Shades of gray of shocking lingo

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I'm glad I'm not in the business of setting rules for the use of taboo language in film or broadcasting. I'd be tearing out my bleeping hair trying to articulate some non-abitrary, empirically defensible set of standards.

The difficulties are highlighted in a blog post for The Telegraph by Brendan O'Neill (5/25/2012). Evidently, the British Board of Film Classification is going for nuance, trying to distinguish between degrees of offensiveness of the word c**t. O'Neill writes:

If, as in Ken Loach's new movie The Angels' Share, the characters in a film say that word in an "aggressive" fashion, then the film will be stamped with an 18 certificate. But if they were to utter the c-word in a "non-aggressive" fashion, then the film could be granted a more lenient, box office-friendly 15 certificate. So Loach, whose new film is based in Glasgow, where the c-word abounds, has been forced to excise the more aggressive uses of the word in order for his film to be a 15. He is rightly annoyed that he has effectively been forced to censor "a word that goes back to Chaucer's time".

As O'Neill further notes:

…it isn't the language itself, the actual words, which terrifies the likes of the BBFC and other members of the great and good. It's the question of who is using those words and to what end. So certain uses of the c-word are now positively celebrated, with Sex and the City types and feminists uttering it as "a word of sexual potency". They rarely get any flak for describing the c-word as "a cherished part of [our] lexical armour". Likewise, when the ironic superhero film Kick-Ass showed an 11-year-old girl calling a group of men "c***s", there was, in the words of the Guardian, only a "half-hearted whimper from the Daily Mail" – everyone else thought that funky use of the c-word was hilarious and Kick-Ass got a 15 from those unelected defenders of common decency at the BBFC.

However, when a bloke – worse, a Glaswegian bloke – uses the exact same word, and not as an expression of "sexual potency" but rather as part of a heated-but-friendly exchange or as a term of abuse, we reel in horror, and the BBFC insists that only over-18s may have their ears defiled by such shocking lingo.

O'Neill is upset because he sees the variable standard as linguistic class warfare; what's considered an obscene bomb when dropped by a working class Glaswegian becomes "edgy" or empowering" from the lips of "floppy-haired posh people".

He may be right to complain about this. On the other hand, I'm inclined to be sympathetic to the BBFC's quandary: obscenity, of course, is not about specific words so much as it as about specific words in context. If it were just about the words, it would be completely mysterious why I can get away with discussing the infixation possibilities of the morpheme fuck in a linguistics class, but would propel my students straight to the dean's office if I ever handed back their assignments saying "I've marked your fucking papers".

This is what makes swearing such an exquisite skill, hard to master outside of one's native language. Swearing with just the right degree of coarseness is all about nuance.

The BBFC's determination of context may well be flawed; but it's at least partly right to recognize that the offensiveness inherent in taboo words has to take into account "who is using those words and to what end". Only partly right, of course. The right metric for offensiveness would also have to consider who is hearing those words. And good luck trying to build that into any definition of acceptable standards.

(A Twitter hat tip to @hyperlingo.)


  1. Eric P Smith said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 11:09 am

    The metric does consider who is hearing those words: Under-18s, Under-15s and so on.

    Last weekend I travelled by train to the Scottish Cup Final (that’s soccer) with 3 boys aged around 12. I found it interesting that when more coarse-mouthed adult fans, highly-charged by excitement, by alcohol or by worse, uttered "fuck" (which many repeatedly did without even realising it) other adult fans politely asked them not to, for the sake of the children. I never had to ask. And invariably the offenders were contrite. Of course it matters who is hearing the words.

  2. Jimbino said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 11:25 am

    I'd sure like to escape to a world that is NOT kept safe for children. In the meantime, I will devote my energies to developing a contraceptive to put in the world's water supplies.

    Children used to be useful when we could send them out to pick up a six-pack. Nowadays, they don't even work in the summer and have to be driven everywhere in SUVs.

    A big dog is nowadays more useful than a 17-year-old kid, since you can send it to pick up a six-pack.

  3. Allison said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 11:48 am

    Ok, so this might be a culture thing – different words have different levels of profanity in different cultures. In the US, however, the "c" word is (in my opinion) the misogynist equivalent to the "n" word. I haven't done any studies about how it's used on Sex and the City – but I'm pretty sure it's used as a referent to the sex organ, not as a derogatory term for a woman. Used as a derogatory term for a woman, it's pretty fucking offensive to me. :) Now, I don't know if that's the standard they're using in this case or not or even if it's a strong enough standard to support bowdlerizing but I do think there's a big difference.

  4. jamessal said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 11:55 am

    Evidently, the British Board of Film Classification is going for nuance, trying to distinguish between degrees of offensiveness of the word c**t.

    What word is that? I thought Language Log was against the practice of talking about words like "cunt" without spelling them out, or is that a more sensible blog I'm thinking of?

  5. Dmajor said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 12:09 pm

    What a bunch of silly bunts.

  6. Henry Clay said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 12:16 pm

    The use-mention distinction, as in your "fuck" example, may be a subset of "context", but it's a bit of a special case and I think it's only tangentially relevant to the discussion here, which is about more subtle distinctions in use.

    Ultimately, I find it interesting that "linguistic class warfare" charges are being aimed against this ruling since our standards of linguistic obscenity are always intertwined with class distinctions. If it is invalid to censor a word because it is in common use among some social class, it's hard to see how any language could possibly be censored.

  7. jamessal said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

    In the US, however, the "c" word is (in my opinion) the misogynist equivalent to the "n" word.

    Fine. But "the 'c' word" and "the 'n' word" convey the exact same things as the words "cunt" and "nigger." You can deplore using these words as epithets while at the same time talking about them without any silly, ineffectual prudishness. If anything, bowdlerization — by sustaining a taboo in a conversation where obviously no offense is intended — makes these words more powerful for the bigots who use them casually. It also implies that language itself is a significant part of the problem, as if, for example, the United States didn't imprison a larger percentage of its minorities than any country on earth. Little stars aren't helping the millions of people we keep in cages. Those of us lucky enough to be pontificating about racism (or misogyny) — rather than being crushed by it — can wring our hands and feel proper in private. If you want to talk about either of these problems in a public forum, at least do it straightforwardly, like an adult.

  8. Andy Averill said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 1:35 pm

    I'm sure somebody from the UK will be along shortly to point out that "cunt" means something different over there than it does in the US. They seem to use it as a stronger form of "jerk" or "asshole", as in "silly cunts", and apply it to both sexes, whereas here it's aimed almost exclusively at women, and means — what exactly? A stronger form of "bitch"?

    Also, it's my understanding that British broadcasting standards aren't necessarily more lax than ours, just different. They allow an occasional "fuck" or "shit" under certain circumstances, but they have a whole nother list of words that are strictly taboo. Is that true?

  9. Ellen K. said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

    It's worth noting, UK and US usage of this word are different. And what the word means, how it is used, in the US doesn't really apply to the situation posted about. Note the reference to a girl calling a group of men cunts.

  10. Ellen K. said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 1:39 pm

    Simultaneous posting. I even refreshed before posting. :)

  11. Jimbino said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 3:02 pm

    Is there some law against giving offense, deliberately or otherwise? Isn't it the objective of a lot of art to give offense?

  12. Aaron Toivo said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 3:06 pm

    There is nothing wrong with or immature about being considerate. Psycholinguistics tells us that the impact of strong taboo words lies in their utterance, not just their use; the internal jarring reaction happens upon exposure to the word, before context and use/mention even enter the picture. Which isn't to say that these considerations aren't important, as they are how we then decide whether to take offense. But the initial impact happens regardless. And starring out a word while still leaving it reconstructible does, to my instincts, serve to soften that impact.

    This is not bowdlerization. Bowdlerization is outright removal of potentially offensive content, whereas this is merely being polite while discussing it.

  13. Tja said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 3:31 pm

    Speaking as a native of said land, though in no wise a 'Weegie, the word 'cunt' is almost never used to refer to ladyparts; and when it is used that way it will still shock the most hardened vulgarian (self included: straight outta shipyard).

    It is mostly used as a substitute for 'guy', 'bloke', 'dude', 'fucker', whatnot; and typically accompanied by some mildly-critical-but-meant-in-jest adjective such as 'dozey', 'daft', 'useless', 'stupid', or 'silly'. Less friendly, more serious uses of the word would be signalled by 'fucking' or 'nasty' or 'evil'. Somebody calls you a 'fucking cunt', better watch out.

    It even has a twee diminutive form, 'cuntie', as in "Aah, but he's no such a bad wee cuntie efter a' ".

    Quickly learned after emigrating to US fifteen years ago that there is no such usage here, and that the word is powerfully offensive. And now, having been assimilated, it does startle me to hear it spoken — this season's shows on premium cable seem to be engaged in a 'cunt' offensive, with even the girls in 'Girls' using it freely. Some cunts just huv nae sense've propriety.

  14. jamessal said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 3:39 pm

    This is not bowdlerization. Bowdlerization is outright removal of potentially offensive content

    Removal or modification, according to my dictionary. And stars modify words.

  15. jamessal said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

    There is nothing wrong with or immature about being considerate.

    Psycholinguistics notwithstanding, I believe I pointed out a few of the downsides of what you call merely "being considerate"; I also believe those downsides override what you call "the initial impact [of taboo words]." But, of course, as always, there's room for disagreement.

  16. Nathan Myers said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 4:50 pm

    In the U.S., we have solved the problem by entirely dispensing with "non-abitrary, empirically defensible … standards", at least for movies. Instead, we have an anonymous board with members appointed by various corporations who (apparently) make decisions entirely on a case-by-case basis, entirely according to the biases of the members. Statistically, their biases seem strongly influenced by sunk costs in the properties under evaluation, and secondarily by reactionary political leanings.

    It's worked out probably as well as anything defensible, and *almost* but not quite as well as anything not entirely reprehensible could be.

  17. Jason said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 5:21 pm

    The problem with "safe for children" language censorship is the ludicrous disproportionality of it, not the general principle. Representing how working class people actually talk (including around their children) is placed in the same class as the live brain-eating scene from "Hannibal." One thing is a good deal more harmfull to minors than the other.

  18. Robin said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 5:37 pm

    As if twelve-year-old boys didn't say "fuck" amongst themselves all the time!

  19. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 5:43 pm

    Any US visitors to the UK who believe all this stuff about the C-word being only mildly offensive here and try it out they are in for a disagreeable surprise. Not so at all, at all … perhaps it's because the metropolitan English are all too eager to believe that Irving Welsh is a realistic writer, instead of a rococo mannerist.

  20. TJA said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 6:09 pm

    Can't disagree with that: it is, or was, the language used amongst friends or workplace colleagues or other familiars, context always being important.

  21. Jon said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 6:16 pm

    When working on a London building site 42 years ago, I overheard a conversation between two workmen:
    "X called me a cunt. Would you say I was a cunt?"
    "Well, not what you would call [emphasis] a cunt."
    I gathered that they regarded cunt as not just a general insult, but as a more specific description of a type of person.

  22. Eric P Smith said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 6:34 pm

    @Robin: These ones don't. I'm their Sunday-School teacher.

  23. TonyK said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 6:45 pm

    Like jamessal, I was shocked and disturbed to see a Language Log contributor writing 'c**t', and a commenter writing 'the "c" word' and 'the "n" word'. Don't our feelings count for anything here?

  24. parse said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 6:58 pm

    Both O'Neill and Loach seem to think that in decisions about whether censorship is appropriate, the fact that "a word goes back to Chaucer's time" is salient, as though words of more recent coinage are more offensive. That seems to me a strange criteria for obscenity.

  25. Chad Nilep said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 7:51 pm


    "Is there some law against giving offense, deliberately or otherwise? Isn't it the objective of a lot of art to give offense?"

    What is at issue here is not a ban on offensiveness. Ratings are a system run by the film industry (with some external coercion) to give vague warnings about perceived offensiveness.

    I suspect that part of what rankles is the knowledge that having an '18' rather than a '15' rating will affect the size of the audience and the amount of money the film earns.

    Somewhat off-topic: I find the 12, 15, and 18 ratings much more sensible than the traditional American G, PG, and R. The latter have moved somewhat in the direction of transparency with PG-13 and NC-17, though they remain linked to those mostly-opaque initials.

    I recall a common-knowledge expansion of the initials (back when NC-17 was called X) as Good, Pretty Good, Rotten, and crossed out.

  26. delagar said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 8:16 pm

    I suspect Eric P. Smith would be in for a rude awakening if he could hear his 12 year old Sunday school students talking when he is not around.

    I'm just saying.

  27. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 10:26 pm

    C**t: a nasty word for a nasty thing. Francis Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785, 1796, 1811 editions).

  28. jamessal said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 10:30 pm

    These ones don't. I'm their Sunday-School teacher.

    Of course, it's possible that you've had a fantastic influence on your students, such that they're polite all the time, even amongst themselves. It's also possible that at twelve they're still prepubescent and not yet itching it to violate the taboos their teachers have set for them. But whatever the case you must admit that without further context those two sentences of yours I've quoted could reasonably be read as somewhat hilariously indicative of a teacher's cluelessness. A Sunday-School teacher, no less.

  29. Theo said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 11:45 pm

    An amusing aside: Within the publication history of Howl, by Alan Ginsburg (about which there was a famous obscenity trial, portrayed in a film starring James Franco), there is a bowdlerized version that uses repeatedly the word "c***" for a sexual organ. Ginsburg seems to have been quite amused by the fact that in the bowdlerized version, you don't know whether he is talking about "cunt" or "cock".

  30. GWS said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 11:52 pm

    Derek and Clive Live – This bloke came up to me…

  31. Sarah Glover said,

    May 27, 2012 @ 1:16 am

    To many people in England, including me, cunt is far and away the most offensive word in the English language.

  32. Laura said,

    May 27, 2012 @ 8:05 am

    @Andy: I think the rules are quite a bit more lax here, actually – there may be a list of strictly taboo-on-TV words but I don't know what they are (I presume racist epithets, though I heard the word 'spic' in a (modern) film which I watched the first five minutes of last night). You can't just swear willynilly, of course, and there's a definite lack of people using words such as cunt in spontaneous speech as opposed to films, but I think this is due more to most people's reluctance to use the word than anything else (I find it almost impossible to say, because of its such strong taboo value. It's definitely only commonly used in certain areas/contexts/social groups). But you can certainly say 'fuck' and pretty much anything else you like quite freely on chat shows, as long as it's after the watershed (and US guests are often quite gleeful about doing so).

    Side point: as noted, I find 'cunt' very hard to utter, but 'twat', which is equivalent in literal meaning, no problem. Clearly, for me, it's not an issue with sexist insults so much as societal taboo, as twat is very low-level swearing.

  33. Eric P Smith said,

    May 27, 2012 @ 8:20 am

    Oh dear. Tae see oorsels as ithers see us. Quoting myself:

    These ones don't. I'm their Sunday-School teacher.

    How, without context, these two sentences may reasonably be read!

    @jamessal: I hope I am not being too controversial if I suggest that church-going 12-year-old boys, for various reasons of which readers may approve or disapprove, are less likely "to say 'fuck' among themselves all the time" (Robin's phrase) than the general population of 12-year-old boys. When I wrote the two sentences in question, I was meaning to indicate that the boys are church-goers, with whatever that entails about the likelihood of their saying 'fuck' among themselves all the time, and that I know them well, with whatever that entails about my ability to assess what their speech habits are likely to be when I am not present. I claim no credit for their speech habits.

  34. TonyK said,

    May 27, 2012 @ 11:33 am

    @Eric: I used to be a church-going 12-year-old boy. We said 'fuck' among ourselves all the time. But your optimism is touching!

  35. jamessal said,

    May 27, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

    When I wrote the two sentences in question, I was meaning to indicate that the boys are church-goers, with whatever that entails about the likelihood of their saying 'fuck' among themselves all the time, and that I know them well, with whatever that entails about my ability to assess what their speech habits are likely to be when I am not present.

    And reasonably so, indeed. It was just how the one sentence had been adduced to support the other, all on its own, with a potential (though not necessarily actual) air of piety and indignation — and thus, also, for the joke to work, fatuity — that… well, I think we've already wrapped our heads around this sufficiently.

  36. Victoria Simmons said,

    May 27, 2012 @ 12:51 pm

    I was first alerted to the comparative casualness of the British use of 'cunt' when I happened across an interview with the actor Rufus Sewell and found him scattering the word quite freely. As an American woman raised with a sense of Southern propriety I clutched my pearls, and as a feminist I bristled.

    'Cunt,' like 'bitch,' is an insult among men because you are comparing another man to the lowest thing possible: a woman. I am less familiar with British speech, but this is very clear in–for instance–African American usage, and I am sufficiently familiar with masculine one-upmanship in working-class British speech that I would be surprised to find it much different there. Any woman should find that offensive, and I am no more heartened to find 'cunt' used by women as an insult than I am to hear 'nigger' used by black people.

    On the other hand, we have a whole realm of sex-part words we have developed as insults, of which among our favorites are 'dick' and 'dickhead,' not to mention the sex-associated 'dickwad' and 'scumbag.' And the whole wide world of 'fuck.' It's sad that poor old sex becomes a reference point for everything insulting or violent.

    Of course, words can develop uses that detach from whatever it is the word means. How much does the expletive 'Shit!' have to do with how we feel about actual shit? It doesn't seem the detachment is complete in these cases, though. Perhaps it is just my bad American ear that leads me to find "old cock" rather quaint and affectionate (or ironic), but "old cunt" having an edge of hostility.

  37. Victoria Simmons said,

    May 27, 2012 @ 12:56 pm

    Sorry to double post, but I wanted to add that, if the titular reference to a current bestselling work of not-very-shocking schlock-literature was deliberate, kudos to Julie Sedivy!

  38. jamessal said,

    May 27, 2012 @ 3:28 pm

    the whole wide world of 'fuck.'

    Heh. Nice phrase. For some reason, the instance that immediately came to mind was from Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: "Despite the trove of men, handsome, plain, and ugly, who marched into the restaurant intent on winning her hand in marriage (or at least in fuckage), she never had a thought for anyone but Jack Pujols."

  39. SK said,

    May 27, 2012 @ 4:50 pm

    As a fellow BrE speaker, I agree with David Eddyshaw, Sarah Glover and Laura that the word ‘cunt’ is extremely offensive in Britain as in America, so much so that like Laura I find it difficult to even utter the word. It is at a level far above words such as ‘fuck’ or ‘shit’: if I met another student my own age and got chatting to them for the first time, I wouldn’t be too worried about offending them by using the word ‘shit’, but I would have to be *very* confident about their tolerance of offensive language before using the word ‘cunt’.

    Which is not to say that it is always used in order to give offence or to express any strong feelings at all: there are certainly people that use it jokily in the way Tja mentions. But to use ‘cunt’ as an affectionate mock-insult requires a high level of social intimacy: precisely because it is such a taboo word, the fact of using it sends a message along the lines of ‘we are close enough friends that I know you won’t take this as the incredibly strong insult it would be otherwise’.

    But at the same time, there seems to be an enormous difference between AmE and BrE in the way they use ‘cunt’ – as various people have mentioned here. I was genuinely surprised when I discovered, only fairly recently, that in AmE it is mostly directed at women as a misogynistic slur, which operates by 1) reducing women to nothing but their genitalia and 2) implying that the fact of being a woman is a bad thing in itself. My own impression is that this simply isn’t how it works in BrE, and ‘cunt’ is offensive when applied to people (men and women) just because it is a highly taboo word in its primary meaning – not because it does 1) or 2). In other words, in BrE ‘he is a cunt’ works as an insult for the same reason that ‘he is a shit’ works – simply because they are rude words in the first place. And the existence of insults which on the face of it seem to take maleness as inherently bad, like ‘he is a dick’, demonstrates that inherently gendered words don’t necessarily work by playing on pre-existing sexist attitudes.

    One thing reading LL has taught me, though, is that people who think they speak the same variety can differ hugely in what they think is going on in it. So I would be interested to know whether other BrE speakers share my impression on this. For one thing, I am a man, so unfortunately I’m very likely to be less sensitive to misogyny than I would be if it was aimed at me – it may be that the BrE use is misogynistic too, and it has simply passed me by.

  40. Peter Taylor said,

    May 27, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

    Personally I find "cunt" less shocking than "fuck" or "shit". I speculate that this may be down to my middle-class Home Counties (South-East England) upbringing in which the latter two were known taboo words and the former was, to the best of my memory, completely outside experience. I did hear "twat" once or twice as an insult, but I was blissfully unaware that it was anything other than a variant on "twit" until an American friend expressed surprise when I used it casually. (Cf David Cameron's joke about Twitter users, previously mentioned in comments on this blog: ).

    On a not entirely offtopic aside, on the quiz Have I Got News For You this week a writer called Charlie Brooker invented the portmanteau "funt" (see Tja's comment above) to describe people who invent portmanteaux, in the particular context of "chillax". For those who don't have access to BBC iPlayer, it's series 43, episode 7, about 7:20 from the start.

  41. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 27, 2012 @ 6:24 pm


    That exactly corresponds to my feeling. Indeed I've found it perplexing in the past that Americans object to "cunt" as a slur on the grounds that, as Victoria Simmons says: it "is an insult among men because you are comparing another man to the lowest thing possible: a woman", which seems just plain wrong from the point of view of British usage, in which the word is offensive exactly because it is highly tabooed (contrast "twat", with just the same reference, but much less rude for most speakers, especially in Scotland, I think.) I've idly supposed that this was just American political correctness. What I had evidently missed is that in US usage, it seems indeed to be used quite differently, with a conscious anti-woman intent.

    Come to that, I don't think "bitch" is in fact at all common, at least in the UK, as a term of abuse for men, which seems contrary to Victoria Simmons' thesis that the words are basically offensive because of the implication of womanhood. Nor, if I may say so, do British working class men however given to "masculine one-oneupmanship" their speech might or might not be, invariably have a more derogatory view of women than their posher compatriots.

  42. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 27, 2012 @ 6:51 pm

    Come to think of it, I believe there was an episode of "40 Rock" in which Liz Lemon got into trouble for (one supposes) using the word to insult another woman. I think I missed some nuances there …

  43. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 27, 2012 @ 7:20 pm

    Maybe there's some subtlety about British film classifications I'm missing, but it sounds like the whole controversy is over whether cinemas showing the film can or cannot sell tickets to persons aged 15, 16, or 17. If the film is only being screened for 18-year-olds, the sky's the limit for usage of the word in question; if you want to sell tickets to 15-year-olds, apparently some usage but not as much as the director would prefer is ok; if you wanted to sell tickets to 12-year-olds, the word might need to be excised from the script altogether. This is not the sort of situation (as happens with e.g. broadcast television) where the supposed desire to protect children is impeding the freedom of adults to watch what they wish. I'm not sure about 12-year-olds, but I have no doubt that many British Sunday-school students under the age of 18 smoke cigarettes, but it is nonetheless apparently unlawful to sell them cigarettes. I'm not sure why the right to buy tickets to movies with more than a particular level of taboo vocabulary should be more important to teenagers than the right to buy cigarettes.

  44. Nathan Myers said,

    May 28, 2012 @ 2:24 am

    I never find myself using "cunt" in any context, even when I hit my thumb with a hammer or get cut off in traffic. It's not because it's offensive, it just doesn't seem to me to have any meaningful referent. "Shithead", on the other hand, finds frequent application, particularly to Republicans' true constituencies and, curiously, Obama appointees. This might be generational.

  45. Dougal Stanton said,

    May 28, 2012 @ 5:01 am

    I'll have to disagree with David Eddyshaw and others in this regard. Having lived in Leith (setting for Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting) and now living in Glasgow there's nothing unrealistic about Welsh or Loach's depiction or language.

  46. SK said,

    May 28, 2012 @ 5:06 am

    Two more observations following on from my earlier post, which I hope don’t take this thread too far away from the original topic (or any further away than it has already gone).

    – Very early in this thread, Allison suggested that in AmE ‘the “c” word is… the misogynist equivalent to the “n” word’, and that does seem to be true. But in that case, it is really very striking that ‘cunt’ can *ever* be used in AmE as an insult directed at men, even if the intention is to imply that the man referred to is ‘like a woman’ in some way which is supposed to be inherently bad. Compare the situation with ‘nigger’: it goes without saying that this is incredibly offensive when used as an insult against a black person. But used against someone who isn’t black, while the word would retain its very high shock value, as far as I can tell it simply wouldn’t ‘work’ as an insult: instead it would sound ridiculous, and it would take an enormous amount of pragmatic heavy lifting in context to give it any sensible interpretation at all. If I am getting at a real difference in usage between the two words here (and AmE speakers, please correct me if I’m wrong), it’s a difference which I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone mention before.

    – The question of the sexism-or-not of the BrE use comes up again and again on the blog Pharyngula, whose audience overlaps with that of Language Log to some extent and is predominantly AmE-speaking. Commenters at Pharyngula are allowed, even encouraged, to be as insulting as they like to other commenters they disagree with – but they are forbidden to use sexist insults. This leads inevitably to the situation where some BrE speaker joins in the insult free-for-all with the word ‘cunt’ and is promptly set upon by everybody else taking part in the thread, leading to an enormous amount of frustration and bad feeling on all sides: the thread then descends into chaos. This happens with depressing regularity.

  47. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 28, 2012 @ 7:58 am

    What is at issue here is not a ban on offensiveness. Ratings are a system run by the film industry (with some external coercion) to give vague warnings about perceived offensiveness

    Just to be clear, in the UK film censorship is not voluntary or self-regulatory. It is statutory, with (for public screenings) control nominally in the hands of local councils but in practice with the BBFC, which is technically independent from government but was created by statute. All video recordings sold in the UK must, by law, be certified by the BBFC.

  48. Cirret said,

    May 28, 2012 @ 10:20 am

    It may be obvious, but in case it isn't – in BrE (as I suppose in AmE) there are social groups and situations where some of the *-words are de rigeur, and others where they have dramatic effect or are taboo with serious consequences. We are not uniform. Whether a specific word is sexually demeaning is probably more apparent to, and determined by, the hearer than the average utterer.

  49. Yakusa Cobb said,

    May 28, 2012 @ 1:38 pm

    While we're on the subject, I'm surprised that nobody has mentioned the ongoing "fucking black cunt" controversy in English football (soccer).

    Google the above quote to learn more.

  50. RP said,

    May 28, 2012 @ 2:33 pm

    The BBFC was not created by statute, but under the Video Recordings Act it is the state-designated authority for video censorship and as Ginger said, no video can be sold without its approval (except for exempt works, which are sometimes sold with an "E" on the packaging, but purely by convention). (The VRA was passed in 1984, although it was recently found to be null and void and thus had to be replaced by the VRA 2010, which says all the same things but is valid because it was registered with the European authorities as an arguable exemption to free trade in videos.) In terms of censoring films shown in cinemas, its authority is technically voluntary, but it is rare for local authorities to overrule it.

    Whilst the BBFC is obviously concerned to prohibit works that might contravene the law, it has the right – and asserts it – to ban or cut material even when it is legal. For instance, on its page about the "18" certificate, you can see that breach of the criminal law is listed as only one of three possible reasons for censorship, and on their page about "R18" (hardcore pornographic works) they list breach of the law as one of only six possible grounds for censorship.

    The BBFC considers "cunt" to be the most offensive term (maybe alongside "motherfuck") and if I recall correctly, this has been backed up by survey evidence commissioned by the BBFC. So there are limits on the use of the word "cunt" in certificate 18 films.

    One of the good things about the BBFC is that, because a large portion (probably a minority, but a significant minority) of US "R" films get classified as "18", the "18" certificate doesn't carry the same stigma that "NC-17" has in the US, so you can watch "18" films in mainstream cinemas. Most of what is "NC-17" or unrated in the US is acceptable at "18" (including, in some cases, unsimulated sex scenes, provided that the work as a whole is artistic rather than hardcore porn).

    So, the BBFC is not all bad (its principles and criteria are published and it does its work very professionally) but liberals should be concerned about some of its powers. It has, however, improved (liberalised) immeasurably since the 1980s.

    I don't think "cunt" is sexist in British use, at least not intentionally. Given that male genitalia can also be used as abusive terms – "cock", "prick", etc – the only reason for considering "cunt" sexist is that it is considered more offensive than the male terms. (All these terms, including "cunt", are more often used to describe a man than a woman.) There may be something in this, but it certainly does not enter into people's consious deliberations. In any case, "pussy" and "twat" are quite mild terms, as is "fanny" (since in the UK, "fanny" too refers to female genitalia).

  51. RP said,

    May 28, 2012 @ 2:37 pm

    Sorry, I meant to say, limits on the use of "cunt" in cert "15" films obviously.

    Actually, the BBFC did have a policy at one time that even cert "18" films could have too much bad language, but I think that's changed.

  52. RP said,

    May 28, 2012 @ 2:56 pm

    Andy, I don't think there are any terms strictly forbidden to utter on UK TV. Forbidden before 9 pm yes, but not forbidden tout court. Are there are any completely forbidden terms on US TV, or only on US network TV? I read that there is a distinction. I am not aware of such a distinction in the UK.

    I remember a Bill Bryson book in which he claimed that "bloody" was highly offensive in the UK, but this is really not the case. Of course, there may be some people who find it so, but it is certainly used on TV and I'm pretty sure you can hear it before 9 pm and that survey evidence etc supports the contention that most people consider it mild.

  53. jamessal said,

    May 28, 2012 @ 4:15 pm

    I remember a Bill Bryson book in which he claimed that "bloody" was highly offensive in the UK,

    I've been told by those who know to always double-check Bryson on language, and it's proved good advice.

  54. RP said,

    May 28, 2012 @ 4:27 pm

    I agree with you there. Bryson's comment ( ) is not quite as far out as I remembered it: "to most Britons is at least as objectionable a word as shit", but I still think this is overstating it. In 2000 the research conducted for the BBC, ASA and others ( ) found (p56, numbered p52) that only 14% of respondents regarded "bloody" as either "fairly severe" or "very severe", compared with 42% for "shit". 29% of respondents said "bloody" was "not swearing", compared with 9% for "shit".

  55. Ken Brown said,

    May 28, 2012 @ 4:56 pm

    I read online that "fanny" and "twat" are offensive terms for female genitals in BrE, but neither seems to be in actual usage of those around me. I grew up thinking of "twat" as a mild insult, somewhere between "twit" and "prat", and "Fanny" was an old-fashioned girl's name.

    "Cunt" on the other hand means what everyone thinks it means, and is shocking enough to be almost unusable in its literal sense. (Almost but not quite). As an insult it is, as others said, probably the most extreme one in normal use, but its not rare in some contexts. I doubt if I've ever heard it at work, or at church, or in any of my relative's homes. But I've often heard it in my local pub, and its frequently used at football matches – usually of people too far away to hear or care.

    And, as others have said its almost only ever said about men. I've never counted but I'd guess hundreds of times more often than of women.

    For what its worth my native dialect is a pretty standard south-eastern urban English. What journalists would call Estuary. I unaffectedly have "innit" and "weren't" – though I'd be unlikely to use either at a meeting at the university I work in, any more than I'd use "cunt". Context and code-switching rule all.

  56. jamessal said,

    May 28, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

    "Cunt" on the other hand means what everyone thinks it means, and is shocking enough to be almost unusable in its literal sense. (Almost but not quite).

    I wonder. Anybody use this word to talk dirty sexually? I don't think I ever have, even though I'm generally pretty foul-mouthed — I don't shy from using it, in certain company. Nevertheless, even with the heavy taboo, it's never seemed like it would be sexy. I don't know if it's relevant that I'm an American in my late twenties.

    I also wonder if anyone will answer!

  57. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 28, 2012 @ 6:11 pm

    I don't think I've ever heard, let alone used, the word in its putatively primary sense at all.

    I could even imagine someone growing up unfamiliar with it, as not a few are with "twat" (and "berk" come to that.)

  58. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 28, 2012 @ 6:30 pm

    Robert Browning famously thought "twat" meant "wimple", as in part of a nun's costume. Oops.

    But I expect everyone here knew that already.

    Chaucer, on the other hand, has his original Wessex Girl (the Wife of Bath) use the Middle English q-word in its literal sense. Don't know if it had already by then progressed from just rude to all-purpose insult. Maybe the Americans have simply preserved a more original usage than us Brits if the c-word is still much more closely tied to its anatomical meaning for them than for us.

    French, of course, is even farther along this path: "con" is pretty mild, and often not really insulting at all.

  59. RP said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 2:13 am

    I have heard both "fanny" and "cunt" used anatomically in the UK. I am not too sure about "twat" but I believe its anatomical sense is still used occasionally even if it is much less common.
    See also

  60. maidhc said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 4:02 am

    David Eddyshaw: And everyone was too embarrassed to tell him what it really meant, so they let the poem into print as it was.

    RP: I've been suspicious of everything Bill Bryson says since I read his claim that Neanderthals couldn't talk. But in this case isn't he just behind the times?

    Wasn't "bloody" a taboo word in the first half of the 20th century? I had the impression that the incongruity of having a taboo word that was totally acceptable when used with a different meaning had softened it over the years (although evidently this principle doesn't operate in Quebec). There was a period when it was starred out when it appeared in print.

    Another interesting word is "whore" as used in Ireland, but I don't think it's commonly used in the UK that way. "Ya wee whore" could even be somewhat friendly in certain contexts.

  61. Paul said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 5:23 am

    Teaching phonology in a Welsh-speaking area can be fun, since Welsh has a cognate, "cont" (which, to bring things back to the topic, seems to be used as a term of endearment in some varieties of the language). Here (, for example, one can buy women's t-shirts with it on.

  62. Ken Brown said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

    maidhc: "..the incongruity of having a taboo word that was totally acceptable when used with a different meaning…"

    Is there any? We have dick, prick, pussy, shag, slag, bitch, all in unexceptionable use use for other meanings. Maybe fanny if that really is a taboo word for anyone. In British English "fag" and "faggot" are still in common use, though we imported the derogatory sense of them from Anerica decades ago and they can be used and are sometimes used as insults – though nowhere near as much as "poof" and "queer", both words also with acceptable uses. Or more mildly "pooh" can be a bear or it can be shit. And children play with balls and eat buns everywhere.

    I've heard it claimed that "ass" was replaced by "donkey" throughout English, and "cock" by "rooster" in American English, because they sound like words for body parts. But no-one has a problem with "stopcock" or "weathercock". For at least some speakers bullocks have bollocks (and for others they don't!) and also sound like them. You can't say "nigger" but that has no effect on "Nigeria" which is ultimately the same word, meaning no more than black people's country. (As an aside I suppose the word can only continue to be so offensive because those who wish to offend at least sometimes use it. A completely unused banned word loses its power to shock. No-ones likey to be much upset by "zounds" these days.)

    Back nearer to the opening post – I think that I personally might find "slag", "slut", or "bitch" more shocking iwhen used against women. But that might be because I actually have heard those words used about women, when "cunt" hardly every is, though I hear it more often as a general obscenity or as an insult to me than I hear "slag", "slut", or "bitch".

  63. Victoria Simmons said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 1:38 pm

    David Eddyshaw: I didn't mean to suggest that British working class men are more misogynist than their posher compatriots, but that the speech of masculine one-upsmanship, whether joking or serious, is more likely to be in-your-face offensive in content if not in intent. As an American I associate blustering/joking insult-laden speech more with working-class speech, so-called 'ghetto speech,' and frat boys, although as a woman I wouldn't be exposed to locker-room speech down at the country club. There can be a misogynist register to such speech, though, even when the word is used as a taboo word perhaps detached from actual meaning (as I said in my first post).

    I don't know how often British men use words such as 'cunt' to reflect on the masculinity of other men, but in America 'bitch' is often used that way, especially in expressions such as "I'm going to make you my bitch" (often said playfully to someone you're competing with) or even "I was that test's bitch." ("I'm going to make you my bitch" gets half a million ghits on Google.) As far as I'm aware, the use is a reference to forcing another man to play the woman's role in the sex act, and so American cops in movies and TV are constantly warning suspects they are interrogating that when they go to prison some bigger, stronger guy "is going to make you his bitch." (The phrase gets half a million ghits.) The word 'bitch' is also common in gangsta rap, and among some people "bitch" is the preferred term for "woman," to the extent that it is used un-self-consciously even for women in authority or a woman the speaker admires.

    For feminists, the fact that a word isn't used with a misogynist intent doesn't mean that it doesn't operate in a misogynist register, hence the effort of feminists to remake gendered language. In these cases, I don't think the misogynist register isn't very far away.

    As for 'nigger' being used of a white person, that use is old in the United States in a sense suggested by the John Lennon lyric "Woman is the nigger of the world." If you are someone's nigger you are their slave: they own you, they can work you hard, they can mistreat you, and you are lesser than they are by definition. I tried to google various uses of 'my nigger' and 'your nigger,' but it would be hard to tease out from the ghits uses where just white people are involved, especially since there are other uses of those phrases in straightforward racist or anti-racist contexts, and they also are used by some African-Americans as casual expressions of comradeship, such as "How are you, my nigger?" (Or "He's my nigger," as in "He's my friend: he's got my back.")

    As a child in Memphis in the 60s, though, where I myself as a shabby-genteel white girl was taught never to use that word (it's still hard to type it), I heard people use the word 'nigger' fairly frequently, and there was a common phrase 'work like a nigger.' (That phrase gets 64,000 ghits.) On a number of occasions I heard constructions such as "I'm not his nigger" or "You'd'a thought I was his nigger" used by white people, almost always men. I did not hear "You're my nigger" (which in the gangsta community is now another affirmation of friendship, and therefore not useful to Google), but I wouldn't be a bit surprised to come across it, even today, among certain white people. In these uses among white people, 'nigger' is exactly like 'bitch': it is a way to assert oneself over another guy (and it's almost always a guy thing) and diminish him by comparing him to a member of a subordinated group.

    Through Google, I found two uses of "I'm not his nigger," links below. One is definitely by a white man, the second (really bad/hostile language warning, including 'cunt') sounds like a white-guy rant to me, but of course I can't be certain. (I also found two uses of "I'm not her nigger.");wap2

    Two other insults occur to me in this context. One is the boasting "I'll own you!" and "He was owned" used in competitive situations or situations where someone wasn't up to a challenge (and quite often, from the defeated one: "I was owned). The other is 'pussy.' When a man calls another man a 'pussy' to mean a sissy (not inevitably an expression used among men, but I think usually, and the phrase gets almost a million ghits), is he referring to kitty-cats or to women (by another sex-part word)? I think the latter, and of course the expression "pussy-whipped" for a henpecked man is (almost completely) unambiguous.

  64. Victoria Simmons said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

    Left out something: The 'pussy' phrase that gets almost a million ghits is "You're a pussy."

  65. RP said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 2:42 pm

    Re "fanny", it is classified as "vulgar slang" in Oxford Dictionaries Online ( (although it is plain "slang" in both the OED online and the 1989 Second Edition). But I did notice on the Cosmo thread I cited that one or two people thought it was a childish word. It may of course be losing, or have lost (for most people), its taboo status. This does happen sometimes. I remember a dictionary from the 70s in which both "boob" (in the sense of "breast") and "bum" (in the sense of "buttocks") were labelled as "taboo". I have never met anyone who thinks "boob" is taboo, although when I was growing up in the 80s, I still came across a minority of people who thought "bum" was rude. Of course, these changes are gradual so I would be surprised if there isn't a section of the population for whom "fanny" is considered taboo or vulgar, even if it is a minority. (Whether we can draw a distinction between the terms "taboo" and "vulgar", I don't know, but in my experience, some dictionaries use one term, some the other, some other term still, and they mean the same thing by it regardless of which term they use.)

    Re "twat", a character on a BBC drama used it in its anatomical sense as recently as last year ( ).

  66. Victoria Simmons said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

    A folklorist friend of mine from America got a job about 15 years ago with a Cornish-language group in Cornwall. She wore what Americans often call a fanny-pack, and she called it that, too. Months later, when she learned the more taboo meaning of the word, she was appalled. She says she asked her co-workers why they hadn't said anything, and one of them replied, "We thought you were saying it as some sort of American in-your-face reclaiming-the-word feminist thing!"

  67. Victoria Simmons said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 5:00 pm

    "Fanny" seems to have been an unexceptionable word in British English in1945, when Gainsborough Pictures made a bodice-ripper called "Fanny by Gaslight." In America, though, 'fanny' was a jocular word for 'buttocks' (and more widely used than it seems to be now). According to David Halliwell's "Filmgoer's Companion," the American distributor changed the title to the less saucy "Man of Evil."

    Traveling the opposite way across the pond, the Al Jolson musical "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum!" had to change to "Hallelujah, I'm a Tramp!", which required re-shooting the title number. The 1948 "B.F.'s Daughter," based on a bestselling novel, was changed to "Polly Fulton," lest anyone think Polly's father was a bloody fool.

  68. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 5:49 pm

    @Dougal Stanton:

    I bow to your superior fieldwork.

    I used to go to school in Glasgow and lived for some years in Edinburgh, but in the near-Morningside upmarketness of Polwarth. I worked with drug addicts professionally a bit but they were on best behaviour with me, pretty much. I have (thanks be to God) little experience of the Welsh lifestyle … still don't rate him as a realist though.

    @Victoria Simmons:

    My impression is that the use of "bitch" you describe is particularly American, and found in the UK as a conscious borrowing and imitation. (Mind you, such impressions are pretty often wrong.) But surely even in the US usage, the insult consists not in the implication of femaleness but in the imputation of passive homosexuality, i.e. not implying that it is discreditable to be a woman, but that it is discreditable to act like a woman if you're a man? After all, there's no shortage of obscene insults for women supposed to be acting inappropriately masculine, so the offensiveness cannot be simply reduced to "man = high status", "woman = low status." Admittedly those given to this sort of abuse may very well think that women are intrinsically inferior as well, but I don't think that is invariably the case, and it doesn't follow logically that fear and abuse of supposedly gender-inappropriate behaviour must imply a belief that one sex is in itself inferior.

  69. Victoria Simmons said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 7:27 pm

    Daviid Eddyshaw–

    I agree that "make you my bitch" references playing the passive role in homosexual sex, but doesn't the word 'bitch' imply that that passive, dominated, unmanly role is a woman's natural role? I think that has a whiff of inferiority about it.

    Also, my understanding of the rhetoric of homophobic stigma is that it's not as straightforward as flagging gender-inappropriate behavior, but tied to performance of gender roles that themselves are constructed in asymmetrical ways. Therfore there isn't a simple reverse-correspondence between the way gays are perceived and the way lesbians are perceived, because they are perceived within the framework of both gender performance and the differing status of those genders.

  70. Ted said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 7:51 pm

    I have always understood reference to being someone's bitch as an allusion to usage by pimps, who (at least stereo-) typically refer to the women they prostitute as their bitches. The usage conveys the idea of ownership, as one owns an animal, not the low status of women in general (i.e. it is significant that the phrase used is my bitch, not merely a bitch), and has nothing to do with homosexuality.

    I have often heard phrases of the form "X is Y's bitch," meaning that X is so deferential to Y that he (or she, but it seems more loaded when used in reference to a man) willingly assumes a deferential, low-status position vis-a-vis Y. It's not entirely dissimilar to "lickspittle." The force of the insult derives from the aspect of humiliation.

    In light of this context, Victoria Simmons is on to something when, in the last paragraph of one of her comments above, she draws the connection between being someone's bitch and being owned.

  71. Victoria Simmons said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 10:27 pm

    Ted, the pimp/prostitute allusion might work–although it still references a woman being in a debased position–except that "I'm gonna make you my bitch" isn't a statement of ownership, but a giving of notice that an action is about to occur in which the speaker is going to assert dominance over the other person. Most less-metaphorical uses I have seen of the phrase have to do with prison life. I think it's a reference to dominance-rape, although the phrase is usually used playfully. For those ambivalent about homosexuality, there is less stigma attached to the active (more masculine) role and more stigma attached to the passive (more womanlike) role.

    Another point on seeing gender-deviance as equivalent for gays and lesbians:
    Let's not forget that it wasn't so long ago that the straight world, in its infinite ignorance about gay life, assumed that gay couples assumed conventionally gendered roles, so that one had to be the butch (the male role, with the dominance implied by that) and one had to be the nelly (the female role, with the subordinance implied by that). People are still looking at same-sex married couples and asking which one is the wife. So with "I'm gonna make you my bitch" you have a gender-marked word in a dominance-rape metaphor where, even if homosexual rape is the main frame of reference (as I believe it is), the person who is about to get owned is being tarred with the stigma of both the passive homosexual role and the (presumably typically passive) female role.

    The general point here being that even homosexual stigma includes gender-role stigma as well.

    RP– I don't know if 'fanny' is a childish word, but that sure is how I feel about 'dick' and 'pussy.' For me their shock value is forever lessened by my having first encountered them scrawled on bathroom walls at school.

  72. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 8:56 am

    As an American I associate blustering/joking insult-laden speech more with working-class speech

    I'm not sure this applies in Britain. Certainly among friends, mock insults are very common and not class identifiers at all.

    "Fanny" seems to have been an unexceptionable word in British English in1945, when Gainsborough Pictures made a bodice-ripper called "Fanny by Gaslight."

    Fanny was at one point an ordinary name in Britain. See, for instance, the protagonist in Mansfield Park.

  73. Victoria Simmons said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 9:20 am

    Not surprisingly, the protagonist in "Fanny by Gaslight" is named Fanny. America, in the early part of the 20th century, had some well-known Fannys, such as the great Fanny Brice.

    As late as the 1960s, the British novelist Georgette Heyer was able to name an ingenue heiress Fanny, with the result that the book's male protagonist frequently addresses the heiress's female guardian on the topic of "your Fanny."

  74. RP said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

    I agree that it was at one point an ordinary name, but its sexual meaning has existed since the late 19th century, so it depends what one means by "unexceptionable". The fact that its sexual meaning developed may have hastened the decline of the name, but it is likely that the two coexisted for a considerable time. Ken Brown (above) pointed to a number of taboo words that double up as everyday words. I would not be at all surprised if when "Fanny by Gaslight" was made, the sexual meaning was already well known, though I am not sure how one would test this.

    In my experience the name Dick is rarely found any more in the UK – yet it seems to be commoner in the US, where well known examples include Dick Cheney. I myself am a Richard, but no one has ever abbreviated it as Dick, except a few times my brother when he was trying to annoy me. But it is not obvious how much or how quickly the non-taboo use of a name or word can be expected to decline once a taboo competitor emerges. That would be an interesting subject for research, if it has not already been done.

  75. Vanya said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 1:34 pm

    To many people in England, including me, cunt is far and away the most offensive word in the English language.

    England could use a little George Carlin.

  76. RP said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 2:38 pm

    On the original topic: I can see what Loach is getting at, that the words that offend some people are unexceptionable, everyday words to others, but I don't necessarily agree with his conclusions. Of course, you can debate whether film age ratings should take language into account, but there will be no pleasing everyone. And of course we live in a class-ridden society, but it is much too simplistic to say that swearwords are fine with the working classes and anathema to the "respectable". My mother's family are (or were – her parents are both dead now) working-class northerners, but her mum detested swearing and her dad wasn't particularly foul mouthed (the only swearword he used frequently in mixed company was "bloody", which admittedly probably sounded stronger to him than to the younger generation; and I never heard him use the F or C words).

    The only UK national newspapers that ever print the F or C words without asterisks are the "serious" (broadsheet or recent ex-broadsheet) papers that are associated with a middle-class readership (see for a few statistics on which UK newspapers had printed the F-word during the last year as of April 2010).

    @Vanya, how so? The UK already has plenty of comedians keen on swearing, including on TV, and I get the impression the average American finds "cunt" at least as offensive as the average Brit. (Of course, it is extremely difficult to generalise and I'm sure there's a wide range of feelings in both countries.) We've established that British restrictions on language on TV (and I think on radio) are less strict. As for film, the MPAA and BBFC both take bad language into account when deciding on ratings.

    If you are saying that people should stop finding it offensive, I don't see why… In any case, if killjoys succeed in stripping all existing swearwords of their offensiveness, they won't be any fun to use any more and we'll simply have to invent new ones.

    @maidhc, You're right, "bloody" used to be stronger than it is today. Crystal (The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language) reproduces a Daily Mirror front page from 1960 which had the banner headline, "Mr. K! (If you will pardon an olde English phrase) Don't be so bloody rude!" (I think this is addressed to Khrushchev). He says this was "daring" in its day. "Bloody" was used for its shock value in "Pygmalion" (as Crystal also notes) and the Daily Sketch asked, "Has the censor stepped in, or will the phrase spread?" (1914) (all theatre was subject to censorship by the Lord Chamberlain's office until the 1960s). As I recall, in the 1960s film version of "My Fair Lady", the word "arse" was used instead, but was this because "bloody" was felt not shocking enough, or because it was particularly shock-free to the American audience, or both?

  77. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

    George Carlin's shtick *depends* on the obscenity, surely. Moreover, we've already got inoffensive words with the same reference; why should we try to denature our small precious stock of extremely rude words?

    Re "Fanny": Fanny Cradock, the ur-television-chef, flourished within my memory without apparently being crippled by embarrassment; come to that I know two blokes called John Thomas who similarly manage to maintain serene social lives. English is very tolerant of ambiguity.

  78. Victoria Simmons said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 6:13 pm

    English may be tolerant of ambiguity, but the given name 'Gay,' after peaking in the mid-20th century, took a nose-dive from the late 60s on, and is almost unused now.

  79. Victoria Simmons said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 3:42 am

    I have been grappling with a very hard-to-navigate Social Security Administration's website to look at the statistics on names.

    You have to go down the page to the "Popularity of a Name" section and enter the name and number of years you wish searched.

    In the United States, 'Gay' was in the lower 1000 names in the first part of the 20th Century, moved up in popularity mid-century to the 300s and 400s, declined at a swiftly increasing rate through the 1960s and since 1969 has not been in the top 1000 girls' names.

    In the United States, 'Fanny' was in the top 300 names in the 1880s and 1890s, dropped into the lower 1000 in the 1920s and 1930s, and hasn't been in the top 1000 since 1938.

  80. RP said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 7:53 am

    @Victoria Simmons,
    In the UK at least, "Fanny" was often not the person's actual name but a pet-name. For instance, people who were named Frances were often known as "Fanny" (today it would be "Franny" instead, or something else: I knew a Frances who was known as "Frankie"). Fanny Craddock has been mentioned, and her real name was Phyllis.

    Still, the evidence you've found seems to be in line with what we'd probably expect. It seems likely that the popularity of "Fanny" as a pet-name declined alongside its use as an actual name.

  81. Victoria Simmons said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 1:41 pm

    Fanny Kemble was a "Frances." Fanny Brice was a "Fania." 'Frances' itself was a top 25 name in the United States in the early 20th century, and then declined, but only in the usual steady way.

    I've been looking up a number of names, and while names suddenly shoot up in popularity because of a celebrity or fictional character, a swift decline and disappearance is unusual. As we might expect. Unexpectedly, though, Hitler's rise didn't cause that great a decline in the use of 'Adolph' in America. (Old joke: During World War II, a man named Joe Hitler goes to court to have his name changed. The judge says, "Well, that's understandable. What do you want your new name to be?" The man replies: "John Hitler. I'm tired of people saying, 'Whattaya know, Joe?'")

  82. The power of swearing « Floating in Dreams said,

    June 2, 2012 @ 1:57 am

    […] to The British Board of Film Classification that isn't always the case. I came across this article on Language Log which describes how the BBFC thinks it's okay for an 11 year-old girl in Kickass to refer to […]

  83. [links] Link salad feels that most of you soldiers are flimsy | said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 2:30 pm

    […] Shades of gray of shocking lingo — Language Log on who gets to use offensive language in regulated or public settings (in this case, movie ratings). […]

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