Britons Seem to Have More Tolerance for Salty Language

David Cameron, a leader of Britain's Conservative Party, made news with his language on live radion last week. But generally speaking, Britons are more tolerant of vulgarity than Americans.
David Cameron, a leader of Britain's Conservative Party, made news with his language on live radion last week. But generally speaking, Britons are more tolerant of vulgarity than Americans. (© Andrew Winning/reuters - Reuters)

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By Karla Adam
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 6, 2009

LONDON -- It was perhaps ironic that when David Cameron, the leader of Britain's opposition party, swore on live radio last week, he did so seconds after saying he doesn't use Twitter for fear of spluttering something stupid.

He then played on the word twit, inventing a past tense of the term that some people here regard as a swear word. An apology swiftly followed.

It may just boost his ratings. The swearing, that is, not the apology.

Like pints, tea and gardening, expletives are woven into the social fabric of British life, and while not everyone runs around letting it rip like celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, they hardly go faint at the sound of profanity. Americans remained shocked for years after hearing President Richard Nixon using vulgarities on White House tapes and Vice President Richard Cheney stunned the nation by telling a senator, in public, what he could do to himself. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, according to the Wall Street Journal, was the focus of muttered tut-tuts for his own blue-chip blue streak directed at regulators just last week.

Sometimes the British tolerance bar is several notches higher.

Take the C-word, which prompted convulsions in some American circles when Jane Fonda uttered it on the "Today" show (she was talking about her role in the play "The Vagina Monologues").

In Britain, it can be heard in pubs across the country, merrily bandied about among males as a term of affectionate teasing. It can be seen in plays and movies, such as Alan Bennett's Broadway hit "The History Boys," and Ian McEwan's book "Atonement," later adapted into an Oscar-nominated film. It can be heard reverberating throughout soccer stadiums where it is mindlessly chanted, choruslike, by thousands of fans for several minutes at a time.

Of course using the C-word is considered much, much more than a passing incivility, but as explained in the BBC show "The C-Word: How We Came to Swear by It," it has been hijacked by the middle classes and is no longer the preserve of only aristocrats and the working class.

Issues of class may also be one of the reasons why Americans swear less than their British cousins, said Jesse Sheidlower, author of "The F-Word" and editor-at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, in an interview. Americans buy into the "bogus belief" they live in a classless society and therefore have to be on their best behavior all the time, he said.

And while it's difficult to predict who would win a swear-off between Rahm Emanuel, the White House's chief of staff, and Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's fiery former press secretary, when it comes to politicians swearing, there is "much less fake outrage in the U.K.," Sheidlower said.

Swearing is far more commonplace here than in the United States, but rude words in the wrong context can sting here as much as anywhere. In one notable example, presenters Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross left abusive phone messages aired on a BBC radio program that became a national talking point and led to a hefty fine and Brand losing his job.

And some Britons shouldn't swear at all, thank you very much. The British Board of Film Classification recently noted in its annual report that nothing guarantees a flurry of complaints like Judi Dench cussing in a film. They even have a name for it: "The Judi Dench effect." "Almost every time Dame Judi swears in a film, regardless of its category, we can expect a number of complaints," the report said. "It seems that she should not use such language."

Indeed, Britons express the entire spectrum of attitudes toward bad language -- some shrug their shoulders, some claim rude words contaminate their soul, some regard them as a matter of free speech and reflector of reality.

As students of British tirades will know, one of the best places for public displays of peppery language is a British awards show, where booze tends to flow more freely than at their American counterparts. At last year's GQ Men of the Year Awards, for example, the pop singer Lily Allen, who imbibed glasses of champagne, said at one point: "Now, we reach a very special point in the evening," to which her clearly annoyed co-host Elton John asked if this meant she was going to pour herself another drink. Allen shot back: "[Expletive] off, Elton. I am 40 years younger than you and got my whole life ahead of me!"

All of this seems miles away from 1965 when Kenneth Tynan, a theater critic, caused an uproar when he said the F-word on British television for the first time: "I doubt if there are any rational people to whom the word [expletive] would be particularly diabolical, revolting or totally forbidden." He was wrong. The House of Commons signed censoring motions. The BBC formally apologized.

Contrast that with Gordon Ramsay, arguably Britain's most famous foul-mouthed export, who reportedly broke British television records himself this past January with the sheer volume of swear words uttered in a television program. At one point the F-word was shouted 30 times in less than two minutes, a rate that would have made even Tony Soprano blush.

"This is getting beyond a joke," Don Foster, a Liberal Democrat MP, said of the show. "When you hear about this much swearing in a single program, you're tempted to utter an expletive yourself."


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