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Signs of swearing off swearing

Over the past few months, public-relations exec Jim O'Connor has become a more patient and more content man. Even his wife says he's happier.

They both attribute it to one thing: He's trained himself to stop swearing so much - to stop cursing at having to wait at a drive-thru window or when his wife asks him to do something he doesn't want to.

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In fact, the change has had such a dramatic effect that Mr. O'Connor now preaches the curse-less gospel at his Cuss Control Academy - yes, that's its real name - to everyone from tax accountants to juvenile delinquents. People are surprisingly receptive. Even high-schoolers have given him standing ovations.

In a way, the Cuss Control Academy is a sign of the times - a sign that in the late 1990s, as movements toward civility and simplicity take hold, Americans are willing to reconsider their sometimes R-rated discourse.

"People are realizing that incivility has real consequences on the quality of their daily lives," says P.M. Forni, who teaches a class on civility at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. "This incivility - this runaway rudeness - has gone awry."

Back in the 1960s and '70s, cursing became a badge of authenticity - one way the tie-dyed, get-real crowd could spurn the hypocritical, smooth-talking establishment.

And in the go-go '80s and '90s, trash-talk escalated even more as Americans got more flip, more "me"-obsessed, and more stressed.

Swearing has also snowballed, in part, because of Americans' penchant for informality, says Professor Forni.

At US business meetings, "it's 'Call me Bob,' and 'Call me Stan,' " he says, and an occasional swear word brings an easy informality. By contrast, in Germany, for instance, "it's Herr Doktor and Herr Professor for a long time."

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Americans, he says, swear much more than Europeans do.

But today, somehow, America's language free-for-all may not be the linguistic utopia it once seemed. In fact, some are discovering that a prohibition as old as Moses ("Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain") may have everyday relevance - that it may actually make rush-rush lives more sane.

"I'm not on a campaign to eliminate swearing," says O'Connor, who readily admits he still occasionally lets fly with a four-letter word. "I'm just saying that for your own contentment and ability to deal with things, don't cuss so much."

Certainly one man's crusade does not a revolution make. Swearing happens just about everywhere - except maybe in front of grandma. Teens and twentysomethings often swear so much that the words become an almost-unnoticed part of their language.

But there's evidence that cursing is under siege.

In a recent poll by the Chicago Sun-Times, 89 percent of respondents said swearing is a problem.

Four-letter flaps

And there's the swirl over Timothy Boomer - the Michigan man who hooted a hail of expletives after falling out of a canoe last summer. He was ticketed under an 1897 law banning profanity in front of women and children. He faces 90 days in jail or a $100 fine.

"Laws like that are ludicrous," says O'Connor, adding with an impish smile that "to enforce [them] you'd have to arrest everybody in New York."

Tell that to the citizens of towns like Raritan, N.J., and Jonesboro, Ga., where laws passed in recent years ban profanity in front of minors.

Or there's the St. Louis high school teacher who was fired for letting her students put on profanity-packed plays. Last June, a federal appeals court ruled the school district was within its right to fire her.

Even for many critics of profanity, cases like these are evidence of an anti-swearing ethos run amok.

But there are other, more voluntary signs that cursing is on the wane - even in the often foul-mouthed realm of rap.

Wal-Mart, for instance, is the nation's biggest CD retailer. But it doesn't sell discs stamped with parental-advisory warnings because of their explicit lyrics.

So the rap industry has obliged by producing cleaned-up versions of hot CDs - which many a parent sends their kids to buy instead of the original.

Late rapper Notorious B.I.G.'s album "Life After Death," for instance, is normally a two-CD set. Wal-Mart sells just one CD - all that was left after cuss-control editors had their way with it.

There's also perhaps some symbolism in the ascendancy of socially conscious - and relatively curse-free - singer Lauryn Hill, who's up for 10 Grammys on Feb. 24.

Back at the Cuss Control Academy, O'Connor says if people think about why they swear so much, they may begin to watch their mouths a little more closely, just as he has.

"Every day we go through a series of emotions. We're angry, frustrated, impatient, or dissatisfied," he says.

Why Americans swear

Much of this tension, he observes, is because of today's hurry-up, fast-food culture, where people expect to get what they want, immediately. Because expectations aren't always met, he says, "We've become a nation of whiners" - with foul mouths.

People also swear out of laziness. Some curses are catch-alls - nouns, verbs, or adjectives that can cover just about anything.

Finally, people swear for emphasis: You don't get heard if you don't shout - and swearing pumps up the point. But that's one of the ironies: Cursing is so common in some quarters that it's hardly noticed.

For all these reasons, O'Connor counsels people to start cutting down on swearing by being more patient: "Does an extra two minutes in line really matter?" He also observes that people who don't swear stand out for their "emotional maturity" and civility.

For teens - one of his most skeptical audiences - O'Connor makes this pitch. "You say you don't want to be like the older generation?" he asks. "Well, you're using the same swear words your parents do. Why don't you think of something different?"

He pushes them to come up with alternatives. One teen recently suggested "perturbed" as a stand-in.

"I'm perturbed," coming from a high school student? Now that would stand out indeed.

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