Comparative swearing and the regulation of language

I’ve lived in Britain for fourteen years, but you (or at least I) don’t stop being an outsider just because time’s passed. What I’m working toward telling you is that after all those years and in spite of heroic efforts, I still don’t know–never mind use–all Britain’s available swear words. 

Back in 2016, the Independent offered help to people like me, reporting that Ofcom, Britain’s communications regulator, interviewed 200 people about what they found offensive and then sorted the words into 3.2 categories, mild, medium, and strong, with a small subset of very strong.

If the list was published in 2016, it’s not exactly news, but I just found it and I’d bet a batch of brownies that not a lot of you will have seen it either. 

If you took that bet, you can either fax me a batch or send them as an attachment.

Irrelevant photo: I don’t remember what this one’s called. It’s a flower. It’s blue.

Ofcom isn’t necessarily recommending the words to us, just thinking through what can be used on the air when. 

It defines mild swear words as words that are okay to use around kids, so they’re not banned before 9 pm, when a great national gong sounds and all the kiddies are chased to bed lest they hear something terrible. 

The moderate words might or might not be acceptable before 9. That’s not a whole lot of guidance if you’re the person who’ll catch hell for making a provocative decision, but on the other hand it allows you all the wiggle room you could want. 

The strong words can be used only around people who stay awake after 9 pm, which some nights leaves me to provide my own damn swear words. 

What Ofcom was doing, I gather, was updating its list and checking it against the latest cultural shifts. If you want the full list, you’ll have to follow the link, but I’ll give you a few highlights:

In the mild category, I found ginger. That’s what they call redheads here, and I do know that the culture has a thing about redheads, although I don’t know why. My best guess is that it has something to do with Norman (or Anglo-Saxon–what do I know?) dominance over the Celts, who cling stubbornly to their habit of producing redheads. A culture’s dominant group always finds reasons to look down on the people they’re dominating. So ginger as an insult? Yup, there we go again.

But let’s be clear, I’m putting together two bits of information that may not want anything to do with each other. Take my explanation with a grain of salt. Or a full teaspoon.

What other insults are mild? Damn. Sod off. God. Cow. Arse. 

I’ll stop here so I can explain, for the sake of anyone who isn’t British, that the cow on that list isn’t an animal in a field that says “moo.” It’s an insult applied to a woman–especially, Lord Google tells me, one who’s stupid or unkind. It also falls into the category (I think–remember, I’m an outsider here) of mild or everyday sexism, although it’s used by both men and women.

The “I think” in that last sentence is only about the idea that it’s mild, not that it’s sexist. There’s always a way to insult you if you belong to the nondominant group.

As for arse, it’s the part of your anatomy that you sit on. Why it has an R when the one that Americans sit on is R-less and generally spelled differently I don’t know. Possibly to distinguish it from an animal that stands in a field, is able to carry burdens or pull things, and isn’t a horse, although Americans use the same word for both and for the most part know which one they’re talking about.

When I came to the medium-strength list, I started finding words I don’t recognize: bint, for example, and munter.

On the strong list, I found beef curtains, bloodclaat, flaps, punani, and clunge. The internet being what it is, I could look them all up, but I suspect I’ll enjoy them more if I don’t. And I don’t need to know. The reason I haven’t heard them isn’t because my friends don’t swear (although, now that I think about it, not many of them swear as much as I do) but because they don’t swear with these particular words. Maybe the words are falling out of use and maybe (medium range or not) they’re disgusting, so my friends are boycotting them. 

We’ll leave that as just one more mysterious thing about Britain. 

In the U.S., it’s the Federal Communications Commission that decides what’s allowed on the airwaves. Back in prehistory, I hosted a radio call-in show and we worked with a list of seven words that would break the airwaves if we said them, and before we went on the air I recited them sweetly so guests would know what to not say. 

Okay, not sweetly. I never could do sweetly and I never much wanted to. I recited an unemotional and absurd string of forbidden words. But it wasn’t an official list. The FCC never supplied us (or anyone else) with one. We were relying on comedian George Carlin’s 1972 list of seven words that you couldn’t say on TV. It didn’t have FCC approval, but it was as good as anything else. 

After a while I could only remember five. And I’m not sure they were the same five each time. I could’ve substituted a couple of random choices, but five was enough to sketch out the territory. We were working on a seven-second delay and I never had to bleep any a guest, although I did bleep a caller or three.

The FCC, like Ofcom, sorts what you can’t say into three categories, but they’re not the same three (or three point two). “Obscene content,” the FCC website says, “does not have protection by the First Amendment. [That’s the U.S. Constitutional amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech.] For content to be ruled obscene, it must meet a three-pronged test established by the Supreme Court: It must appeal to an average person’s prurient interest; depict or describe sexual conduct in a ‘patently offensive’ way; and, taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

You want to know this stuff, right?

Indecent content portrays sexual or excretory organs or activities in a way that is patently offensive but does not meet the three-prong test for obscenity.

“Profane content includes ‘grossly offensive’ language that is considered a public nuisance. . .  .”

There’s something inherently absurd about sitting down to sort this stuff into boxes, isn’t there?

Sorry. I’ll shut up and let the FCC finish.

“Broadcasting obscene content is prohibited by law at all times of the day. Indecent and profane content are prohibited on broadcast TV and radio between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience.”

What we learn from this is that American kids stay up later than British kids.

But how do you figure out what word goes in which box?

“Determining what obscene, indecent and profane mean can be difficult, depending on who you talk to,” the website admits. 

“In the Supreme Court’s 1964 landmark case on obscenity and pornography, Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote: ‘I know it when I see it.’ That case still influences FCC rules today, and complaints from the public about broadcasting objectionable content drive the enforcement of those rules.”

Then they run out of the room and leave you to figure out what you’re going to do.

When I was hosting the radio show, websites didn’t exist. No one handed me FCC guidelines and I didn’t think to search them out. George Carlin was as accurate as anything that came to hand, and having read the guidelines I’d say he probably still is.


If you’ve been around here a while, you will have figured out that I don’t offer advice on relationships, weight, or money, which are the only three things people truly want advice on. I don’t assume you’re trying to improve yourself and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t help if you were. But I’m about to give you one bit of advice on a topic that no one asks about: swearing. Here it is: Don’t use swear words you don’t understand. It won’t end well. 

If you have to look one up, if you can’t hear all its echoes and implications, you don’t understand it.

In fact–more advice coming–don’t use non-swear words you don’t understand. A philosophy professor once told me about a student paper that read, “When we consider the obesity of the universe, we know there must be a god.”

You won’t find me calling anyone a clunge. I’m not even sure it’s a noun.

119 thoughts on “Comparative swearing and the regulation of language

  1. I cuss more these days than I used to.Perhaps my tolerance has shrunk? Or I’m annoyed by more things?
    I’ll just offer one thought…the word ‘ginger’ might be offensive these days as it’s from old rhyming slang for ‘homosexual.’ Ginger beer= queer, see?

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Red haired kids get a lot of abuse in the UK. My brother has red hair and wore a baseball hat a lot when he was younger because of the abuses he got (my family have a lot of Scottish/Welsh/Irish genes mixed in with the “English” ones). When I was a teacher I made a point of saying how much I liked red hair to the kids that I taught. I explained that anti-red hair remarks were a) bullying b) a form of racism against Welsh/Irish/Scots by the largely non-red haired English . I was pleased to note that one young chap, who used to dye his red hair black, let the dye grow out after I had encouraged him to be proud of his celtic heritage. I always think that non red-haired people look positvely dull and boring in comparison with glorious red hair! My brother’s daughter has beautiful long red hair, btw!

    Liked by 6 people

    • I’ve always thought red hair (and black hair) is stunning, and it has such a great range of shades. I’m glad (in a grumpy sort of way) to see you confirm my guess about the reasons for the grief redheads get in this country. I don’t remember hearing any of that in the US, although a phrase about getting treated like a red-headed stepchild did survive. Until I moved here, I couldn’t make any sense of the red-headed part of it, although I tried several unconvincing explanations.

      Liked by 2 people

      • People can be absolutely vile about red heads calling them “ginger mingers” etc. It’s the last bastion of the bullies (along with overweight people). I think there may be an element of half forgotten anti-Catholic sentiment in there too. I suspect that in the US that red hair is admired, possibly BECAUSE it denotes celtic heritage, maybe. There was a wonderful character in Game of Thrones with firey red hair and shaggy red beard (I cant remember his nme, he’s a Scandinavian actor).

        Liked by 3 people

  3. I also thought of Tim Minchin. My family’s Celtic heritage is shown by redheads in alternative generations. It skipped my generation, but I inherited enough of the gene to go white prematurely.

    When I was living in Germany, I took a magazine designed to help foreigners learn German. One month it contained a guide to German swear words, not because it thought its readers would use them, but because it wanted them to know how offensive they were if they came across them.

    I don’t know what most of the words you’ve used as illustrations mean, but I was surprised by one of the words in the mild list, which I consider to be rather strong. I hardly swear at all and, when I do it’s with some of the words identified as mild, but I would never use that one.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I know the meaning of most (quite possibly all) of the offensive terms you included in your post. Possibly because I work in a secondary school or possibly because I am a reprobate. I don’t use any of them so we’ll go with the former explanation although I do use some other quite bad words quite a lot of the time so I’m probably still a reprobate. Anyway, just to confirm, that last word is a noun.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. My mother was a red head who did not go prematurely grey (gray). Her second husband usually referred to her affectionately as ‘Ginger’. Not sure how relevant this is, except to say that it is impossible to understand what some people find offensive or why. Have you ever watched “Mrs Brown’s Boys?” It makes a great play on the Irish tendency to use variations of a certain word beginning with the letter F.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. There was only one of those words that I didn’t recognise – do I win a prize for my knowledge? As for using them, those words are in the ‘strong’ category for a reason: use one in Mrs Ecclescake’s genteel tea rooms and you’d be barred for life 😉

    Liked by 4 people

  7. The fact that an official body defines what I should or should not find offensive irritates the heck out of me (am I allowed to say that?). Language is colourful and expressive (including swear words). That doesn’t mean we should use them in every sentence, but each will have its appropriate time and place and what we see on TV should reflect that. We live in a real world…

    Liked by 4 people

    • Around here, you’re allowed to say pretty much anything. I draw the line only at racism, sexism, and general ass-holery.

      Hosting a radio show left me with an awareness that someone will want to draw lines about what can be said when. I won’t argue that it’s necessary or good, but it does seem (in our culture, anyway) inevitable. And also very funny–all those people who don’t like naughty words primly categorizing them. We do live in a real world, you’re right, and if people didn’t use the words they wouldn’t be available to ban.


  8. I think clunge is a noun… not one I have ever used though.

    I read once that Joss Weadon got extra swear words into Buffy the Vampire Slayer because they were said by a British character. He got Bloody Hell and Wanker in reasonably often as they didn’t get picked up by the American censors 😁

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Fourteen years? Wow, that’s a long time.

    As for swearing, well, of course I swear. I’m a Serb and we swear A LOT. Like you wouldn’t believe. Germans on the other hand, have a very rich language but when it comes to cursing, it’s almost non existent. A couple swear words and that’s it. I guess they are not often pissed.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Potter Stewart – now that was a name that rang no bell for me so thank you for dropping his name among your swear words. I think I caught Potter at an awkward age for American textbooks. He was sworn in when I was 12 so maybe the historians hadn’t rushed to add his name to the history books by the time I graduated from high school.
    Well, I have determined to continue my good mood from the Democratic Convention this week. I am basking in good will so I will wish you and Ida a wonderful weekend across the pond.
    May the road rise to meet you, etc.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Apropos your career in radio, not so much about swear words but about avoiding libel suits. Our journalists have invented a number of euphemisms that everybody’s in on. They include ‘The Member for Yackandanda appeared tired and emotional in the House last night (he was as drunk as a skunk)) and ‘the colourful racing identity, Joe Bloggs’ (well known underworld figure).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Which works as long as people know what’s meant, but not so well that it’ll hold up in court. As for me, I wasn’t really a journalist. All I did was set up a discussion, between two sides if it was a controversial issue, and then play referee. Nobody sued, but if they were going to, I wasn’t the one who they’d go after.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I’ve read that “bloody” is a really terrible thing to say and we Former Colonials don’t understand that, but I see it isn’t rated all that terrible on the official list. I also notice blogs from the UK use “shite” quite a lot, and at least one blog from Germany has no hesitation using “fuck” rather casually. (once they iced it on a cake).

    However, as our election nears, I appreciate a new (to me) more comprehensive selection to choose from.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ah, yes, flexibility is always good. So’s a wide range. But bloody–as far as this outsider can tell–is pretty mild. In the current political situation, I recommend the medium or strong list.


  13. I’ve mostly heard (and very occasionally used) ‘cow’ applied to women by women, and its almost always spoken with a sense of disdain. Very rarely heard it said by men. It just means ‘obnoxious’ or someone who has behaved too badly to be acceptable. As for Ginger (sometimes shortened to ‘ginge’), I don’t know about now, but in the 60s and 70s, I think it was mostly used because of the complexion rather than the colour of the hair – rather pink or pale. But isn’t that the way of human beings – many do like to single people out if they seem even remotely different.

    My range of swear words includes some of those you mentioned, but there are a lot I don’t know (and won’t use). Mostly I use a combination of words. My fave? Fuck pig bollocks, with the emphasis unusually on the ‘pig’. I mostly use it when I’m cooking, so you can imagine what eating one of my meals might be like!

    And aside: my blog (the colouring one) is going to be private for a week or more from tomorrow, just in case you pop by and wonder what’s happened! I might comment in the meantime from one of my other (two) blogs.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. First, I have to tell you my favorite 2nd-grade “swearing story” in my class. One child came in after recess and claimed another student had used the “s” word. She was adamant and an honest child so I assumed it probably happened. The other child, upon hearing this report, was equally adamant she had not. I wouldn’t have put it past that girl to use such language, but she had also never lied to me before. Somewhere in the process, I realized that both children thought the “s” word was something different. I asked the first one to tell me exactly what she heard. It was obvious to me that she felt uncomfortable saying the word aloud, so I called her outside so that she could tell me what the “s” word was. She looks at me suspiciously, wondering if her teacher is actually giving her permission to swear. She sheepishly said, “She told me to SHUT UP!” Do you know how hard it was for me to keep a straight face?

    I don’t know how long you’ve lived across the pond, and I’m willing to bet you’ve heard George Carlin before. If not, check this out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great story, and a warning to all parents who think they can deal with all the issues around swearing by reducing the words to single letters. When our godkids were little (I wasn’t what you’d call a model godparent, especially if you take the religious element of it seriously, although I do think we did more good than harm) I taught them a song that ends, “And the goddamn pig got up and walked away.” Why not? My mother taught it to me at about the same age. It gave them permission to swear. We had a car trip where I seem to remember singing it over and over and over.

      I’ve lived a Carlin-free live up to now, although I have heard of him, and I’m not a real fan of videos. Will you forgive me if I smile vaguely and pretend I watched this one?

      Liked by 1 person

  15. “Bint” and “munter” (it won’t surprise you to hear) are yet more derogatory words for women. I don’t know where “munter” comes from, but as I understand it is used for someone unattractive (for whatever reason). “Bint” is from soldiers’ Arabic (picked up in one or other military adventure in the Middle East, from the naming convention = “daughter of”), and usually implies someone not taken seriously (as in “daft bint”), though it strikes me as dated now.

    On the other hand, while you quote assorted crudities for the female anatomy, the (to me) really beyond the pale word for it is used almost exclusively against a man considered despicable in some way (I believe that may be different in the US?). As I recall, it caused a certain stir when (I think for the first time on mainstream TV) it appeared to some shock in a biographical drama about the prewar Fascist leader Mosley, used to Mosley by a prison officer when he was interned during the war.

    Oddly, though, the word “twat”, though it means exactly the same thing, is a much milder sort of insult (possibly because it sounds like “twit”), about the same in emotional force as the French “con”.

    Back to “ginger”: the famously redhaired Catherine Tate did a whole skit on gingerphobia on her TV show:

    Stephen Fry did a whole documentary about swearing, which included an almost operatic example from Brian Blessed, that can be found on Youtube.

    Liked by 2 people

    • What I find weird and fascinating and oddly endearing (I’m not going to try to justify that) about British swearing is that you use both twat and cunt as insults for men. I don’t think it’s supposed to lower the insults-against-women level, but in some odd way, for me, it does.

      No doubt I’ve misunderstood everything.


  16. Hi Ellen, I love this post! I find I swear more as I get older. Or perhaps it’s not related to me getting older, but related to the amount of shit the world’s throwing at us on a regular basis. I remember many years ago, my 6 year old daughter’s daycare told me that she’d said the ‘F’ word that day. I was so embarrassed! I used that word a lot at home at the time, but she’d never repeated it within hearing distance of me.
    The funny thing about swearing is when it’s in another language. Once when my husband said a ‘bad’ word in French, in front of a friend’s young daughter, the friend wasn’t too pleased about it. But to me, this word was so beautiful! It’s French, anything French has to be ok to say and to hear – for all ages! And living in Russia I learnt some swear words which just sounded like, well, random sounds that didn’t seem offensive at all. I used to wonder why people got so upset when they heard them! :-)

    Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Ellen, I don’t actually do the swearing in other languages, I just hear it. I don’t think we could ever ‘feel’ the meaning of swear words in other languages, even with a ‘direct’ translation – they can never give the emotion of the word. I’m yet to learn Bulgarian swear words, but I’m sure that will come with time. :-)

        Liked by 1 person

  17. We subscribe to a TV channel called BritBox, which naturally you don’t need over there, and sometimes I hear new words – including swear words – and look at the husband quizzically until he supplies me with the meaning. He’s my walking dictionary of British (cuss) words. (And other times the dialects are so thick I only catch 20% of the entire dialogue. Love “Shetland,” for example, but it involves a lot of “Honey, what did s/he just say? I didn’t catch a single word.”)

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I am a redhead and still am, at 73. I was called carrot top and red as a child and every horrid fact about redheads and tempers was always around. But it is a defining quality and I’m glad I am a redhead. My three sisters are, blonde, brunette and auburn. My husband’s grandmother was very disappointed we had no red haired children😀. The swearing I can relate to and as I now live alone, am free to let it out whenever. My favorite I’ve heard on tv is, Holy mother of god. Just seems (un) appropriate at times.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I love your post. Carlin was a genius. In addition to his 7-words bit, he loved to play with words in general. I remember his line “you can prick your finger but don’t finger your prick.” I lived outside of Chicago in the 80s and would drive to work listening to an AM radio show by Steve Dahl. He was another comic natural who would occasionally taunt the FDC by describing the most salacious acts, using only words deemed acceptable. The U.K. list, divided into three categories, seems like governmental folly to me. But, I’m glad you’ve shared some examples. I never knew what a ginger was until I heard Tim Minchin’s song “Only a Ginger Can Call Another Ginger, Ginger”. Check it out if you haven’t heard it. Thanks again for provoking some amusing memories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is something wildly funny about bureaucrats primly listing the words that can’t be said on air–which, of course, means writing them. And surely discussing them. Who could resist taunting them?

      The whole ginger thing is still foreign enough to me that I have an impulse to ask if people are serious about it. There’s no accounting for people’s prejudices. Once they’re built in, they take on enough force that they seem almost inevitable.

      Liked by 1 person

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