“‘Til the swear jar’s full”: Penances, pennies, and profanities

The Christian season of Lent started this past Wednesday with ashy foreheads, meatless Fridays, and symbolic sacrifices. Some modern observers abstain from chocolate, soda, or other junk food during Lent’s 40 days; others give up alcohol or social media.  Yet other penitents sacrifice swearing, as much as it may pain the hearts of us here at Strong Language.

One way contrite cussers enforce their sacrifice is with a swear jar, called a swear box or cuss box by some speakers. The swear jar is a simple system of classic negative reinforcement: Each time you swear, you place some denomination of money into a jar, box, or other similar contraption. In its religious applications, the sweary sinner will often donate the collection to charity.

Culturally, the swear jar has a great shelf life, so to speak. In local pubs and bars, a swear box or jar can raise funds for a member of the community, such as pitching in for a cash-strapped patron’s car repair, for instance. Towns and villages may install a swear jar at town hall meetings or for municipal-wide initiatives. Closer to home, families will often undertake this disincentive device as a household project. The set of Twilight even set up a jar to deter older cast and crew members from swearing around younger talent. Jennifer Lawrence also started a swear jar on the set of one of The Hunger Games films, though it was to get her own tongue under wrap, evidently.

New technologies have updated the swear jar: Crowdfunders have set up digital swear jars for personal causes, while developers and social entrepreneurs have attempted swear jar apps to motivate personal development or to fund charities.

Swear jars need not be literal ones, however. Massachusetts Senator and consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren proposed in late January a metaphorical swear jar for big drug companies in her Medical Innovation Act: To avoid trial, when “blockbuster drug companies break the law…[they] would be required to reinvest a relatively small portion of the profits they have generated as a result of federal research investments right back into the [National Institutes of Health].”

The swear jar has been used to political–and reverse–effect in other environments. In 2012, the City of Sydney set up swear jars in a campaign to fight violence against women, inviting oaths in support of their cause. Jon Stewart has famously used swear jars as a satirical gag on The Daily Show, from his “Obama/Osama Flub Jar” to his “Jars I Swear Into.” A controversial but cogent 2014 ad by social activist t-shirt company, fckh8.com, features pink princesses swearing up a gender-empowering storm, including a clever send-up of of the swear jar at the very end:

But perhaps the swear jar has gotten the most bucks for its fuck‘s as a trope on the American sitcom. In recent memory, it has appeared on the pilot of Two and a Half MenCuriously, the New Girl also kicked off its show with an innovation on the swear jar: “the douchebag jar,” punishing, apparently, douchebag-like behaviors. (Is there room enough, some may ask, in the New Girl‘s jar for the entirety of Two and a Half Men?)

The swear jar is enshrined in my memory, however, thanks to the The Simpsons. In the episode “Bart the Lover,” Rod and Todd Flanders take to swearing after overhearing Homer’s loud and dirty mouth. As a result, Homer pledges to donate 25 cents to his swear jar every time he lets slip a curse. Cue the montage:

For more examples of the swear jar trope, check out All the Tropes.

The swear jar has proven effective in other media environments, too. Anheuser-Busch won big awards in 2008 with its hit “Swear Jar” advertisement for Bud Light:

And if Fifty Shades of Grey inspired some “dirty talk” in the bedroom, the swear jar features prominently in romance novels, if a quick search of Google Books is any measure. Musically, Eminem rapped of swear jars, which the title of this post references, and bands have taken the name, most notably Ten in the Swear Jar. Should you crave something a bit more high brow, try the “Swear Box,” a poem by Michael Donaghy.

As a phrase, swear box antedates swear jar by far, but the former appears to be primarily a 20th century phenomenon, with swear jar hitting the scene significantly later:

Googe Ngram of "swear box" and "swear jar"
Google Ngram of “swear box” vs. “swear jar”

The earliest record I could find of swear box is in 1897, appearing in Thomas J. Henry’s Claude Garton: A Story of Dunburgh. The character Mostyn describes a missionary box (a church collection box), kept on the mantel, charging a “tariff of one penny per cuss word.” But I’ll leave it to citation sleuths among us (ahem, Mr. Zimmer?) to track down the origin of these phrases properly.

In 2015, the trope of the swear jar may risk becoming a clichébut whether it is driving plot lines or penances, the swear jar will continue to represent–and to figuratively and literally collect on–our conflicted relationship with swearing.

16 thoughts on ““‘Til the swear jar’s full”: Penances, pennies, and profanities

  1. sesquiotic February 22, 2015 / 5:30 am

    We instituted a swear scoring system where I work: 5¢ per asshole, 10¢ per shit, 25¢ per fuck, and – at the insistence of my co-worker Heather – $2 per cunt. (Which meant, of course, no one used the c-word, but no one would have anyway; we did, however, occasional call some disliked person a “toonie,” which is a Canadian two-dollar coin.) The idea was that we would tally it up and, once every couple of weeks, would contribute accordingly to a department lunch, with the remainder split evenly between all. Heather always racked up slightly more than I did. But we finally had to scrap it, because a certain project kept scheduling (and last-minute rescheduling) its meetings at times that made going out for lunch impossible, so that we had too big an amount owing by the time we could go (we just kept score, not a jar, because who has all that many coins?). Plus we started deciding that some projects got free swears. The one that kept blocking our lunches, for one.


    • John Kelly February 23, 2015 / 1:51 pm

      “…because who has all that many coins?” Interesting point: As we rely on cash less and less, either our swear jars are thinning out or the average contribution is going up, much like, I hear, the average gift from the Tooth Fairy these days. That said, when I travel, I would kill for a couple of swear jars with all the loose change I amass. (I’m talking to you, especially, Chile).


  2. Regina Lusca (@Quaiteaux) February 22, 2015 / 5:47 am

    I recommend swearing in a foreign tongue. Not only do you dodge the fines or avoid getting sent off the pitch or whatever the penalty might be, but it counts as language practice rather than banality.

    I once suggested the idea of a swearbox to the landlady of a fairly rough pub, to which she replied, ‘Fucking good idea.’

    Liked by 1 person

  3. lousylinguist February 22, 2015 / 1:47 pm

    My favorite story about swear jars involves Doris Day. I recall someone telling this story on a late night talk show decades ago. The only online reference I could find comes from “rocmonster” who writes it this way:

    This reminds me of a story (don’t know if it is true or not), during the shooting of a movie that starred Tallulah Bankhead and Doris Day. Doris Day was opposed to swearing on set during filming so she had offenders put a quarter in a swear jar. After a few days, Doris had collected a few bucks worth from Tallulah (who swore like a sailor). This began to wear on Ms. Bankhead until one day after blowing a line, Tallulah swore, loudly. Doris Day whipped out the swear jar and shook it in Tallulah’s face and said “That will cost you 25 cents”. The whole set crew went silent. Tallulah said “How much would it cost me if I told you to “go fuck yourself?”(http://forums.anandtech.com/archive/index.php/t-524954.html )

    Liked by 1 person

  4. erinbrenner February 22, 2015 / 7:52 pm

    In our house, we combined fines for curses with fines for wasting electricity. Slip with a banned word, and your owe $0.25. Leave a light on after you’ve left the room, another $0.25. Naturally, we call the jar “Curses! I left the light on!”

    Liked by 2 people

    • John Kelly February 23, 2015 / 1:56 pm

      That’s quite the good idea–and a double penalty if you swear while wasting electricity! I should suggest an adaptation to some water-wasters out here in California.


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