Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Swearin' & Cussin'

WARNING: This blog is about swearing. If you're likely to be offended by the discussion of bad language that includes references to specific words, you may not want to read on.

The British swear and curse. Americans cuss. So what's the difference between swearing and cussing? It seems that the same subtle differences that exist elsewhere between British and American English extend to the use of expletives. Thus, although many expletives have the same level of impact in the US as they do in the UK, there are differences.

I don't swear an awful lot, although I have to confess to not being entirely whiter than white on this front. I have noticed that on children's programmes in the US they freely use a word that I would be reticent to utter (w****r). This made me interested in finding out why Americans don't find this word offensive and the British do. Perhaps it means something different in the US?

A quick google search later, and I had found that there are many swearing dictionaries out there, but I couldn't find much in the way of cross-cultural studies (at least not much that was freely available on the web without having to buy a book). I did, however, find this BBC article:
The Origins and Common Usage of British Swear-words. It also has some interesting discussion topics posted that you may want to read.

I thought it might be interesting to compare the severity of words between the UK and US as a guide to what is or is not acceptable. Personally, I consider religious swear words as the most offensive. I think that most British people find these least offensive, but I have fairly strong religious beliefs and am offended by inappropriate use of certain words. Although I don't advocate their use, I find sexual swear words less offensive.

I would also differentiate between swearing generally (e.g. when you let out an expletive because you've dropped a hammer on your foot) and swearing at a person (e.g. the use of a term that accuses a person of having an oedipal relationship with their mother). I consider the verbal denigration of others as being far worse than the former.

My own views aside, I thought I might try and create an American-British comparison scale (see below). As you can see, there aren't many words featured on it because:
  • I wouldn't know where many words would go on each scale.
  • I don't particularly want to go trawling through endless swear words to get an exhaustive list.
Swearing scale: USA cf. UKIt's fairly crude, but hopefully you'll get the gist. It's not very informed, so if you have any insights, let me know. Perhaps I can then create a better version of the scale.


Lorraine said...

I have no brilliant insight except to say that I think Brits get away with using certain words because a)Americans don't necessarily know what they really mean...bloody and bugger spring to mind. Git might be another...I don't even know if it is a swear/curse word...and b) because bad words sound so much better with a British accent.

Lorraine said...

And thanks by the way, for the definition of calling birds. I did want to know and so much prefer just being told than troubling to verify for myself!

crystal said...

I think what Lorraine said is true - a person swearing in a British accent sounds much more genteel.

I'm too dim to know what the W**** word you mentioned is. I've heard British characters on tv call others "wankers" ... is that it?

I have religious beliefs too and I cringe when I hear someone swear "Jesus!"

I think the C word is among the worst, to me, because it sounds masoginistic.

I think one of the most inoffensive to most people here - it's used a lot on tv - is "son of a bitch".

Sorry if anything I wrote here is offensive ... :-)

Viola said...

As I put a warning as to the nature of the discussion at the beginning, I suppose there's no harm in being a little more risque than usual.

So, yes Crystal, you summised correctly what the "W" word is (in UK it's someone who masturbates and is generally considered a rather rude thing to call someone; I'm not sure what it means in the US).

Anonymous said...

Sgt D said:
I think the main difference is that Spams/Septics, or whatever nickname one wishes to use for Americans, tend to attack someone's Mother, with "son-of-a-bitch", or use an implication of incest, as their swearing of choice, often abbreviated to "Mother". This is distasteful to me, despite twenty years as a soldier! I would rather swear at that person , not the parent.

Bugger, on the other hand, is a great word, far less offensive than its heterosexual counterpart! When on exercise in Alabama, we obviously used the word a lot, and the Spams all started copying us, until one of them asked an Irish comrade of mine what exactly it meant. "Well," Rick replied, "butt-fuck" is as near as I can get." They stopped using the word. Curious really. As for "wankers"; the BBC will not show that episode of the Simpsons. What buggers!

Michael said...

Interesting post. I've never heard the expression w****r used in American TV, whether on adult or children's TV. Of course, it does not have the filthy association in the US that it does in the UK, so I might have just missed it!

Its odd that I was struck by how much more "vulgar" British TV seemed to be. Maybe I just heard with American sensibilities what is not so vulgar to the Brits.

For TV obscenities it might be worth noting the difference between the different media. The networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox) would never allow the c-word or f-word. So that stuff doesn't come across on the antennna or aerial. However, some cable channels allow a few of the rougher ones, but as far as I know the f- and c-words are restricted to the more expensive movie channels like HBO, etc. Correct me if I am wrong, but doesn't anything go on late night BBC TV?

Viola said...

I wouldn't say that "anything goes", but all the UK channels tend to adhere to a 9pm watershed. There may be complaints about extreme swear words after the watershed. However, even mild swearing prior to 9pm will raise eyebrows and motivate people to write letters. Most post-watershed complaints are easily batted off with "Well, it was after the watershed." I think that the worst swearing is most likely to occur on late-night, cable/satellite programmes.

Fran (GB) said...

I think a lot depends on how a swear word is used. When used with humour, it is far less offensive, if at all offensive, and can often add greatly to the humour of a comedy programme/film. What about the episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" in the restaurant (Series 3) where every character lets rip - wonderful!

Viola said...

I agree, it was very funny. Other examples I can think of are the opening lines of the film Four Weddings and a Funeral; and Eddie Murphy in the film Beverley Hills Cop. My brothers are also capable of accentuating comedy by well-timed swear words.

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