Friday, November 07, 2008

F*ck you, you f*cking f*ck

Apparently the f-word is being overused on TV and it's all getting too much for some people. The Daily Mirror has even launched a campaign to "clean up" the airwaves, calling for swearing to have "a specific point".

So, why does swearing upset so many people? Some words have been normal, inoffensive expressions for centuries and then become taboo. The c-word (which I can't type here or the college filters will ban the blog) is one example of this. Even the old favourite sh-word had few offensive connotations back in Middle English. But it's clear that some words are just seen as ruder than others, and certainly not suitable for children to hear.

The recent debate has probably been sparked by the Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross furore on Radio 2 the other week, where Ross claimed that Brand had "f*cked your grand-daughter" in a call to Andrew Sachs' ansaphone. But are we getting ruder and swearing more than we used to? We apparently send each other many more offensive greetings cards than we ever used to, according to this Guardian story earlier in the term. And an OFCOM survey of offensive language and behaviour in the media from 2005 made a range of interesting points about swearing:

  • Swearing and offensive language is considered to be widespread and to have increased over time by all groups
  • It was seen as a symptom of decline in public life, for which participants believed the media was partly responsible
  • All groups considered that the worst aspect of the increase in swearing was because of the example it sets to younger people/children
  • The use of offensive language by young people is most offensive overall as it is seen as indicating a lack of respect
  • Through the process of detailed discussion, swearing becomes a benchmark for underlying fears about society ‘breaking down’, or standards ‘slipping’.
  • Younger people were more likely to swear among their peer groups, and saw it as inoffensive in this context. However, there was a wide range of behaviours in relation to swearing across all groups.
Steven Pinker talks about swearing as an inbuilt language characteristic, something that in an animal might equate to a dog yelping when it gets its paw trodden on, or a cat hissing when it doesn't like the way you stroke it. He explains it in more detail here in a YouTube clip, or here in a Guardian podcast. And while we've evolved enough to have some control over swearing, Pinker makes it clear that part of the offensiveness of certain swearwords is down to their deep-rooted origins in our ancestors.

So, what's your take on swearing? A natural response to shock and way of venting anger, or a deplorable reflection of modern society's low moral standards?

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENGA2 - Investigating Representation
ENGA3 - Language Explorations

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