Focus: What did you say?

Almost any form of swearing goes these days, but we still need taboos

WHEN does the language that dictionaries call "coarse slang" become smooth enough to slip into the oily mainstream of public life? Last week, Gerry Adams told the world - and BBC News - that he felt "pissed off" by the threat of Sinn Fein's exclusion from the Northern Irish peace talks. The heavens failed to fall. This "informal usage which some people find offensive" (Collins) had crept one media-assisted step further in the long march from street to studio. Surely the boundaries of taste have shifted a long way towards tolerance in the generation since Kenneth Tynan said "fuck" in 1965 on television, and Julian Mitchell told Third Programme listeners in 1969 that they had 10 seconds to turn off "the wireless" before he uttered the same word? In fact, that cosy liberal orthodoxy tells far from the whole truth. You might even label it (as Gerald Ratner described his cheapo rings) as "crap".

New research from the Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC) has confirmed what every media type knows in their bones, from tea-boy to DG. Bad language still upsets far more listeners and viewers than shocking content alone. Most adults, reported BSC chairman Elspeth Howe, feel that it "condones or normalises" negative behaviour, especially when children are exposed.

TO television's greatest playwright, the recurrent panic over naughty words served as a useful diversion from controversial themes. At the height of the row over The Singing Detective, Dennis Potter admitted that "it's always good to sprinkle a few 'f---s' around just to keep the dogs off the scent." Potter's biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, points out that the writer - who "used to swear like a football supporter" - cannily exploited the BBC's extreme sensibility. "He would simply tell the press and stir up a public row, which he would end up winning."

Yet the goalposts of offensiveness do move with the times. Fully 70 per cent of the BSC sample took no exception to religious swear words. "Jesus Christ", which would have shocked a Victorian clergyman far more than a volley of obscenities, ranks in 26th place on the BSC hit parade of offensive terms. Even "pissed off", at 15th, manages to piss off rather more people.

This collapse in the impact of holy oaths plays havoc with our understanding of the past. In Gone With the Wind, Clark Gable flings the ultimate Hollywood put-down at Vivien Leigh: "Frankly, my dear, I couldn't give a damn." In a 1939 film of a novel set in the 1860s, the line struck like an earthquake. Now, "damn" comes at the bottom of the BSC list; half don't even consider it as swearing. These days, "hell" hath no fury.

According to lexicographer Jonathan Green, "there must have been a time when if you said 'Slids!' (God's eyelids) it mattered. It was blasphemous. Once the blasphemy went, the bodily functions moved in to replace them." John Florio's dictionary of 1598 calmly cites the F-word without missing a beat. Later,English culture sought to match its French rival for sophistication, and "some sort of actual or psychic language police arrived".

Now, we blunder along in a state of confusion in which old and new codes of language clash. The only constant factor is a narrowing of the gap between formal and informal speech. "The number of people who speak what we think of as formal English has greatly diminished over the past 50 years," comments John Simpson, chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. "A hundred years ago there was one style for the Times and another for the erotic literature of the period." When the Times objected to Eliza Doolittle's "Not bloody likely" in Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, it regretted the loss of a delicious gap between restraint in public and licence in private. Victorian and Edwardian moralists weren't prudes. They just upheld a double standard, in speech as in so much else.

Now that creed of respectability has waned. In its stead comes a creed of respect, in which racial, gender or physical slurs supplant sex or religion as the root of outrage. In the BSC league table, "nigger" ranked 10th, counting as a "very severe" curse for 32 per cent. "Paki" occupied 16th place, but more than a quarter of respondents (and almost a quarter for "nigger") did not count it as at all offensive. A deep gulf divides the enemies of stigma from the brigade of die-hard bigots who couldn't give, well, a f--- about the sensibilities of other people.

When the old standard of respectability and the new standard of respect do coincide, a mighty taboo can still endure. The C-word - insulting under both codes - tops the BSC list. Yet even this word's power to shock has deepened over time. Jonathan Green has unearthed a reference from 1235 to a London brothel street. It was popularly known as Great C--- Lane.

Attitude as well as period can change a word's aura. The process that you might call militant reclamation means that "queer" appears on academic letterheads. Only the crustiest don would now bat an eyelid at the professor of queer studies. Then, of course, there's the endlessly vexatious case of the N-word itself.

Quentin Tarantino's new film Jackie Brown contains more than 20 "niggers", mostly spoken by the bumbling black gangster played by Samuel L Jackson. The word has never vanished from Black American English, but Spike Lee and other critics have censured its use by a white film-maker. At a preview screening of Jackie Brown in Brixton, Jackson championed his director, who "doesn't have a mean bone in his body". Explaining that he had embroidered Tarantino's script with more N-words than it first had ("I said it more than he wrote it"), Jackson attacked Lee as "a self-appointed spokesman for the race". The largely black audience clapped him and heckled the sole hostile questioner.

So art triumphs over the unrepresentative PC police? It's not quite that simple. Underneath his jive-talking bluster, Jackson's character despises himself and aspires to a "white" lifestyle. The N-word voices his self- hatred. This all makes fine dramatic sense, but it's not remotely meant to be a neutral, let alone a positive, usage. Without the persisting taboo, the meaning would vanish.

HERE'S the crux of the debate. Taboo confers a magic or demonic energy that can give a word a huge artistic or polemical kick. Preface every noun with "f---ing" - the British Unit of Excess as some wag called it - and the word merely loses any bite. Bring today's worst word into polite speech, and the lubricious jolt behind Hamlet's sly phrase "country matters" will be lost forever. D H Law- rence sought to make the English four-letter vocabulary sacred rather than savage - but he still aimed to keep it special.

The choice to use or to suppress "bad words" can shape judgment in unexpected ways. In the same year that Richard Nixon deleted all his expletives from the Watergate tapes, Philip Larkin secured his place among the best-loved English classics. How? By informing readers that "They f--- you up, your mum and dad..." A concern for "respectable" speech damned the politician, but its sudden absence helped to sanctify the poet.

Confusing? So is the culture that bred these contradictions. The rules of the language game change almost by the day. Meanwhile, as Mo Mowlam ponders Gerry Adams' fate, she might recall what another US president, Lyndon Johnson, said about J Edgar Hoover. He found the FBI chief a bully and a bore, but it was still "better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in". Exactly.

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