HYRUM — Corden Westover reacts to the table set up outside the Mountain Crest High School cafeteria like it's a snake with a lethal bite, throwing his hands up in the air and taking four shuffling steps back.
Across the front of the offending piece of furniture, someone's taped a hand-made, orange and blue paper sign. "NO CUSSING CLUB," it reads.
"Whoa," says Westover, an 18-year-old senior from Wellsville, nearly trampling two sophomores in his rush to steer clear. "No thank you. I reserve my right to free speech."
It's an argument that dates back before Shakespeare, back before the Bible, almost as far back, experts say, as the genesis of human speech. For as long as people have been dropping expletives, others have been fighting for clean language.
Flip through the channels during prime time or pick a movie — nearly any movie — and it appears that profanity is winning the battle. From 2005 to 2010, swearing on prime time television increased by 69 percent, the Parents Television Council reported. More movies are rated "R" for profanity than for sex, violence or drug use, Brigham Young University researchers found.
A recent analysis of the use of swear words on Twitter suggests, however, that the media is not an accurate reflection of mainstream America. While the number of people who used cuss words was high on the coasts where most television and movies are produced, in other areas of the country, many Americans are still keeping it clean.
Utahns swear less than anyone else in the country, said Daniel Huffman, the University of Wisconsin lecturer who put the map together.
"It's 'cause of the Mormons," Westover announced, when he heard about the trend.
He's no expert. A professed curser and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Westover is a walking contradiction to his own theory. But he's got the right idea.
Religion is a major driving force behind the campaign for clean language, said Timothy Jay, author of "Cursing in America" and a professor of psychology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. The world's four largest religions — Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism — all discourage using foul language.
In the Christian Bible, James summarizes the issue thus: "With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?"
Buddha described swearing as "disturbing the mind" and contrary to the Universal laws of nature. Hindus believe to swear is to curse oneself.
"What we have in America is a force counterforce between freedom of speech and a more conservative religious movement that wants to restrict it," Jay said.
Gage Bleazard, the 16-year-old sophomore who started Mountain Crest's No Cussing Club, was inspired to take a stand against swearing by the bishop of his LDS ward. One day in Sunday school, after Bleazard and his classmates had closed their scriptures, the bishop observed that he'd heard a lot of swearing at football games and school activities.
"He challenged us to do something about it," Bleazard said. "I figured, 'I can do that.' "
Bleazard got the format for his club from an 18-year-old California Mormon who had already rallied some 50,000 people to the cause. Raised a Mormon, Bleazard had always been taught that swearing was wrong. But it wasn't until he'd tried it out for himself that he realized why his parents encouraged him to avoid certain words.
"It made it harder to concentrate on the good things in life," he said. "It was harder to feel the spirit (of God)."
In Utah, home of the headquarters of the LDS Church, more people regularly attend church services than anywhere else in the country, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
"You have a higher religiosity in Salt Lake City and more religious restraint than big cities like Los Angles and New York," Jay said. "That absolutely affects the way Utahns approach language."
That doesn't just mean Utahns swear less frequently, though. It also means Utahns are more likely to use euphemisms like, "shoot," "crap," "dang" or "frick."
The impulse to swear is "built into us like a horn in a car," Jay said. Children whose parents swear start cussing nearly as soon as they begin the talk. "How you use that horn depends on how you are raised to express yourself."
The key to truly conquering foul language, he said, is learning to control emotions.
"Swearing is primarily an emotional outlet," Jay said. "We can't eliminate emotional language unless we eliminate emotion. Mormons have similar emotions but they have different habits."
Last week, Bleazard carefully cut paper into letters to spell the words "NO CUSSING CLUB" and taped it to the front of a table. With a stack of ready-to-sign "no cussing" pledges and a ballpoint pen at hand, he pulled up a plastic chair and set to work recruiting new members.
In front of him, a group of teenage girls wearing hooded sweatshirts waffled over whether or not to sign.
"Just do it," hissed Charlie Lewis, a 15-year-old sophomore from Hyrum, playfully poking her comrade in the ribs.
Elise Guthrie, 16, rolled her eyes.
"My friends make fun of me when I swear," she said. Then with a piercing glare, she turned her gaze to Lewis. "If I say anything she'll slap my arm."
Swearing has its benefits. Studies show people feel better after they swear because they've given their emotions an outlet or "let of steam," Jay said. People can tolerate more pain when they swear.
But there are benefits for reining in foul language, too. Pauline Wallin, author of the book "Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-Defeating Behavior," pointed out that cussing in response to missing a traffic light "makes you stay mad for a longer time." If, alternatively, a person says something more neutral (e.g., "Oh well, I didn't make this light. Maybe I'll be luckier at the next one."), they'll feel immediately calmer.
"Breaking your habit of using curse words requires you to focus on how to deal with the frustrating situation, rather than just complain about it," Wallin said.16 comments on this story
Bleazard has taken a lot of heat during his quest to clean up the halls of Mountain Crest High School — which, even in the least profane state in the country, still echo with muttered obscenities. Some students approached his table and let loose a string of expletives to let him know exactly what they thought about his idea. Others took his "no cussing" pledges, ripped them to shreds and threw them on the floor.
"I will never join that club as long as I'm American," Westover said.
But Bleazard has gotten a lot of positive feedback, too. Nearly 30 people joined the club during the school's half-hour lunch period. Many more agreed to accept the challenge to give up foul language.
"Swearing isn't really that cool — at least among my friends," Guthrie said. "It makes you sound uneducated and ugly. I really want to quit."