swearing — how does that relate to less seriousness as a species in general? I mean, you could argue that, for the first many millennia, we were just so busy trying to not get eaten by the sabretooth tiger, and then not get gored by the ox that we managed to tame, and then not starve because we couldn’t grow crops, and then not die of cholera, et cetera, that life was more serious. Do you think that our loosening of language, including swearing, is a reflection of the fact that life is easier — prosperity is wider-spread — that we use this language to express disbelief or even anger over things that are, prima facie, not a big deal? Like, if you say, “holy s***” if you tell me that, you know, some celebrity decided to get a facelift. The stakes are almost zero. I’m curious what you think the relationship might be.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t really vibe to that explanation, in particular. But I also don’t know. There does seem to be a kind of a disillusion of faith in the traditions, in the institutions, that were at once in history held sacred. And there is this article that I read by the esteemed Timothy Jay called “Swearing, Moral Order, and Online Communication.” He looked at how swear words are appearing with frequency in emails and blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. And he argues — and this is his words, not mine: “Online swear-word use is a function of moral order as well as users’ interpersonal characteristics.” He made the claim that, you know, it’s by definition impolite. It’s by definition offensive. It’s by definition taboo. And then, when he made that connection to moral order, he had me. But then when he started talking about the characteristics, demographically, of those who tend to swear online more, I was really convinced. For example: younger people are more likely to swear than older people. Men are more likely to swear online than women. And all this, to me, added up to a kind of immaturity. When I heard that men swear more, I was like, “Oh, gosh.”
DUBNER: Well, men and Angela Duckworth.
DUCKWORTH: No, no, no! I am doing so well on this episode, Stephen. And I don’t want to be like men, or less mature. But what has been clearer to me after working with Mark Liberman is that, generally, language evolves toward youth and women. In other words, if you look in a culture, and you hear how teenagers and also how women, as opposed to men, speak, that is the direction in which the entire language evolves. Now, if that’s true, I don’t know that we can understand the trends towards swearing, because it’s been shown that men swear more than women.
DUBNER: Or it could be that when women and girls started swearing more, that men felt, also, more emboldened to swear more.
DUCKWORTH: Well, men seemed to be emboldened before. Like, you know, well before. Do you know—? I don’t know: When a woman swears — when I swear — is that more offensive than if a male doppelganger, if somebody who were just like me, but a guy, swears?
DUBNER: It’s so interesting you ask me that question, because I mentioned this case earlier of a male golfer that I played with lately, who swore in a way that I found particularly just, like, gross. But then, a few days later, I was up at the club where I play golf, and I was chatting with a few female golfers about my age. They were getting ready to go out in a group. And this is, like, such a good example of what John McWhorter was talking about — how we’re moving from the body to people. And they were talking about this tournament that they play in, that I’d never heard of. So, they were explaining it to me, where you’re going to play two 18-hole rounds, each individual, and you can play them whenever you want. And then, you combine the best holes from those two rounds to make your best combined 18-hole score.
DUCKWORTH: Kind of like super-scoring the SAT.
DUBNER: That’s exactly what it is — super-scoring your golf score. So, she was explaining this to me. I thought, “That’s really cool.” And she said, “Yeah, but, you know, I will tell you, my friends over here, they’re pretty sneaky.” And she said, “What these ladies do,” then she said, “Wait. I can’t say ‘ladies’ anymore. What these girls do— No, no, no. What these women do—” And she said, “Ugh, I can’t say anything.” She said, “What these sneaky motherf****** do, is they—” And then she described how they go around, like, looking at the pin placements on the course before they decide to play that day. I was so astonished that she felt she couldn’t say “women,” “girls,” or “ladies,” but “motherf*****” was okay. I loved it, personally. It just felt like what you were describing before. It creates this sort of intimacy and candor, and I didn’t know this woman very well before, but now I think she’s awesome.
DUCKWORTH: Right. She’s a badass. I get that. And yet, we have a choice, and I’ve made mine. I wonder if you feel like you should, or want to, swear less than you do, Stephen.
DUBNER: You know, I’ll tell you: For many, many, many, many years, I didn’t swear at all. Like, maybe if I hit my thumb with a hammer, I’d swear.
DUCKWORTH: Which, by the way, talking about the expression of emotion, there, it’s very hard to substitute in “cheese and rice.”
DUBNER: I still would say: Honestly, when I hit myself with a hammer today — which doesn’t happen very often — even if I’m alone, I probably would still say “Jiminy Crickshaft.”
DUBNER: Or “sugar bear.”
DUCKWORTH: You just whack your shin on the coffee table and you say—?
DUBNER: “Sugar bear!”
DUCKWORTH: I almost want to trip you and see what happens.
DUBNER: I will say this: in the last few years, I have felt the temperature change. I have felt swearing become a casual, and often fun and funny, thing that I participate in — as evidenced by this conversation that we’ve been having today. Also, I think another reason we swear is because it’s fun. There’s something about taking control of the language and engaging with someone else in a way that is slightly transgressive, but the stakes are pretty low. Like, I’m going to say two sentences. “Angie, that uptight friend of yours is such a mean guy. I wish he would go away.” Or, I could say, “You know, Angie, that dips*** friend of yours is such a f***ing a*******; they should f*** off and die.”
DUCKWORTH: The second is much— This is like going to the optometrist. Number two. Number two. It’s definitely more fun. It also does communicate candor and honesty. But I bet you wouldn’t say that in front of your kids.
DUBNER: So, interestingly, my kids and even my wife have, just in the last couple years started using words that were forbidden. But it’s done in a totally different spirit. You know, I see a lot of young women my daughter’s age. They ask for permission to call another friend “b****.” “Can I call you ‘b****’’?” “Yes, b****.”
DUCKWORTH: Wait. They ask each other for permission?
DUBNER: Yeah, because it would be a little impolite to just say, “Oh, b****.”
DUCKWORTH: But, once given the permission, it becomes a term of intimacy.
DUBNER: So, Angie, you’re swearing off swearing. How are you going to do that? Because it seems like it’s an impulse — it’s almost a habit with you. So, how do you trick yourself into not doing it?
DUCKWORTH: I’m going to use behavioral science, Stephen. Trick No. 1 would be to identify the trigger situations and to be thoughtful in advance about what those might be in the future. So, it’s like, “Hm, this happens to me when I’m in a kind of heated, but sometimes great conversation, but I want to express surprise.” Then, having identified those trigger situations—
DUBNER: There are certain people you’ll never speak with again, are you saying?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I don’t want to not have great, get-carried-away-with-type conversations. So, I think now I would need to come up with a substitute behavior. This comes from behavioral activation therapy, for example, where, if you have a smoking habit and you don’t want to smoke when you are, for example, stressed or nervous, you need to come up with a substitute. With smoking, you might change to gum-chewing. For me, instead of swearing, that’s why I think I do need these verbal substitutes. “Jeez, Louise.” “Shut the front door.” I think I might copy/paste “sugar bear.”
DUBNER: It feels good. Try it.
DUCKWORTH: Sugar bear.
DUBNER: No, no, no. With more feeling. You said that, like, as if you actually saw a sugar bear. It’s like, “Sugar bear!”
DUCKWORTH: Sugar bear!
DUBNER: Ugh. So good.
DUCKWORTH: By the way, is a sugar bear a thing? Is there an actual bear?
DUBNER: There is a honey bear.
DUCKWORTH: The thing that’s made out of plastic that’s the shape of a bear, but it contains honey.
DUBNER There’s a lot of sugar in honey. So, let me ask you this: I don’t know how long you’ve been trying these behavioral science tricks on yourself. Is it long enough to know whether it’s working or not? Are you swearing less around the home?
DUCKWORTH: Well, it’s only been a few days, Stephen, but I’m going to sneak in my third trick here, right? So: Identify the trigger situations. Come up with a substitute habit. But the third thing — and I need your help with this — I need to be rewarded.
DUBNER: Or punished, right? I mean, we could say you have to commit a donation to a cause you dislike. Do those not work, as well?
DUCKWORTH: Generally speaking, the positive reward of the substitute behavior is better than the punishment of the bad behavior. So, what I need you to do, Stephen, is — I guess, in some way — reward me every time you hear “sugar bear.” I can’t do the “sugar bear” thing. “Jeez, Louise,” for sure.
DUBNER: So, here’s my problem. I liked the old, potty-mouth Angela.
DUCKWORTH: You did?
DUBNER: I did. It was a really engaging paradox. Like, your brand is about being a good and kind person who’s trying to help people in the world. And the fact that you swear like a sailor — that was just somehow a very charming and delightful element of your personality, because it was incongruous. So, I first came to really like and respect the “you” that swore. And so, now I’m going to have to adjust to like and respect the “you” that doesn’t swear. So, maybe I’m the one that needs the rewards, and not you?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Maybe I need to reward you every time I say “jeez, Louise.”
No Stupid Questions is produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversation.
In the first half of the show, Stephen says that he’s uncomfortable hearing the word “insane” used to describe something shocking, because there are people with mental illness who are, quote, “literally defined as insane.” It’s true that someone who is determined to be “legally insane” cannot be held responsible for their behavior in a court of law. However, while the term was once used in the psychiatric realm to describe individuals with symptoms of psychosis, it’s no longer used as an official medical diagnosis.
Later, Angela promises to stop using the Lord’s name in vain. When she wonders why it’s offensive, Stephen reminds her that it’s listed in Exodus as one of the Ten Commandments. I’d like to point out that, ironically enough, she immediately responds with, “God, I should know that.”
Also, Angela wonders if society as a whole perceives women swearing as more offensive than men swearing. Research has shown that women are judged more harshly for using profanity — likely because of gender norms that suggest women should be less aggressive and more polite.
Finally, Angela wonders if a sugar bear is a real thing. Sugar gliders, also known as sugar bears, are small marsupials that are native to the forests of Australia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. In addition, “Sugar Bear” is the mascot for Post’s Golden Crisp Cereal. The character was introduced in 1949, and according to the brand’s website, he is a quote, “chill bear with a cool swagger” who was originally voiced in the style of Bing Crosby or Dean Martin. There’s no mention on the website of his feelings on profanity.
That’s it for the fact-check.
Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear your thoughts on last week’s episode on how seasonal change affects mood and mental health. We asked listeners to let us know what techniques they use to fight winter blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD). Here’s what you said:
Rick BOSACKER: Hi, this is Rick from Cambridge, New Zealand. I spent the first 50 years of my life in Minnesota, which arguably has the coldest, darkest, and longest winters in the United States. Now, as a family practice doctor, I can tell you without a doubt, the happiest and healthiest Minnesotans are those hearty souls who cultivate rituals which embrace the bitter winter — whether it’s ice fishing, pond hockey, snowmobiling, polar plunging, Minnesotans find a way to look forward to winter.
Isabel RIOS: Hi, Steven and Angela. My name is Isabel and I’m from Mexico City, but I live in Abu Dhabi in the U.A.E. I personally experience SAD in the summer. Although there is a lot of light here, temperatures in the summer go well into the 40s Celsius, and it’s also quite humid, making the weather feel even worse. Going outside, even walking in the shade, is truly an ordeal-and-a-half. The way I battle my SAD is to make plans with friends so I can’t cancel — to meet somewhere air conditioned and after sunset.
Jenni GRAVES: To make it through the long, cold winters in Michigan, I try to practice the Danish lifestyle of hygge, which is all about embracing the mood of coziness and comfort that comes with winter. So, what this looks like for me is: lighting a candle in the evening for our meals, regularly making fires in our fireplace, having lots of warm, fuzzy blankets around, and eating a lot of soups and stews to stay warm.
That was, respectively, Rick Bosacker, Isabel Rios, and Jenni Graves. Thanks to them, and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. And remember, we’d still love to hear your swearing stories. Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. Let us know your name or if you’d like to remain anonymous. And you might hear your story on next week’s show!
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Why are the most privileged countries so unhappy?
DUBNER: In other words, what the F is wrong with these people?
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
* * *
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Julie Kanfer, Morgan Levey, Zack Lapinski, Ryan Kelley, Katherine Moncure, Jeremy Johnston, Jasmin Klinger, Daria Klenert, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, and Alina Kulman. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUBNER: I think we should just end this d*** s***hole of a motherf***ing conversation right now. Jiminy Crickshaft, that was fun.
- Jonathan Haidt, professor of ethical leadership at New York University.
- Timothy Jay, professor emeritus of psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.
- Mark Liberman, professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania.
- John McWhorter, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.
- Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever, by John McWhorter (2021).
- “Swearing, Moral Order, and Online Communication,” by Timothy Jay (Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict, 2018).
- “Frankly, We Do Give a Damn: The Relationship Between Profanity and Honesty,” by Gilad Feldman, Huiwen Lian, Michal Kosinski, and David Stillwell (Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2017).
- Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language, by Emma Byrne (2017).
- “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television: Increases in the Use of Swear Words in American Books, 1950-2008,” by Jean M. Twenge, Hannah VanLandingham, and W. Keith Campbell (SAGE Open, 2017).
- “Chapter Two – Moral Foundations Theory: The Pragmatic Validity of Moral Pluralism,” by Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt, Sena Koleva, Matt Motyl, Ravi Iyer, Sean P. Wojcik, and Peter H. Ditto (Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 2013).
- “The Science of Swearing,” by Timothy Jay and Kristin Janschewitz (Association for Psychological Science, 2012).
- “Joe Biden: ‘This Is a Big F***ing Deal,'” by Richard Adams (The Guardian, 2010).
- “Do Offensive Words Harm People?” by Timothy Jay (Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 2009).
- “The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words,” by Timothy Jay (Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2009).
- Language, Please.
- Google Books Ngram Viewer.
- “When You Pray to God Online, Who Else Is Listening?” by Freakonomics Radio (2022).
- “‘Leaving Black People in the Lurch,'” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- “Church Going,” poem by Philip Larkin (1954).