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F-bombs tolerated in recession cause trouble in recovery
F-bombs » Acceptance of potty talk is on the wane as the economy recovers after recession.
First Published Jul 19 2014 07:05 pm • Last Updated Jul 19 2014 07:06 pm

Southfield, Mich. • The chief executive officer of Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. is no stranger to profanity in his calls with analysts. On May 5, James Hagedorn did something different: After swearing, he apologized.

Bad words have been much in the news recently, with both the mayor of Los Angeles and the CEO of T-Mobile US Inc. using what has become known as the F-bomb. For those who think the increasing use of profanity in public is another sign that the world is going to heck in a handbasket, here’s the good news: For executives, tolerance of potty talk is on the wane and their public swearing is on the downswing.

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It turns out that public profanity among top executives is sensitive to economic conditions, according to a Bloomberg News review of thousands of CEO calls with investors and analysts from 2004 to last month. It spiked in the aftermath of the recession in 2009 and has been decreasing as the recovery gathers steam over the last couple of years.

The cursing follows the same up and down trajectory as unemployment and gross domestic product, although swearing has a more dramatic path, according to the data.

"It swings back and forth," said Timothy Jay, a professor in the psychology department at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, who has written several books on cursing and studies its effect on society.

Swearing is a tension release, so it’s not surprising it would increase when there is a bad economic environment, Jay said. He said he practices it a lot, too, particularly during golf outings. It might be helpful as a better way to let off steam than physical action, he said.

"People are often playing to the audience and in many cases you have a CEO trying to motivate people to change, to get a message across," Jay said.

A kind of periodic table of salty words - the F-bomb, the blasphemous GD, the scatalogical S and derogatory term AH - shows that they were used 254 times by top executives in calls during that decade. They appeared 17, 34, 197 and 6 times, respectively.

To be sure, a majority of CEOs don’t curse in public. In fact, three account for quite a bit of the graphic language. They are kind of a Cursing Hall of F.

Hagedorn, along with Ryanair Holdings Chief Executive Officer Michael O’Leary and Emerson Electric Co. CEO David Farr are the only top executives to use the F-bomb more than once. Hagedorn used that word three times along with the other expletives for a total of 20 swear words. O’Leary followed with five F-bombs among 17 instances, and Farr with two Fs among 10 total that were transcribed.


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All three executives have made attempts to temper public displays of such colorful language in the past year, according to their companies.

The Scotts board unanimously supported a reprimand last year of Hagedorn that stemmed from the use of inappropriate language, the company said in a June 3, 2013, statement that didn’t include details of the incident. Three board members resigned from Marysville, Ohio-based Scotts after casting the vote, according to the statement.

"While I have a tendency to use colorful language, I recognize my comments in this case were inappropriate and I apologize," Hagedorn said in the statement.

Hagedorn, who merged his family’s Miracle-Gro into Scotts in 1995 and took over as CEO in 2001, has often used spicy language, such as this, from a Feb. 14, 2012, introduction to a meeting with investors at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York.

"So I’m walking over here this morning, and it looks like a doorman dude or something, but he’s got this huge thing of like roses, and he’s got a big smile on his face," Hagedorn said. "I’m like f - , Valentine’s Day! So my wife is here for the first time. I love you, Dear, Happy Valentine’s Day."

The company acknowledges the shift away from swearing is a work in progress.

"It is no secret that Jim uses colorful language at times in his everyday conversations and sometimes he does so in public venues," Jim King, a Scotts spokesman, said in an email. "He has been attempting to moderate his language in recent years, especially in public."

Historically, most controls on swearing have been meant to protect women and children against blasphemy, particularly those enforced starting in about the 15th century in England, Jay said. Today, children are already mimicking adults in their choice of curse words starting around 8 years old, Jay said, based on research published this year on data gathered on 1,187 curse words overheard from children 1 to 12.

The research shows that S becomes common in child swearing as early as 5 or 6 years old with F showing up later and becoming the top word by ages 11 to 12. Those two words are also the most popular among adults who swear, according to separate research of 3,190 words cataloged by his researchers.

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