Research shows that people are less and less bothered by swearwords—instead, it's slurs that are most likely to cause offence. Is it time us Brits (and the Americans watching our TV shows) got over our problem with swearing?by Grace Holliday / August 5, 2019 / Leave a comment
Stormzy, the 26-year-old, multiple-award-winning Grime artist and rapper, is officially a purveyor of a luxurious skincare routine. Or at least, that’s the fun fact I think he’s sharing in his latest No1 single ‘Vossi Bop.’ After a busy day taking another man’s girlfriend to a coffee shop, and something to do with his bedsheets (scrapping with a slightly-too-small bottom sheet, I bet), he likes to ‘”finish with a facial.”
I learnt this tidbit of celebrity knowledge on the family-friendly BBC Radio 1’s Breakfast show, along with the ineffable Gregg James and his legions of young fans. But it got me to wondering. How many spritely seven-year-olds have sung along in the backseat of their parent’s Honda that they too love to finish—what? Scouts?—with a facial?
From one illustrious British institution to another: Salford City Council. On Wednesday, in a turn of events straight from the pages of a Thick Of It remake, they decided to scrap the swearing ban that has amused residents and visitors of Salford Quays, in Manchester, since 2016.
Funnily enough, Salford Quay is home to the offices of BBC North. In other words, up until last week, if you stubbed your toe in their reception, barking “fuck” could have theoretically landed you a £1,000 on-the-spot fine. Declaring your love for an invasive sexual act frequently advertised by the predominantly misogynistic porn industry, however? Knock yourself out.
Last year, researchers from the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) found that nearly a third of Americans found “British profanities” as so offensive that they’d rather them bleeped out of their movie, TV and music diet. 60 per cent rejected “fuck,” while nearly 50 per cent rejected “damn” and 30 per cent said ”oh goodness gracious me no!” (or whatever the American equivalent is) to the word “dick.”
We’ve found ourselves at a place where the utterance of some four-letter words is regarded as unconscionable, yet blatant reference to graphic sexual acts and deeds are suitable listening material on morning side. It’s not just Stormzy that producers are failing to bleep out. Ariana ‘Grande’s “Side to Side” has been played regularly, and includes the lyrics “I’ve been here all night, ‘I’ve been here all day, and boy ‘you’ve got me walking side to side.”
Yet a quick poll on my Instagram, populated almost exclusively by those in their 20s, found that 100 per cent of my followers swear. Of these, 75 per cent say they do so “lots,” while the remaining 25 per cent do so “occasionally.”
A YouGov survey found that only 6 per cent of 18-24-year-olds thought the word “fuck” should never be used on TV, as opposed to 62 per cent of those 60+. The irony is, it’s my friends and I who have been dodging the “snowflake” bullet for years. Surely the crown for those “most likely to take offence” has to go to people who issue dismayed tuts at their TV screens.
Undoubtedly, some offence comes not from the word itself, but its derivation. My 64-year-old mother, for example, won’t use the particularly vulgar words linked to the vagina. Meanwhile, my 66-year-old Dad doesn’t accept any swear words. As a child, even crap, bloody and damn were banned in my home. So too was the term gob-smacked. Not because it’s swear-y—just because he found it to be an ugly term for which far more agreeable alternatives were readily available. Are you shocked? Because that’s all I ever was.
It’s seems then that two language trends are actively intertwining. Younger generations, research suggests, are worrying far less about swears and far more about slurs. The kind of homophobic, racist and ableist words your Grandad’s weird friend slings around at the dining table are far less acceptable to people of a younger demographic. Rather than some abstract notion of profanity, the focus is now on words drenched in a history of cruelty and intent to harm. And rightly so.
If we’re going to readjust our attitude towards the use of words, acts, slurs and phrases, swear words should go to the back of the queue. Sexually graphic song lyrics played when masses of children can hear should be shunted to the front, along with racial, ableist and homophobic terms still regularly used. I can’t count the number of times I’ve bleated “the word caste means purity, so half-caste implies that a person is half pure and so half worthy of respect. Say mixed-race or dual heritage” at the blank faces of my (white) friend’s parents.
Salford Council is right; swear words shouldn’t be banned. Neither should sexual references in songs, on TV or in movies. But there is a time and a place for both.
It’s careful and clear explanations, in layman’s terms, of the etymology and subsequent meaning of words that are genuinely steeped in offence that society needs. Along with, perhaps, someone a little more trigger-happy on the Radio 1 bleep button. Stormzy and Grande are of course free to sing whatever they want, but children shouldn’t be blithely singing about having so much sex they can’t walk properly.
But—as long as there are no kids around—we should all be allowed to turn the air blue with our favourite expletives when a toe gets stubbed. That shit hurts.