Making swearing illegal…

Most Swedes have clued in on the fact that sometimes, but not always, swearing in American tv-programs is replaced with a beep. The difference has to do with if the tv-program is on cable or not, and when it is shown. The reason is moralistic – swearing is seen as immoral and degenerative, so the Federal Communications Commission decided that a certain number of words were off limits.

There are actually positive effects of swearing – among other things it can relieve pain. But it is not a property of the swear words themselves, which is why the FCC ban seems so silly. Rather, the effect of swear words lies in their controversial and schocking nature, and this is an effect that deteriorates. In the image below you can see several British swear words from 2006 (BBC study: Delete Expletives?) and how Brits ranked them for severity. But by now, six years later, it is likely that the list has changed.

American linguistics professor John McWhorter (who is most known for his work on creoles) writes an article for CNN about a recent town hall decision in Massachusetts to ban swearing there. He concludes that: “alternate word we would quite possibly use for “stuff”? And a lot? What our great-grandparents considered profanity is, for us, merely colorful. We teach our kids not to use it — but are hardly surprised that they start doing so later.”

So what is a swear word can change quickly – but the law is explicitly designed not to move quickly. You cannot control swearing by banning specific words. You would have to ban something like “general displays of excessive anger” – but I think we can all see how such a law can be misused.

Professor McWhorter also relates a friends story about the “N-word”, which, for those Swedes who haven’t deciphered it yet, is “Nigger”. “Nigger” is seen as incredibly offensive in the US, and must not be used by non-black people, since it is seen as a symbol of extreme oppression*. Yet it is often heard spoken or sung by black people in popular culture, and can then be interpreted as meaning “fellow” or “guy”. At some point in time, this taboo will probably go away, but for now people are sometimes a little unsure how to act. McWhorter says: “a friend of mine, white, recently told me that her boys are attending a mostly black public school and making a lot of friends — but also picking up their way of using the N-word as a marker of fellowship. So, let’s fine them $20 for embracing diversity?”


This situation is not unique for the US at all – many language communities have similar rules about words that can only be uttered by specific people.