Fuck, shit, bollocks, twat, bloody, and cunt are not the seven words you can never say on television – they’re six words that Susie Dent has said on television. Susie Dent’s Guide to Swearing, a new mini-series from Channel 4, offers an informative and irreverent summary of the history and use of some of our favourite bad words. You can watch the full series below.
A word-history specialist and broadcaster, Dent has written several books on language, most recently Dent’s Modern Tribes. She is best known as the resident lexicographer in ‘dictionary corner’ on Countdown, a perennially popular British TV game show. We can’t not mention that Countdown inadvertently produces the odd rude word to great general amusement.
Though she went to a convent school and was not allowed to swear at home (aside from an occasional bloody that ‘managed to fly below the radar’), Dent tells me she didn’t rebel into foulmouthedness. She loves swear words but doesn’t swear often – except at moments of stress or pain, when it ‘most definitely helps’. There’s a word for that:
This is a guest post by Michael Adams, Professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington, past president of the Dictionary Society of North America, and author of several books on language. Michael previously wrote here about Donald Trump’s swearing, and will be joining Strong Language as a contributor in the coming months.
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In a recent review of my book, In Praise of Profanity, on Strong Language, Stan Carey notes that I’m guilty of an “occasional lapse, such as the Americocentric suggestion that it’s ‘hard to imagine’ when the word cunt isn’t face-threatening — it quite often isn’t in Australia, Ireland, and parts of the UK, particularly Scotland.” Our language attitudes tether us to a time and place, and I must own my parochialism.
As if parochialism weren’t bad enough, I may have been wrong about the American status of cunt, too. I’ve come across evidence of cunt’s re-appropriation as a term of endearment — not unalloyed BFF endearment but a grudging, competitive willingness to get along well supported by a word all the riskier because it’s used in unfriendly ways against women.
We’ve featured swearing montages from video games; now here’s one from TV.
Even if you’ve never seen Sharpe (I haven’t), that won’t stop you enjoying Sean Bean uttering oaths from it non-stop for 7½ minutes – mostly bastard, bloody, bugger and damn, with crap, arse, piss, prick and twat entering the fray near the end and culminating in this mighty outburst:
What an idiot. What a dirty little Dutch buffle-brained bastard. I’ll ram his poxed crown up his royal poxed arse. The blue-blooded twat.
New Zealand comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, consisting of Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, had a two-season TV series in 2007–09 full of inspired parody and goofy adventures. The show’s language is generally mild or euphemised:
So when truly strong language is called for, it’s a big deal. Here, mild-mannered and long-suffering band manager Murray Hewitt finally loses his patience:
An unlikely swearword hit the headlines twice in recent days, thanks to its use on mainstream television from two prominent figures. In the first clip below, celebrity journalist Piers Morgan uses bollock as a transitive verb (meaning ‘scold, reprimand’) on the ITV chat show Good Morning Britain:
The phrase ‘whether he’s praising them or bollocking them’ is in reference to letters Prince Charles wrote to his sons William and Harry and the difficulty they sometimes had in deciphering his handwriting.
Presenter Susanna Reid immediately told Morgan to ‘excuse your language’, and after expressing surprise (‘Can you not say that?!’) he quickly apologised to viewers. Bollock and its derivatives are milder than prototypical swearwords like fuck but much ruder than synonyms like reprimand, roast and reproach. After all, bollocks refers chiefly to testicles.