Web Exclusive: The ‘Badness’ of Bad Language


One of my favourite films of all time is The Big Lebowski. There’s one scene which I feel sums up a lot of my social interactions: the film’s narrator, a mysterious cowboy known as The Stranger, is having a discussion at a bar with our laid-back protagonist, The Dude. The Stranger asks, “do you have to use so many cuss words?” to which The Dude replies “what the f**k are you talking about?” In my life, I am that Stranger, while almost everyone I know is The Dude. Despite being 19 years old I do not swear.

It’s not because of some religious principle, and it’s definitely not through lack of exposure. It’s simply because I never started. Now, whenever a normal person would swear, my voice hits a barrier and I say something else instead. As an outsider, I’ve always found profanity unnecessary, and I’ve never understood the reliance others have on it. But of course it’s not a new concept, or something only our generation has experienced. Shakespeare wrote a lot more than star crossed lovers and mischievous fairies, with vulgarity filling the pages. The classic film Gone With the Wind shocked audiences in 1939 with the use of the word “damn” (which is rarely considered swearing now).

Although swearing has been around almost as long as language itself, it’s still obvious that over time we have come to see bad language as the norm. The increasingly common use of curse words has deadened their effect on us. The Advertising Standards Agency performed research in swearing in the media and found that the vast majority of parents were concerned by the damaging effects of frequent profanity before the Watershed, although it seems as if they would do little to regulate their own language.

People are quick to blame swearing on television, films and the internet.  While these forms of entertainment may expose children to inappropriate language, placing the blame entirely on the media is unfair. At some point, parents have to take responsibility for their children. If they were truly concerned, they would limit their exposure or discourage inappropriate language. My family swore during my childhood and yet encouraged me not to, and I learned from that.

The ASA report also suggests that people believe swearing is a sign of increasing “aggression…and an inability to express oneself in any other way.” Although this may be correct, there seems to be little evidence to support the connection. After all, Stephen Fry, one of the most respected intellectuals in Britain, is a vocal supporter of swearing and once said “the sort of twee person who thinks swearing is in any way a sign of a lack of education . . . is just a f**king lunatic.” Although it’s always possible that there is a connection between swearing and the evils of the world, it’s very unlikely that saying the occasional expletive will irreparably damage society.

So if swearing does not denote a lack of education, and cannot be empirically connected to societal issues, does it really do any harm? There would be little point in enforcing the Watershed and censoring films if swearing meant nothing. However the language we use can be harmful to others if thrown about carelessly. In recent decades we have become more sensitive to language which could be considered racist, sexist or homophobic. Saying the f-word in a moment of stress means nothing compared to an insensitive remark made with with the intention of insulting another. Language may not be the same as physically harming someone but it still matters. Our words have meaning and can have serious consequences.

Ultimately there’s a time and a place for bad language. I don’t swear but, many of my family members and closest friends do. I would never force them to change to suit me. It comes down to the opinion of the individual. Using expletives around young children is almost universally discouraged, but there are far worse things a parent could do. As long as your language doesn’t offend others, then there is nothing wrong with it, no matter my personal opinion. I’ll just have to find some other way of talking to Stephen Fry.


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