© David McAllister

For pete’s sake: the slow decline of British swearing

It turns out taboo just ain’t what it used to be
October 3, 2021

By crunching a giant database of transcripts of informal British conversations, Robbie Love at Aston University has unearthed striking shifts in how we swear. Between the 1990s and the 2010s, we profaned less overall. But quintessentially British curses—like “bloody” and “bugger”—really plunged in use, superseded by transatlantic expletives like “shit.” The old Anglo-American favourite, “fuck,” actually got fractionally less common, but by more or less holding steady it was still able to knock “bloody” off the number one spot.

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The changes go beyond which obscenities are used, to who is using them. While once the working classes were far more sweary than the supposedly mild-mannered middle classes, today the two groups are practically even. A similar story is true of gender: while men still swear more than women, the disparity is greatly reduced.

The one stubborn disparity in our swearing habits—and even this has got a little less sharp—is that between age groups. Young people still swear the most, with the amount of swear words dropping off once people leave their 20s. Perhaps that decline is down to the beginning of family life—and a desire not to hear foul talk pour forth from the mouths of innocent babes. At least some attitudes about profanities are perennial.

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