How ‘sweary’ do swearwords need to be?


When I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, I was brought up not to swear. If my mum had heard me uttering the ‘f’ word, I’d have been lamped and send to the naughty step.

I once remember using the word ‘prat’ and being roundly chastised, not knowing that it wasn’t just a word for an idiot, but also someone’s arse. Wash my mouth out with soap.

But as society has evolved, the ability of swearwords to cause offence has become far more difficult. My 77-year-old mum went to an adult pantomime this week – I can’t imagine for a second imagine it wasn’t full of cussing.

There is, however, one area of the UK establishment where swearing is still frowned upon. That’s the BBC. Yes, the last bastion of prudishness, where apologies are issued for any expletive within seconds.

Case in point: The Media Show. On one episode of the Radio 4 show I heard just before Christmas, a contributor dared to say the word ‘shitty’.

As is typical, the presenter (Ros Atkins) quickly issued an apology if anyone had taken offence, and the conversation moved on. But it made me think, is ‘shitty’ really that offensive?

The BBC has Editorial guidelines on language, available for all to download. It’s an entertaining read in one sense, because someone has had to write down justifications for which words are and aren’t offensive in different cases.

There are examples of words that are ‘likely to cause offence’, which I broadly agree with. Not because I’m a prude, but mainly because I don’t expect a guest on The One Show to liberally use the word ‘cocksucker’. I mean, call me weird, but…

But then there’s this paragraph below, that seems more relevant to the use of ‘shitty’.

Language that can cause mild offence includes crap, knob, prat, tart etc. These terms are unlikely to cause widespread offence when set against generally accepted standards if they are used sparingly and on their own. However, they should not be used indiscriminately.

In other words, they’re OK. Especially if their use is merely what you’d expect from a particular contributor.

Ofcom reflected this in 2020. This article from The Guardian reports that ‘swearing on air is no longer offensive to the British public’.

So, it seems to me, in terms of the instance I mentioned above that presenters like Atkins are in a no-win situation. If he didn’t issue the apology, he’d have been taken to task, but realistically no-one is likely to complain (or possibly even notice!)

So, aside from terms that target specific groups or are liable to incite hatred, are there any words that would cause offence to you?

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