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.

Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Environment
People are buying increasing numbers of plants such as lavender to aid the insects
environmentGardeners rally round the endangered bumblebee
Sport
Australia's Dylan Tombides competes for the ball with Adal Matar of Kuwait during the AFC U-22 Championship Group C match in January
sportDylan Tombides was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
musicBest exclusives coming to an independent record shop near you this Record Store Day
News
Ida Beate Loken has been living at the foot of a mountain since May
newsNorwegian gives up home comforts for a cave
Extras
indybest10 best gardening gloves
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
Arts & Entertainment
Comedian Lenny Henry is calling for more regulation to support ethnic actors on TV
tvActor and comedian leads campaign against 'lack of diversity' in British television
News
Posted at the end of March, this tweeted photo was a week off the end of their Broadway shows
people
News
peopleStar to remain in hospital for up to 27 days to get over allergic reaction
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Apprentice IT Technician

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

    1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

    £153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

    1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

    Sales Associate Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit