Shiiiiiit: The how and why of swearing in TV series

This is a guest post by Monika Bednarek, a linguist who has extensively analyzed US TV series. She is the author of Language and Television Series and the editor of Creating Dialogue for TV, a collection of interviews with Hollywood screenwriters. She has created a companion website at www.syd-tv.com and tweets at @corpusling.

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The use of swear words in US TV series attracts a lot of attention. There are those who revel in creating mash-ups of swearing, and there are those who monitor and oppose swearing (like the Parents Television Council). Rules by the Federal Communications Commission restrict the broadcasting of profane and indecent speech to the evening and night and forbid obscene speech. But these rules don’t apply to subscription-based television such as cable or streaming services. Elsewhere I’ve looked at how frequent swearing is, but here I want to approach swearing a little differently. Basically, what I’m asking is: How do TV series use swear words? And what are their functions?

Let’s start with the first question. Most TV series do seem to use at least one swear word, especially if expressions such as oh my god are counted. But there are a lot of different ways in which TV series can handle swears. I’ve tried to catalogue some of these below.

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Boobs vs. tits: a first look

When you don’t call breasts breasts, are you more likely to call them boobs or tits?

Let’s take it as a given that you are more likely to talk of them at all if you are a male novelist. That’s intuitively obvious (at least to me, and to many others) and has lately been much remarked on. To the annoyance of many women, breasts are sexualized in the male gaze in our society (but by no means in all societies; some find the idea frankly silly). So men, and notably horndog novelists, are apt to talk about them. But…

…here’s the thing. When women talk about how tiresome this is, I have been struck by how often they use the word boobs.

I’m not going to say guys never use the word boobs, because that’s not true, but my experience is that if you see the word boobs, it’s probably written by a woman. Guys talk about tits, hooters, jugs, cleavage, a nice rack, and, of course, breasts, but my impression has long been that boobs is a word that skews strongly to female authors (let’s be scientific and call this hypothesis 1), while tits, on the other hand, is a word male authors are more likely to use (hypothesis 2).

So I decided to check this out with a little corpus research. Continue reading

‘A pee’ vs. ‘a wee’ and the subtleties of translation in Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar

I recently read Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar, translated into English from the original Swedish. It was a perfectly Scandinavian murder mystery, and for the majority of the book I did not notice it was a work in translation. There was one thing that kept tripping me up as I read:

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Collocations of ‘cock’: What corpus linguistics tells us about porn writing

This is a guest post by Orin Hargraves, an independent lexicographer, language researcher, and past president of the Dictionary Society of North America. Orin is the author of several language reference books, including It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés (Oxford) and Slang Rules!: A Practical Guide for English Learners (Merriam-Webster).

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A few years ago I wrote about how collocations in fiction skew the statistics of collocations in a corpus because of their extremely frequent use; Ben Zimmer expanded on the idea in a later New York Times piece. In summary, the point is that a number of collocations would not be statistically significant were it not for their appearance in fiction. This is because writers of fiction—particularly writers of the amateur, unedited fiction that appears online—tend to reuse the same tropes and phrases so much that these effectively become clichés, formulaic ways of expressing the same (rather tired) ideas and events.

All of that came to light when I was working with the Oxford English Corpus, a well balanced and carefully curated corpus that, at the time, had about two billion words of English. These days I’m working with the enTenTen13 corpus, a web-crawled corpus of nearly 20 billion words, owned and made available by Sketch Engine. Sketch Engine’s web-crawler roves the Internet indiscriminately, pulling text from wherever it can be found. Like some grandmother aghast in Greenville, the web-crawler regularly comes upon sites with pornographic content. The difference between the grandmother and the web-crawler is that while she may avert her gaze in shock and dismay, the web-crawler grabs the text, parses and tags it, and adds it to the corpus. The result is that enTenTen13 houses a steaming, pulsating trove of pornographic writing.

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