04 June 2012

Nuances of obscenity

I was surprised the other day to hear the word "c**t" used on television in an excerpt from The Game of Thrones, where it was being used to describe a (male) person, not a body part.  I was reminded of a post at Language Log describing the complexities of setting standards for obscenity.
The difficulties are highlighted in a blog post for The Telegraph by Brendan O'Neill (5/25/2012). Evidently, the British Board of Film Classification is going for nuance, trying to distinguish between degrees of offensiveness of the word c**t. O'Neill writes:
If, as in Ken Loach's new movie The Angels' Share, the characters in a film say that word in an "aggressive" fashion, then the film will be stamped with an 18 certificate. But if they were to utter the c-word in a "non-aggressive" fashion, then the film could be granted a more lenient, box office-friendly 15 certificate...
As O'Neill further notes:
…it isn't the language itself, the actual words, which terrifies the likes of the BBFC and other members of the great and good. It's the question of who is using those words and to what end. So certain uses of the c-word are now positively celebrated, with Sex and the City types and feminists uttering it as "a word of sexual potency". They rarely get any flak for describing the c-word as "a cherished part of [our] lexical armour". Likewise, when the ironic superhero film Kick-Ass showed an 11-year-old girl calling a group of men "c***s", there was, in the words of the Guardian, only a "half-hearted whimper from the Daily Mail" - everyone else thought that funky use of the c-word was hilarious and Kick-Ass got a 15 from those unelected defenders of common decency at the BBFC.
As the author notes:
If it were just about the words, it would be completely mysterious why I can get away with discussing the infixation possibilities of the morpheme fuck in a linguistics class, but would propel my students straight to the dean's office if I ever handed back their assignments saying "I've marked your fucking papers".

This is what makes swearing such an exquisite skill, hard to master outside of one's native language. Swearing with just the right degree of coarseness is all about nuance.


  1. A Dutch acquaintance of mine reports that the Dutch language version of "cunt" is not considered nearly as offensive as it is in English. She reports that it is not often used as a descriptor of a person (e.g. "He is such a cunt") rather constructions such as "That is a really cunt situation" or "Man, that is really cunt for you" are common for expressing sympathy when something generally bad has happened to another person.

  2. And did you notice that in the recent movie The Avengers, Loki called The Black Widow a "mewling quim" and got away with whatever the movie was rated at, probably because most people who would go to see this movie would need a translation (and in fact I found a few reviews online that did translate that phrase)!

  3. The Ricky Gervais Show throws the word "cunt" around quite a lot, usually in reference to Karl Pilkington (at least the TV version does, I'm not sure about the radio show). One of the perks that comes from being on HBO, I'm guessing.

  4. In Spanish, the word pronounced as 'conyo' is used for men the way in English we might use 'pussy'. It's an insult when directed at a man, or often tossed about in a teasing manner, but startling to an non-native speaker of Spanish. I've heard it used toward objects or gizmos that are not working right, as well, indicating frustration. In Spanish.

    HBO can use any language they want to, I assume.

  5. Can we please not use this word in everyday speech? I've read in several posts on the web that the word is not offensive in this country or that. "Not offensive" to whom? As a woman, I am offended by the use of a vulgar slang term for the female anatomy as a way to insult someone. ...And I think that Gwyneth Paltrow is real prick for calling her grandmother a c*nt.

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  7. I find it amusing that the blog post brings the issue of class into the mix. Suddenly being anti-profanity makes the film review board classist, because they "war against the natural language of the Glaswegian working class." What a masterful turn of the tables: profanity as culturally valid expression we need to be sensitive to.


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