Michelle Obama's swear word about 'Lean In' and the rise of profanity in politics

Speaking at a "Becoming" tour stop for her ...

Posted: Dec 3, 2018 4:37 PM
Updated: Dec 3, 2018 4:38 PM

Speaking at a "Becoming" tour stop for her best-selling memoir at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Saturday, Michelle Obama used language we're not used to hearing from a former first lady.

Obama said the idea that "you can have it all" is "a lie." "It's not always enough to lean in," she said, referencing Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's book of the same name. "Because that s--- doesn't work all the time." She then apologized for her language. "I forgot where I was for a moment."

Donald Trump

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Michelle Obama

Obama's not alone. If it seems like politicians' language has become more salty lately, well, dagnabbit, you're right.

The rate at which politicians in Congress and state legislatures use expletives on social media has risen dramatically, according to data from GovPredict, an analytics firm.

In 2014, the firm tracked 83 instances of lawmakers using profane words. Over the next two years, usage rose slowly, but in 2017 -- the year President Donald Trump took office -- it exploded, with 1,571 instances. So far this year there have been 2,409 instances.

The firm tracked 10 words, ranging in levels of offensiveness from "crap" to words that are not fit to print in a family newspaper. The word "sh*t" or a variation of it is the most-used expletive, and it saw its biggest spike after Trump used the phrase "sh*thole countries" to describe Haiti and countries in Africa.

Before Trump's comment, made in a closed-door meeting with lawmakers to describe countries immigrants came from, it had been used seven times. Since, it's been used 480 times. The word has seen a 117% spike in usage in 2018 compared with 2017, the largest jump of any word on GovPredict's list.

Expletives are sometimes used for emphasis. In his Senate concession speech in El, Paso, Texas, Rep. Beto O'Rourke dropped an f-bomb to describe how proud he was of the people who worked on his campaign.

Politicians also use profanity to express a heightened level of outrage and draw attention to something. That's what happened after Trump said the US stood with Saudi Arabia despite the fact US intelligence found Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post.

"Hey @realdonaldtrump: being Saudi Arabia's bitch is not 'America First,' " Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaii Democrat and Iraq War veteran, tweeted last week. It's been retweeted more than 38,000 times and liked more than 134,000 times, far more than any of her other tweets this month.

Federal legislators are more likely to have used profanity online, with 34% of senators or House members using it, compared with 16% of state lawmakers.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, leads Congress with 41 uses of profanity. He's followed in the Senate by Montana Democrat Jon Tester, with seven; Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, with six; and New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, with six. In the House, Missouri Democrat Lacy Clay leads with 37.

But the politician with the most colorful Twitter feed is Sherry Frost, a Democrat in New Hampshire's state House who has used words from the list 415 times since 2014.

"I'm an English teacher and my philosophy is these words exist for a reason," Frost told Cover/Line. "Invective is a way we make important points."

She's dropped the f-bomb when telling her followers to vote, and added "Damn" when she retweeted a statistic about how slowly the minimum wage in Texas had grown compared with the cost of college.

Frost said she has some constituents who appreciate her language. And to those who don't, she said, if they're more offended by the language she uses than what she's using it to draw attention to, "then you're part of the problem."

"I have a lot of people who are grateful for me for not being polite," she said.

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