ST. LEO — He first spotted the phrase scribbled on the side of his uncle's pharmacy. He was 5 and unsure what it meant. His sister dared him to test it out on their grandmother as she left their house after a visit.
So he did: Go to hell, he told Granny.
His mother smacked him on the back of the head.
"That's when I knew swearing was a bad thing to do," Timothy Jay told a small crowd of students last week at Saint Leo University.
That moment would become the catalyst for a lifetime of scholarly work on the one thing your parents told you not to do: swear.
To become an expert at his craft, Jay studied the cultural lexicon of swearing. (Who does it? When? Why is it so taboo?)
He wrote a book about it. (What To Do When Your Kids Talk Dirty.)
And he talked about it. A lot. (He's featured in a documentary on the "F" word.)
Turns out, after 34 years of research, Jay has come to the following conclusions about the dirty little words we use to express our disdain, excitement or pure frustration in life:
Men swear more than women. Extroverts swear more than people pleasers. People swear more often around those of the same gender. The "F" bomb is the most popular swear word for men. For women, it's "bitch."
According to Jay, 10 words account for 80 percent of swearing. The most popular is the "F" word. The least is "sucks."
"Cursing is much more than a vice," Jay said. "We have evolved to curse for a reason. Everybody knows how to swear, and people lie about doing it, but swearing can be good — and good for you."
• • •
If there were an application for an expert on potty mouths, Jay fits the bill.
He's a psychology professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts who has toured the country talking about swearing. He's observed thousands of people cursing in public. His master's thesis was on how people understand swear words.
He became close friends with the late, often censored comedian George Carlin, who saw Jay in a football film called Autumn Ritual and often talked to him about his research.
Carlin was intrigued by Jay's insight on who uses what type of language and when.
"One of the first things he said to me was, 'Are you for real?' Jay said of Carlin. " 'Are you a scientist who studies cursing?' "
In addition to cursing, Jay has worked with consulting companies on other kinds of taboos, such as how to market feminine hygiene products.
Jay, 59, is a wiry father of one with glasses who lives in Williamstown, about three hours west of Boston. He plays ice hockey in the winter and golf in the summer.
When he lectures, Jay starts by asking the audience for their favorite curse word.
He counts to three and listens as they utter the dirty little words they were taught never to say in public. Some giggle. Then, Jay shares his.
"It's one of my favorite to say when people cut me off in traffic," he said.
• • •
He says the aversion or inhibition to say something vulgar is ancient, but the harm of doing so hasn't been proved.
"It's never clear what's bad about swearing," he said. "This vagary has caused a moral angst about swearing."
So who decided it was wrong to swear?
Courts of law, the educational system and the media, Jay said.
"These institutions define what you shouldn't say and punish you when you swear," he said. "They exercise their authority. If you don't know who these people are, go out and break a rule."
• • •
Jay's research is impromptu. If he's at an ice hockey game and someone curses in the crowd, he jots down what was said. Same goes for women's rugby games.
For more controlled studies, he uses research assistants. They help him focus on topics like teenage swearing by jotting down the curse words they hear in places the assistants work, like recreation centers.
Jay analyzes the data as a whole, concentrating on which things are common and which aren't once you've heard 1,000 people swear.
He also watches video surveillance at public places.
Once, at a shopping center, he saw footage of a woman putting groceries in a pickup truck. Her 8-year-old son, who was sitting inside, turned to her and said, "You bitch."
"She said, 'Why did you say that? You can't say that!' " Jay recounted. "And he said, 'Why not? Daddy does.' "
Teaching children the context in which to say such words is key, Jay said.
He says he taught his own daughter not to be disrespectful of older people, but didn't punish her if she swore.
Despite societal taboos, Jay said, our motivations to swear are simple: to signify emotion, or to get someone's attention.
"Swearing is like the horn in your car," he said. "Whether you use swearing or the horn is up to you."
Despite the negative connotations and fear we'll be looked down upon for swearing, Jay's research has also pointed out the upside of cursing.
Jay said the taboo of swear words is what makes them so cathartic. The satisfaction of saying them, Jay said, would cease without cultural norms in place to determine that they aren't appropriate.
"If you have anger or joy or surprise, once you say the word, it's like letting the air out of a balloon," Jay said.
Cursing, Jay says, can be used for ironic sarcasm, joking around or just to get their point across.
"You ask someone how they felt when they said a (curse) word, and they say they felt better," he said. "I got it off my chest."
• • •
Jay questions the way society treats swearing in particular settings.
"In the NFL, there's a $10,000 fine for excessive profanity," he said. "It's odd that you can beat the s--- out of somebody for two hours on a Sunday afternoon, but you can't swear."
He doesn't think cursing is a good or a bad thing. He said his objective is to record an everyday occurrence in modern society.
Before Jay speaks at lectures, he offers an "old folks advisory" that warns what's to come.
"If you think 'sucks' is a bad word," he says, "I'm going to say s--- much worse than that."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4609.