Remember when substitute swear words on prime-time television were "darn" and "heck" and "gosh" and "holy cow" and "good grief"?
Those were the days when you could let your kids watch anything on TV and not worry about it. Now parents worry about everything their kids watch.
Today, dramas and sitcoms still use substitute swear words — but the substitutes have become every bit as offensive as the profanities they replace.
I refer to commercial TV, of course. Many cable shows use much worse language … but if you pay for those channels you should know what you're getting.
Here are three clues as to why language on commercial television is getting worse:
1. There is no longer a "family hour"; nowadays anything goes in any time slot.
2. The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission seems to be Rip Van Winkle.
3. The networks are running scared as their numbers drop and the ratings for cable channels rise.
So, naturally, if commercial TV starts using more foul language, viewers will keep watching instead of switching to cable stations.
As TV became more liberal in the 1970s, certain "mild" profanities became acceptable, along with exclamations that reference deity. (To parents of texters: Sorry, but "OMG" is not "Oh my gosh.")
By the 1980s, harsher language started to take hold. I first noticed this as specific words began to creep into "edgier" commercial TV programs. You'd hear some coarse word once or twice, then within weeks or months, it seemed that every show on the air was using that same word. Even kids shows.
Anyone remember when the 1990 sitcom version of "Uncle Buck" got in trouble for using the word "sucks"? Despite viewer complaints, that word gradually began to show up all over the place. Does anyone even flinch about it anymore?
Slowly, many more offensive words have entered the commercial TV lexicon in the same way. And perhaps the first time you heard one of them you said, "Oh, well, there's a new trashy word, and now everyone on TV will start saying it."
Are TV writers really so desperate that they watch other shows to steal whatever pseudo-profanities have been let in the door?
If you think that's an exaggeration, consider the latest insult phrase making the rounds: "douche" and "douchebag." Words with a specific meaning that have been twisted to describe someone who is being a jerk. (In fact, they showed up on "The Big Bang Theory" and "Castle" this past Monday, two programs I just happened to watch back to back.)
And their usage has become so common on TV that it's reached ridiculous proportions.
But recently it hit a little closer to home when, in a way that rather startled me, I heard one of my teenage grandkids use the phrase. So I asked him if he knew what it meant. When he said no, I told him to look up the definition before using it again. He went straight to his computer's dictionary, then returned quite embarrassed.
Where did he hear it? He first heard it on TV, though he added that it has recently taken on common usage in his school.
So obviously, despite claims to the contrary by producers, kids do pick up negative social habits from TV programs. Kind of makes you worry about all the sexually charged material they see everywhere these days, doesn't it?
I've said this before, but if TV movers and shakers really believe that no one can be influenced by what they see on TV, what's the point of advertising? If a 30-second commercial can persuade consumers to buy something, how can an hourlong TV drama or a half-hour sitcom have no influence at all?
Oddly, a couple of recent theatrical movies handle foul language with greater aplomb.
I was quite taken aback at a moment in "The Blind Side" where the husband uses a certain unpleasant word and the wife chides him for it.
And "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" has a terrific running gag about swearing. Instead of using profane words, the characters in that animated feature say "cuss." That is, they actually use the word "cuss" as a substitute for cussing.
"What the cuss?" Mr. Fox says. And every other character moved to proclaim a profanity says "cuss" instead — not just the animals but also the humans. It's hilarious and points out just how silly it is to use the same words over and over as exclamations.
Now that I think about it, when I was a kid it was common to refer to someone as a cuss. "That ornery old cuss," my dad would say about a grouchy neighbor.
No question. "Cuss" would be a much more pleasant substitute than some of the words I've heard on TV lately.