Stossel on Constant Cursing

A new "20/20" survey finds that more than 80 percent of you are bothered by rude behavior. But what exactly does "rude" mean? The dictionary says: ill-mannered, discourteous, offensive. But what is offensive?

We think we know it when it happens to us. Celebrities will certainly tell you that aggressive paparazzi are less than polite. Elton John called a few particularly pesky photographers "rude, vile pigs."

We see plenty of rude behavior in sports from coaches like Bobby Knight. And Howard Stern has built a huge following by being rude on his radio show.

Rudeness is one of the main attractions that keeps audiences tuning in to TV's biggest talent show, "American Idol." People gasp at Simon Cowell's rude comments to the show's contestants, but we keep watching.

I've been told I'm rude because I confront people. I think I should confront people, because it helps get to the truth.

Many comedians say they're funny often because their rudeness reveals what many people are thinking. This Dennis Miller joke is a good example: "I was raised Catholic. I went to confession the other day, and I said, 'You first.'"

Miller's joke is painful -- but there's truth behind it. These days, however, many of the comedians seem to believe that they have to add X-rated language. It's routine now in comedy clubs.

Context Is Key When It Comes to Cursing

People laugh, but shouldn't they be outraged by the coarse language? I went to the comedy club Stand-UpP New York and asked audience members if they were bothered by hearing the word "f--k" all the time.

They weren't.

"When you come in here you expect to hear some of that, so it's not offensive," one woman told me.

She's right. Context matters. But how would you feel if on the street a survey taker came up to you and said: A lot of people feel it was f----d up what the president did, do you feel that President Bush overstepped his boundaries?

At "20/20's" request, comedian Jim Norton took to the streets, pretending to conduct a survey on current events, like the Iraq war. He sprinkled his questions with curse words so "20/20" could gauge respondents' reactions to his foul language.

"Do you see any end in sight, or is this f--king thing gonna drag on forever," was one of the questions he asked. We were surprised that most people were not offended.

"I wasn't offended, because I actually come from a family that uses a lot of cursing," one woman said. Some even repeated his cursing in their answers.

New York City may be different, but an ABC News poll found 48 percent of Americans are bothered "a lot" by bad language.

In the comedy club, people didn't mind when the comics were cursing, but it was a different matter when their wait staff cussed. We asked a waiter to swear while serving food.

He said people were horrified at first. Later though, the customers just started laughing.

They laughed at what is illegal in some states and many cities that have public-cursing laws. The laws are probably unconstitutional and are rarely enforced. But in Michigan in 1999, Timothy Boomer was fined $75 and assigned to community service for cussing after his canoe tipped over.

"I know I'm being punished by a law that not one person in a million in America ever thought existed," Boomer said. He's got a point. Think of how some people speak at work. If they enforced these laws in offices, they'd have to lock up much of the work force.

And if aliens landed at a high school, they'd think swearing was basic speech

Bad Words Don't Necessarily Lead to Bad Behavior

Desensitization is the problem, many say. It makes society less civil, and some people claim foul language is a precursor to violence. But many psychologists say there's no evidence of that.

Oddly, the rude words we call curse words keep changing. What they called swearing 300 years ago was very different. Linguist John McWhorter, author of "The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language," points out that centuries ago people were punished for saying God's name in vain. King Louis of France might have you branded on the forehead for that. So people found substitutes for the word.

"You see things coming along like 'egad,' which was a way of not saying 'God', or 'by Jove' or 'gosh' and 'golly,' all of those were euphemisms for 'God,'" McWhorter said.

And yet sexual terms were allowed. McWhorter said, "Queen Elizabeth swore like a pirate!"

In 1950s America, kids who said what the queen said got their mouths washed out with soap. Things have certainly changed since then.

Ten years ago I met a 5-year-old, Andrew from Maryland, who looked innocent, until he opened his mouth and used words like "a--hole" and "godd-mn."

His parents say he started swearing when he was in diapers. They said he's been speaking since he was 1 and picked up a few bad words along the way.

Should his parents be worried? Yes, said child psychiatrist John Burgess, back in 1996.

"It's a reflection of that increase in overall hostility, aggression that we're seeing in our society that's reflected in the language of children," he said.

Some people say, though, that if you express yourself with vulgar language, you're less likely to be physically violent. Burgess disagrees.

But Andrew's parents weren't worried at the time.

Today Andrew is 15, and his parents say he's a great kid. "He's doing wonderful. He's on the honor roll and he's the quarterback for his football team. So I don't have any problems with him," his mom, Marguerite, said. Andrew says he swears less than his friends at school.

But now his little brother, Matthew, swears too. "A couple of times he said the 'F' word out in public, and people look at me like I'm a bad parent, and I say, 'I'm sorry. He has a 15-year-old brother,'" Marguerite said.

When she asked Matthew if he used bad words at school, he said, "No, I say bad words at home."

Even a 3-year-old knows there are boundaries.