NEW HAVEN, Conn.—Just above a small group of children, the mother of all four-letter words dangles unevenly but clearly on the broad side of an apartment building in this lower-middleclass neighborhood just north of the Yale University campus.

It is a sign of the times.

The New York Times, America's self-appointed arbiter of “all the news that's fit to print,” recently made room for the same four-letter word for the first time in its 148-year history.

Characters in movies such as Good Will Hunting and The Blair Witch Project fill film dialogue with it.

And the recent media romp through President Clinton's less than- presidential activities with interns and others lifted many taboos America once placed on public speech.

Has public obscenity spun out of control?

“I think that language has been a problem in film since they changed the code in '68, but I must say the language you hear on the streets is much worse than it used to be,” said Henry Herx, director of the Office for Film and Broadcasting at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Herx didn't say what he thought contributed to the increase, but others offered a variety of perspectives.

“I am of the opinion that swearing, unless done jokingly, signals a lack of education,” said Joe Cyr, a management trainee at Southwest Bank in St. Louis. “People usually swear when they lose their temper because something didn't go their way. Or, they are responding to a situation that they don't like — a bad call by a referee at a football game, maybe.”

Cyr added that, to him, swearing is particularly “uncouth” in the company of women and “only occasionally acceptable amongst a group of guys.”

His attitude may seem outdated to some, but between morning radio and the daily talk-shows, America is reconsidering the effect that high doses of obscenity have on adults, children and the public discourse in general.

Germain Grisez, author of the multivolume The Way of the Lord Jesus, a treatment of real-life moral issues, told the Register that it's important to make a number of distinctions when defining offensive speech.

“Strictly speaking, swearing refers to an oath and cursing is the opposite of blessing, like telling someone to ‘go to hell,’” Grisez said. “This is to express the wish that someone will suffer evil. Finally, profanity means using sacred language in a way that violates sacredness.” He added that obscene language must be judged on the basis of the speaker's intentions.

“In many cases expressions are objectionable because they are meant to be insulting, but the intent is more important,” Grisez said. “Though even when there is no bad intention, the use of [foul] language can have various side effects that can be bad.

“If expressions that refer to some very important things are used in a casual kind of way, the casualness tends to suggest less respect for the importance for what you are dealing with — the casual use of expressions relating to sex, for instance, tends to denigrate the significance of this activity. And that's not good.”

That moral sensibility isn't always shared by people who work in the secular media.

“I don't care if there's more swearing or not,” said Sean Leadem, an investigative reporter who works in New York. “I tend to think it's harmless unless it prevents one from learning better forms of expression.”

But asked if he thought media coverage of the president's affair with Monica Lewinsky had a negative effect on public discourse, Leadem lit up, remembering an incident that occurred last spring.

“Yes, I think it does,” Leadem said. “When the whole Clinton thing was going down, I couldn't even have a conversation with my mother or her friends without hearing the word ‘salacious.’ The media used 15 words to describe the whole thing and everyone I spoke with seemed to use those words in their conversation, regardless of what they were talking about.

“People say that kids repeat the words they hear on TV, but it's also true for adults.”

… Or Expressive?

Leadem's observation raises the question of how people communicate. It's well known that people use more precise, Latin-derived words when speaking in academic settings, but that once the bell rings, speech takes on a more Germanic tone.

Hard, one-syllable words predominate on the street; long, complicated words in class. Words such as “trash,” “dirt,” “talk,” “push,” “shove” and “slap” fall in the former camp, and the obscene words we associate with the locker room are their not-so-distant relatives.

These obscene words can be very communicative, but in mixed company they are likely to offend. And when used without discretion, vulgar expressions often show a lack of respect or decorum.

Which is why parents and teachers have always forbidden certain words from being used in the home, classroom or on the playing field.

Rich McPherson, headmaster of The Heights, an independent Catholic primary and secondary school for boys in Potomac, Md., thinks obscene language is on the rise among young boys in his school. “I think TV has a lot to do with it,” he contended.

“When a student swears, we correct him, but we don't make a big deal about it,” McPherson continued. “I heard that the Pope shut his finger in a door and thanked God for it. That's the right way to do it. On the other hand, I don't think using the occasional four-letter word is sinful.”

McPherson added that Ronald Knox, the great British convert and Bible translator, made a helpful distinction about obscene swearing.

“He said that first you have to consider the company you're in and, second, that you shouldn't take the Lord's name in vain,” McPherson said.

Building Up Communio

Grisez described the theological framework he thinks Catholics should consider when considering the use of obscene language.

“Language is an instrument,” he observed. “We use sound to convey meaning. The important thing about language is communication. And communication should always be used to build up communio — friendships or just plain cooperation.

“Communication is an activity which, if genuine, is an activity necessary for human relationships. Building up relationships between men and between man and God — relationships that are meant to build up a human community that will last forever in the Kingdom — that's the theological framework I'd operate in.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses discretion in speech. “In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explained the second commandment: ‘You have heard that is was said to the men of old, “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” But I say to you, do not swear at all. … Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one’” (No. 2153).