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Don't think it's smart to swear? STFU, it's not as bad as you think

Nancy Ruth, now a Conservative senator, is shown in a Oct. 20, 1997, file photo.

TOM HANSON/Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press

It's just a matter of time before some enterprising Canadian starts hawking T-shirts screen-printed with Senator Nancy Ruth's mug shot above the initials STFU.

Ms. Ruth, 68, told a group of Ottawa activists to "shut the fuck up" about abortion rights on Monday, a friendly suggestion that they not focus all their attention on that one sticky issue in a G8 initiative.

In doing so, she joined the ranks of many other well-educated public figures whose foul mouths have been celebrated: U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and U.S. Senator Carl Levin.

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Decades ago, such outbursts were usually followed up with a red-faced apology by the politician in question, but the taboo on some of those once-forbidden words has worn off. In fact, swearing often humanizes the most exalted of public figures.

Intellectuals have reclaimed cursing.

The acceptance of swearing has followed a bumpy path, says Jack Chambers, a professor of linguistics at the University of Toronto.

William Shakespeare got away with various sexual and scatological terms in Elizabethan times, but those words were unmentionable in the Victorian era. It wasn't until the 1950s that language rules relaxed, he says.

Today, we're as liberal as we've ever been about swearing - and that's a good thing, he adds.

"It's psychologically healthy because the fewer taboos we have, the fewer artificial occasions there are for embarrassments, hiding things, hypocrisies."

Moments before U.S. President Barack Obama signed the health care bill into law in March, Mr. Biden gleefully murmured into his boss's ear, "This is a big fucking deal!" - a comment picked up by microphones and broadcast internationally (various companies cashed in on BFD-themed wares in the weeks that followed).

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"It seemed to me to add to his charm in a way," Prof. Chambers says. "[He's]this goofy vice-president who's capable of letting down his guard."

Mr. Obama himself even made light of the comment on Saturday night at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner when he repeated Mr. Biden's remark - cheekily replacing "deal" with "meal."

Even Lizzie Post, etiquette expert at the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt., acknowledges speaking in a way that probably would've made her great-great-grandmother blush.

"I personally don't mind swears at all," she says. "When I'm at home, I sometimes will drop the f-word like it's 'um.' It's where you use it to fill a pause."

But Ms. Post still challenges people to come up with substitutions when possible. It's just a clearer, more intelligent way to communicate, she says.

Last week, during a U.S. Senate committee hearing on the fraud charges Goldman Sachs faces, Mr. Levin read an internal e-mail that described one transaction as a "shitty deal." He repeated the term 10 more times for effect when questioning former Goldman Sachs executive Daniel Sparks.

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"What do you really mean by shitty? Do you mean that it was slimy? … Or was it not smart?" Ms. Post asks. "That word becomes vague because we use it so often to describe so many things."

Jesse Sheidlower, the New York-based editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary and author of The F Word, scoffs at suggestions that those who use swear words are less intelligent than others.

Banning words is an arbitrary practice, he says, since what truly offends people aren't the words themselves, but the thoughts behind them. And thoughts can't be banned.

"To confuse [swearing]with stupidity or inability to express yourself is wrong."

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About the Author

Dakshana Bascaramurty is a national news reporter who writes about race and ethnicity. She won a 2013 National Newspaper Award in beat reporting for her coverage of changing demographics in the 905 region. Previously, she was a feature writer for Globe Life. More

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