Question of the week: is swearing all right when no one understands it’s swearing?

Secret swearing has a long and honourable TV and movie tradition. Usually intended to outwit the censors, it can vary in execution but ultimately has the same aim. Star Trek: The Next Generation allowed Jean-Luc Picard to say merde, because it was assumed that no US viewers would understand it meant sh*t in French. Star Trek itself managed to sneak Uhura denying that she was a ‘fair maiden’ past the censor, while Battlestar Galactica pioneered new forms of swearing altogether with copious use of the word ‘frack’ as a replacement for the f-word.

The Avengers/Avengers Assemble recently took a leaf out of Worzel Gummidge‘s book – a show in which Jon Pertwee used to delight himself by using as many Elizabethan swearwords, including the likes of ‘swive’ as he possibly could – by having Loki describe Black Widow as a ‘mewling q**m’ – that would be a word that rhymes with ‘whim’ and is a Chaucerian synonym for the c-word. Now, if you look at the BBFC’s web site [spoilers], it gives an explanation in its extended classification information as to why it gave the film a 12A certificate:

The film also contains some mild bad language, such as uses of ‘hell’, ‘damn’, ‘ass’, ‘son of a bitch’, ‘pissed off’ and ‘bastards’

No mention of the use of the q-word. Whether that’s because no one at the BBFC knows what it means or because they figured that no one in the audience is likely to know or care, I can’t say. But it does lead to this week’s question:

Should the BBFC take into account swearing that only a portion of the audience will understand when it classifies movies? Should TV shows and movies forego fake swearing that has the same intent as swearing? Or is this all linguistic silliness?

Answers below or on your own blog, please


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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