Why all the Bloody Swearing?

Shock, horror, breaking news: Alan Titchmarsh said ‘Bastard’ on TV and a TV presenter felt the need to apologise. Titchmarsh used the word during an interview on the BBC’s Breakfast show and, apparently, it was sued in connection with a gardening technique, which is called 'bastard trenching'. In this instance, the BBC apology for Alan Titchmarsh’s utterance was plain stupid and unnecessary, particularly when you compare it to the frequent use of the “F” word on some TV programmes. Did Alan Titchmarsh offend any viewers by his use of the word bastard? Or, is it and an acceptable word? Here are my thoughts on whether there is too much swearing on TV and when swearing is acceptable, and when it is not.

Right Time and Place for Swearing.
Swearing does have a part to play in the English language. It can, in the right context and the right place, add a level of dramatic impact to a sentence that other words simply would not. If it was good enough for Shakespeare then it is good enough for me, but the continuous use of swear words, particularly in comedy, just smacks of a lack of material as well as a lack of intelligence.

Below is an example of an old joke told by the comedian Stan Boardman in a live show broadcast of the Des O’Conner show in the eighties.

The use of a swear word here, or implied swear word, is the whole point of the joke and, used in the middle of a show that would have otherwise contained no swearing at all, is funny.

As it happens, the broadcast of this show did cause a great deal of controversy at the time, but on British TV today, it wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow.

Swearing for Dramatic Effect.
Likewise, in drama, swearing is most effective when used in context, and by the right character. If Mary Poppins had said ‘Get a F**k**g move on kids’ rather than ‘Spit Spot’, the world would never have been the same place would it.

Yet, when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator Character used the ‘F’ word, it is completely in character and forms a part of the story as the Terminator, an android from the future, is learning how to use the local, urban language:

Indeed, not to use swearing in some scenarios simply wouldn’t portray life as it really is. Most people do swear sometimes, so to have a soldier who is just about to launch an attack on a hated enemy cry ‘let the rather nasty chaps of questionable birth across the way have it’ wouldn’t ring true to anyone’s ears.

Just as is in films and books, swearing in music can either create an impact or be just downright boring. Even in early punk rock, contrary to popular belief at the time, the swearing was quite limited, so when it did occur, it still had the shock factor.

Compare that to some modern day rappers such as Eminem where the swearing is so frequent that it becomes boring. The shock factor has gone anyway; it’s already been done, so unless used in a dramatic way, it’s just another foul mouthed rant.

Why is Swearing Offensive?
So why are swear words offensive, It’s not the object or function that they are describing that is offensive. I could write the word’ vagina’ without any hesitation whatsoever and offend no one but, if I were to write or say the ‘C’ word it would offend many.

It’s not the actual sound a swear word makes either. I could say ‘tuck’ and it is just a word yet change the first letter and I would offend.

Yet the words in question are so powerful that when I was re-reading this article, I briefly mistook the word ‘tuck’ above for the ‘F’ word. A subconscious awareness of the actual swear word itself perhaps.

According to Stephen Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, in his article: Why we Curse, What the F***, swear words tap into deep and ancient parts of the brain, which react to things like angry faces or threatening behaviour and the same part of the brain reacts, involuntarily, to the hearing of taboo words in the same way. So, depending on the context, we apparently hear swear words as a threat.

Can Swearing Ease Pain?
We’ve all done it to one degree another. You get up in the morning, struggle out of bed and the first thing you do is you stub your toe on the corner of the bed. Whether you go for a full blown expletive or a more acceptable alternative, my mum used to say ‘Fish!’ on such occasions, most of us don’t just say ouch.

There is scientific evidence that swearing eases pain. Well, the evidence provided by the TV show Myth Busters anyway. If you haven’t seen it, Myth Busters is a TV show that sets out to prove or disprove popular myths.

To prove if swearing really does increase your threshold for pain, the team carried out an experiment where they immersed their arms in ice water until they could no longer stand the pain, a common research method known as the cold pressor test.

They found that when participants released a string of four letter expletives, they could withstand the pain for 30% longer than when they read from a list of more acceptable words.

It conjures up a rather odd image of a potential alternative hospital without painkillers!

Is swearing acceptable at all?
Are people who are deeply offended when they hear swear words just being oversensitive or do they have a valid point?

Personally, I do not find swear words in themselves offensive, but what I do find shocking is the current trend towards the use of swear words in everyday speech. It is now not at all uncommon on the high streets of the UK to overhear the full range of expletives within a normal conversation. The question that I would ask is; is television simply reflecting trends in society or are people simply copying what they hear on television?

The television show that prompted this article, Big Fat Quiz of the 80's, was broadcast after the watershed at 9.00pm, when it is assumed that children will be in bed, but what about my mum? Isn’t she allowed to watch television after 9.00pm now either?

It just comes down to having a common respect for others. If a swear word is used loudly in the street or repeatedly used on television, there is a very good chance that someone, who will be offended by such a word, will hear it. So, if there is no really good reason to use a word that may offend someone else, why use it at all. There are other words that will convey the same message just as well.

Television – A Special Case
The counter argument to my view on swearing on TV will be that you always have the option of the ‘off’ switch, but that’s a bit gate, horse and bolted for me.

Television is a medium that is beamed directly into the sitting rooms of millions, especially Free-view television. I can’t subscribe to a porn channel by accident and I can’t walk into a cinema and watch a film by accident, but I can settle in front of the TV, watching nothing in particular and be unexpectedly confronted by a string of four letter words in a celebrity quiz show.

The brief warning at the introduction of a show is pretty useless too. Most of us don’t pre-plan our evenings viewing, we channel hop and stop when we find something interesting.

So I have a simple message to TV presenters and producers everywhere: Have a heart and show some respect, my mum might be watching and she’s not so old that she only watches Songs of Praise. Mind you, I doubt that even she would have been offended by Alan Titchmarsh using the word ‘bastard’.