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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 February, 2004, 11:28 GMT
Has swearing lost its power to outrage?
By Brian Wheeler and Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online Magazine

The first time John Lydon turned the air blue on prime time television, one viewer was so outraged he kicked his TV set in.

It was 1976, and the young punk, smirking like a guilty schoolboy, made his barely audible swearing debut as Sex Pistols bandmate Steve Jones, was goaded into uttering a stream of obscenities by ITV teatime presenter Bill Grundy.

The incident effectively ended Grundy's career. The tabloids went into a frenzy, with headlines such as "The Filth and the Fury". For a brief moment, it seemed as if civilization itself was under threat.

Nearly three decades later Lydon was at it again. This time he went one step better - or worse depending on your point of view - spitting out both the f-word and the c-word on jungle game show I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!, with no provocation.

This time, however, there were only 100 complaints from viewers. The former punk icon has apparently quit the ITV show after being told to mind his language.

But the world has remained on its axis. In the era of foul-mouthed "gangsta" rap and casual bad language in Hollywood films - has swearing lost its power to shock? Or has our attitude remained essentially the same?

Jonathan Green's book
Jonathon Green, lexicographer of slang

"There have been three stages of swearing in modern English. From about 1500, swearwords were simply euphemisms for blasphemy: oddsbodkins - God's body, cor blimey - god blind me; bloody - by our lady. Today's swear words were perfectly acceptable, apart from the c-word.

"From 1700, blasphemy lost its potency, and as England became a world power, there was an effort to clean up the language. So then words for parts of the body and what you do with them, such as defecation, became taboo. You wouldn't find them in Dickens, for example.

"In the past 40 years, young people have become less concerned with the traditional swear words. Now it's racist, sexist, homophobic language - the sort my father's generation wouldn't think twice about using - that are totally forbidden.

"The right to swear is a necessary human expostulation. I've no qualms about swearing, although I would tame my language depending on who I was speaking to."

Boothby Graffoe
Comedian Boothby Graffoe

"I did a piece about this for radio recently, on why EastEnders is meant to be so realistic and cutting edge. They're perfectly prepared to depict the grittiest rape scene, incest, racism, but no-one ever swears.

"Maybe that's why they're called soap operas - they've had their mouths washed out. You could watch someone get their head kicked, but if they said "f***ing hell that hurt", the audience would be up in arms.

"Having said that, swearing's not a big part of my act. It's not an easy way to get a laugh. They're ugly words and you've got to be certain you're using them carefully.

"When I started out playing the working men's clubs, the audience hated swearing in an act. They'd be at the bar, swearing their heads off as they downed pints but I'd hear gasps if I swore in the act. Now, when I play a comedy club, they're at the bar ordering glasses of white wine and couldn't give a toss if someone's filling their act with bad language. You'd really have to work at upsetting someone now."

Miranda Suit
Miranda Suit, of the broadcasting standards campaign group Media March

"Swearing has become endemic, and we would say that had happened since it was widely exposed in the media. Certainly the f-word has become normalised.

"What I'm talking about is maintaining standards, thinking about children, thinking about family life and that's where I think we have fallen far short of what the Americans do. It's much easier to bring up a child in America and not be constantly assailed by offensive, unpleasant, downright obscene material. In this country you can't easily bring up a child in that way.

"We do need swear words, they are a useful expression of anger, but they need to be used sparingly. The only real swear word there is now is the c-word, and we don't want that to become normalised. If people have no swear words left, who knows - they might not be able to express their anger and might end up hitting someone."

Roger Mellie, the man from the telly
Roger Mellie, Viz's 'man on the telly'

"A lot of people think Desmond Lynam [it was actually theatre critic Kenneth Tynan] who was the first person to say the f-word on television. Well, I want to set the record straight. It was me.

"It was the 60s. I had my own show, Blue Roger. It was groundbreaking stuff for kids' telly. But it wasn't my idea to invite the elephant on. I'd booked the Dagenham Girl Pipers, but there was a misunderstanding over the dressing rooms.

"It can get very slippery on those studio floors, and I think Jumbo had been on the vindaloo the night before. I still remember the look on the floor manager's face when I trod in it. Priceless. You can't buy moments like that.

"Course it's all different now. You don't get where I am in TV by turning the air blue. You've got to know where to draw the line. It's called being a professional. What do you mean I'm not getting paid for this? You fu..."

Bernard Manning
Comedian Bernard Manning

"Swearing is realistic. We all do it when we lose our temper. Even prime ministers. Do you remember John Major calling his MPs a shower of bastards?

"It's definitely become more acceptable now. Back then we had Mary Whitehouse and you couldn't say boo to a goose.

"I can be funny without being blue but I'd rather be blue. The jokes are funnier and better. Who wants to hear about a f****** chicken crossing the road or the diddy men? If you are working a CID do, with loads of big coppers, hard men who do a tough job, you cannot go on talking about jam butty mines.

"Mind you, my mother, who was 95 when she died, never heard me swear. When I had just backed a loser I used to close the living room door so she couldn't hear me."

The Bishop of Fulham
The Bishop of Fulham, the Right Reverend John Broadhurst

"We live in a world where people swear as a matter of course. I will even own up to doing it myself occasionally.

"But what makes me angry is blasphemy. I think it is disgraceful. I would much rather they used the f-word. It shows a total disregard for God. It was considered deeply offensive until recently.

"I think swearing in general is a sign of decline in language. It just reveals that people haven't got any vocabulary. I know someone who cannot put a sentence together without using the f-word.

"In working areas, men used to swear like troopers, but they would never swear in front of women. It's just to do with respect. There is no respect for anything or anybody now. I think a lot of people are offended by it. It's not just the old."


Here are some of your comments so far:

Why does the Bishop believe that swearing "reveals that people haven't got any vocabulary"? Surely it actually signifies an expanded and more prolific vocabulary. I use scores of swear words on top of my regular varied vocab, and also regularly read the Viz Profanisaurus: as a result of this I believe I can express myself far more fully than without. I highly recommend any type of learning.
Barbara Foster, England

To say that swearing reveals a lack of vocabulary is nonsense. I know precisely what I mean to say and swear-words are sometimes the best way of saying it. I will tone down my swearing if there are children present, but my favourite way of swearing is blasphemy! I don't think that god gets offended, so why should you?
Andy G, UK

Swearing gives the impression that the person swearing is lacking in vocabulary and thus is also lacking in intelligence. It's a slack argument to claim that swearing helps to emphasise your point it doesn't. The English language is full of rich colourful descriptions without resorting to swear-words. If you feel the need to swear all the time then read more and improve your vocabulary you ignorant f****** b********.
Andrew Forster, Scotland

It's never been revealed but what I want to know is what exactly did the viewer say as he kicked the TV set in during Bill Grundy's show? Something along the lines of .. "That's f******* disgraceful" perhaps?!"
Nick, Manchester, England

I'm moderately amused by John Broadhurst's comment that "blasphemy... is disgraceful. It shows a total disregard for God". He's right: it does. I have absolutely no regard for God, because I'm an atheist. A bit rich of him to expect us to respect his beliefs by not "blaspheming", when he uses words like "disgraceful". That doesn't seem to show much respect for my belief that there is no God to blaspheme against! Anyway, I'm firmly of the view that swearing is a necessary part of everyday life. What more effective intensifier is there than "f******", when you're really annoyed? I don't swear in front of children, though, because I believe that kids' vocabularies should be based on "acceptable". English in the first instance. Once they've mastered that, they can eff and blind to their hearts' content, bless 'em.
Rob A, UK

I am by no means a prude but i find four letter words offensive and unnecessary. i used to run a pub in the 80s and 90s and if the language got bad I would ask the customer to mind their language so as not to offend others. Nowadays this is supposed to be old fashioned. But if people swear all the time what have they got left when they are really angry?
Carol Stewart, Britain

As an ex-RAF engineer swearing was part of everyday life, but never in front of the women. We once had a comedian booked for a Christmas function with the wives and girlfriends. He wasn't going down too well so resorted to 'a bit of blue' . Needless to say he was heckled off stage and paid off; even servicemen have standards!
Steve Farrington, UK

Come on, get real - more people laughed when Johnny said "F***ing C***s" than were offended. It may have been basic, crude and mildly shocking, but it appeared to be spontaneous (and fit the situation perfectly) which made it humorous. Compare this to the dull and predictable Bernard Mannings and Roy Chubby Browns of this world where every "f***" and "C***" is scripted.
Vinny Ramone, Romford

Why does it seem that those in the anti-swearing brigade seem to be so misogynistic? It's OK to swear of course, so long as it does not reach the delicate ears of our women folk. F*** off!
Katy, Manchester

Following Miranda Suit's comments, I personally would prefer any child of mine to be brought up in swearing culture than one that deifies the gun. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but I'd rather be on the receiving end of a four-letter-word tirade than a bullet any day.
Will, UK

Context is everything in language. I'm far more offended by a well-spoken, educated person making comments that are racist, misogynist or right-wing, than by a perfectly decent person who swears like a trooper. There is also a lot of class bigotry in the language debate. A docker or lorry driver is considered foul-mouthed and a yob, but a Richard Curtis film where every other word is f**k is considered witty in an ever-so-public-school type of way.
Matthew, UK

I agree with the Bishop in that the overuse of swear words is a sign of the decline in language. The proliferation of any general terms usually demonstrates a lack of knowledge of the specific expression that could alternately be used. Swear words are just the most common, and most incendiary, examples of these general terms.
Huw Davies, UK

Swearing is a necessary and invaluable addition to anyone's vocabulary. Swear words are the closest to pure thought; they require the least amount of mental preparation and as such represent a unique form of honesty when communicating. John Lydon's latest outburst was blown completely out of proportion, I mean is there anyone at all i the entire country who hasn't heard those words at least a thousand times before? A perfect antidote to the sterilised blandness of the BBC's swear-free programming. Take note Eastenders, it's about f****** time you grew up.
Wayne Matthews-Stroud, UK

What a fuss about nothing it all is. Children and swearing? Who are we trying to kid? I learned every swear word I know in the playground of my primary school in a small country town in the north of Scotland, in the late 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, before I reached the age of 10!
Robin Angus, Scotland

Like Boothby (who?) I find it amazing that the public will tolerate despicable scenes of violence, sexual abuse, eroticism etc on TV, but get up in arms about a few swear words. The thing that really baffles me is this intolerance of the 'c-word'. My wife sees it as 'beyond the pail' but could give me no logical reason as to why she finds it more offensive than similar phrases for the same part of the anatomy! My late mother's family regular use the 'c-word' with no more animosity than if they were calling the person 'an idiot', and therefore I personally cannot see what the fuss is about. Given a choice I would allow any language, blue or otherwise, on TV at any time, but ban depictions of violence and sexual activity entirely. What many people see on TV, they then copy in real life : would you rather be sworn at, beaten up, or raped?
Dale Rumbold, Ipswich, England

Fair enough if some people are offended by swearing but I'm sure they'd be more offended if I punched them in the face which is what I usually feel like doing when I swear. Swearing allows you to channel anger into a non physical form of violence and if other people were more tolerant and let the moment pass there would surely be less violence all round?
Tucky, UK

The one thing that infuriates me about swearing on television is the inconsistency. During a documentatary about friendly fire, you have beeps in one place but not in another. On prime-time television you have Ozzy Osborne swearing at 8pm without any editing of, what was obviously, a pre-recorded interview. Films on Satellite are bleeped out for swearing, yet the subtitles for the hard of hearing are not edited. Whilst all this is going on, at 6.30pm on Radio 4 you can hear swearing on the News Quiz and other programmes. Either ignore the social taboos and allow swearing, or edit everything, but for God's sake be consistent.
Geoff, UK

Go on put my FCUKing comments on your damn site this time. You've got me really angry now - most of the comments you post are absolute b*******!
Jules, London

similar to Geoff's comment, i'm always especially annoyed by the use of st*rs in "naughty" words in print. the assumption seems to be that if we can't read all of the letters in the offensive word, it is somehow less offensive. if it is deemed neccessary to use a quotation containing swearing, it should be repeated verbatim, or not at all. the same with "bleeping" on tv broadcasts. either cut the whole sentence, don't censor it at all [which would be preferable], or don't broadcast it until after the watershed
Adam, uk

The problem with swearing strikes me as being not so much a lack of vocabulary as a lack of discretion. To say, as many teenagers are wont to do, "f******" after every few words is simply to reveal to their listeners how often they are thinking about sex. Obviously, as many other commentators suggest, this is best toned down in front of children or people of the opposite sex but when you are among people with whom you are at ease then by all means speak out with whatever language is in your mind.
Colette, UK

I also agree with the Bishop , lets stamp out blasphemy and to hell with that f****** c*** who used to be in the Sex Pistols.
Des, uk

I teach Taboo Language as an English Language lecturer, and the students are perfectly well aware that it is the audience and not the language which makes something taboo. And they become aware that this a fascinating area of linguistics. But for the Bishop to say that language is 'in decline' shows only ignorance. This is an old argument and has always been unfounded. There is as much evidence for that as there is for the existance of god. The really sad bit is that a musician of John Lydon's standard should be reduced to appearing on such a tacky show. And given his track record, what exactly did the programme producers expect?
Jess Roberts, UK

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