They thought I was either crazy, or very, very old. I was sitting in a small circle of middle school kids at summer camp last week when the subject of television shows came up. In the first place, I was surprised that they knew very little of television. My being raised in a generation when some ministers, sociologists and seers predicted that TV would rot our minds I was astonished to find that many kids today watch very little television. They’re too busy texting to tube. But the little campers in our summer circle were completely astounded when I told them that once upon a time you never heard the “bleep” sound on television.
Little Lexi from South Jacksonville said, “You mean they let them just cuss out loud?” I said, “No. Back then people didn’t swear on TV shows.” Earlier in the camp week I’d told them that they shouldn’t go outside the dorm at night for fear of the great Morgan County Yeti that roamed the woods near Meredosia, so they assumed that the same teller of tales was talking to them now about profanity in early television. “I’m not kidding,” I said. “News reports, TV shows. . . everything. People just watched their mouth. Nobody got bleeped because nobody cussed on the air.” I’m glad I wasn’t the person leading Bible study that night since by now my credibility had been totally destroyed with this little group.
If statistics mean anything to you, you might be interested to know that Family Safe, a group studying the media found that profanity on television has increased nearly 70 percent in the last five years. The harshest of these profanities occurred during the 8 p.m. slot, formerly known as the “family hour” on television. Researchers at the Sociolinguistics Symposium found that kids are now swearing at an earlier age and swearing more often than a decade ago. They didn’t find this surprising since public swearing by adults has increased at a similar rate. Timothy Jay, the group’s spokesman, said, “We find that swearing really takes off between ages three and four.” Most parents polled said that they had rules at home about swearing and that the adults broke those rules on a regular basis. Traditionally, swearing has tended to peak in the teenage years but that peak is now being extended more and more into adulthood.
One group actually counted the profanity in pop music lyrics and found 31,564 cuss words in the top 145 albums. What a bummer of a way to spend your day. I’m old enough to remember when Jimmy Dean’s song, “Big John” came out. The last words were, “At the bottom of his mine lies a hell of a big man, Big John,” and the world was shocked so badly that a second version had to be recorded, telling us that miner John was simply a “big, big man.”
Okay, I used to get mightily tickled when I’d hear some of the old guys around my hometown be able to lace together a string of profanities that would not only singe the hair off a cat, but they’d intertwine their adjectives and nouns together in such a unique way that some of their outbursts seemed to be a work of art. In fact, many times they’d spew forth a shower of cussing that had real punch but contained no actual profanities. “That no-good lam-basted slam-grabbin’ old son-of-biscuit eatin’ banger head!” I called it Presbyterian Profanity.
But sadly, and due in large part to the Internet, today’s proliferation of profanity goes way beyond the words of my youth. It’s an insidious thing, and like old underwear, it sort of creeps up on you. I remember when the movie ET came out and the film was slapped with a “G” rating. Universal Studios panicked at the thought that such a mild rating would kill the movie’s chances at the box office so they reedited a scene where the extraterrestrial takes to the sky on a bicycle. The original version had ET’s young friend remark, “Wow!” In the edited version he now says, “….(SOB)” and the film got rid of its “G” rating.
Sometimes I’ll turn on the television to watch the policemen of Alaska pull drunks off the tundra or gold miners elbow each other out of the way to get rich, and entire sections of the show are almost indecipherable with one bleep after another.
By the time camp was over the kids started believing me again. It was about damned time.