What I'd missed was the nice time trend. For each and every swear word listed on their summary sheet, and yes they don't asterisk anything out there so consider yourself warned if you blush easily, fewer people took offence in 2009 then in 1999. Respondents were asked whether the use of each term was "unacceptable". Restricting ourselves to the words included in all years, the average "unacceptability" rate was 43% in 1999 and 32% in 2009. The most offensive and least offensive terms on that list showed the same five percentage point decrease in offensiveness, but the f-bomb showed a nineteen percentage point drop over the period: only 51 percent deemed it unacceptable in 2009.
We are taking less offense than we did a decade ago. I count that as generally a good thing.
What does this all mean though:
- If you want to be offensive, you need to ramp things up. Be more creative; combine existing offensive terms in new and amplifying ways. I'm thinking Deadwood, but less anachronistic.
- If we've seen an increase in use of such language on TV over time, that means that there's diminishing marginal offensiveness with use of terms. So we'd expect the time trend to continue.
- Note that newly measured terms rate, on average, as more offensive than the old stand-byes. The median of all 2009 measured terms is 31% deeming offensive; new terms rate as, at median, 45% unacceptable. So "Jesus Christ" dropped from 41% to 31% deeming it unacceptable, but put a participle in the middle (newly measured) and it's more offensive than either the root term or the modifier. And, I'd bet that if you flipped the participle for the compound noun that precedes it on the list, it would be even more offensive. Some of this will be due to novelty, some due to a multiplicative effect.
- For the former combination, we'd really need individual level data to suss out whether it's exceptionally offensive because the set of persons deeming the root terms unacceptable don't overlap perfectly and they're catching the union of the sets, or whether new people deem the amplified term to be offensive. These are important questions; I wonder whether the underlying data is available.
Update2: HT: @CherylBernstein