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


Adesola said...

hello sir!
i see your students are still rushing to post comments on the blog. come exam time everyone will realise what a useful source it is.

anyway i'm one of the ones who doesn't see the point of swearing. i don't think it's innate to human nature, (because believe it or not) there are people who exist that don't swear. (oh my gosh really?) i'm not saying i don't say the ocasional sh** or damn, though i don't think that's considered a swear word anymore. (let's see if it's filtered).
so when you slam you funger in the door you yell out "#**@"%%$&^"
but that's completely different to giving directions to a stranger and saying
"when you get to the f***** bridge, turn f******* right and keep going straight until you see the f****** basketball court. you're f****** welcome".
that is as far as i'm concerned a product of culture, where you use swear words in a context they are absolutely not needed. i think i just don't like the word f*ck because of the way it sounds.

Dan said...

Hi Adesola, good to hear from you! Yes, you're right about the blog. Maybe the current students will start using it later in the year like you say, but to be fair we do have Moodle up and running now, so a lot of what would have been discussed here now appears on there.

Anyway, how are you doing? Email me with some news!

As for swearing, I think you're probably right. There's been a cultural shift around swearing. It still really annoys me - it makes me f*cking furious, in fact - when I hear adults swearing around really little kids. And this sort of swearing is just a kind of punctuation for some people, whereas the slamming your finger in the door scenario is closer to Pinker's animal response idea.

And yes, I've been surprised to find there are young people who don't swear and don't like swearing. I got told off last year by an AS student for swearing in desperation at her class. That told me.

adesola said...

i was right, damn wasn't filtered! i think you're just one of those parents who doesn't like it when people swear around kids because you've got kids of your one.
but here is the thing, if kids are gonna start swearing when they're older anyway, what's the point of sheltering them from it now? i think it's just a case that every parent doesn't want to be the one whose kid starts going, 'you f*cking driver' on the bus while every other adult tuts their disapproval.

adesola said...

oh my gosh i spelt "own" wrong!
don't tell anyone.