Browse content similar to Uses and Abuses. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
Language is one of the most amazing things we humans do.
It separates us from the animals. It gives us theatre, poetry and song.
It makes us laugh and cry.
'In this episode, I'll be looking at how we use and abuse language
'with new ways of swearing,
'jargon and slang, which are a testament to our creativity,
'but also give us a deeper insight into the workings of the mind.'
This programme contains very strong language.
In this programme, we're going to be looking at bad language.
There are certain kinds of jargon and slang,
but there's also the altogether more worrisome matter of blasphemy,
obscenity, political incorrectness and, of course, swearing.
So if you do choose to watch, well, don't blame me.
You have been warned.
I'll be looking at why some words have such power over us
and some ideas need to be cloaked in euphemism and innuendo -
how codes of speech vary between different groups
and whether language should be controlled.
Or indeed, if such a thing is possible.
Taboo or not taboo,
that is the question.
Dear old Auntie Beeb has a constantly changing register
of expletives, reflecting the cultural acceptability
of taboo words, ranging in severity from the mild,
all the way down to the kind that have to be
referred up to the highest echelons if they're to be used.
There'll be a few of those in this programme.
See if you can guess which they'll be.
While English has a particularly rich seam of dirty words,
it's not the only profanity-laden language.
SHE CHANTS IN LOCAL LANGUAGE
Step into any society and you will find words that are taboo.
And I'm willing to bet that the Turkana of East Africa are no exception.
Of course, what's rude in one language
is innocent as the driven snow in another.
If I were to offer you a bucket of toss in England you might be
rather upset, but over here you'd be very happy to have something
to wash your clothes with.
'So what are the dirty words, the filthy phrases
'and foul language that the Turkana use?'
THEY SPEAK TURKANA
She is saying, "When a man abuses me, that collapse kind of uterus,
"of the vagina, I say, you the big penis of a donkey."
-That's an insult?
-That's a bad thing?
In my country that will be a compliment!
Another Turkana insult is any reference to "your mother",
and talking about menstrual blood is an absolute no-no.
Their swear words are drawn from the same pool of taboos
and anxieties - religion, sex, death, illness, excretion
and bodily fluids - as our own dear swear words are drawn from.
So what is it about these subjects that make them
such a rich source of obscenities?
Cognitive scientist and language guru
Professor Steven Pinker has a theory.
It's generally topics that are surrounded by negative emotion,
that seems to be the common denominator,
that are highly arousing.
Excretion, which elicits the emotion of disgust.
Religion, which elicits the emotion of awe
and dread of supernatural powers.
Sexuality, which elicits the emotion of revulsion to sexual depravity.
It's not a coincidence that sexuality gives rise to taboo,
despite the fact that one could say that's it's just a source
of wholesome mutual pleasure, because that isn't really true of sexuality.
There are a...
-It does give rise to a heck of a lot of problems!
I mean, there are consenting adults, but then there's also adultery,
there's also illegitimacy, there's also rape, there's also incest,
there's also exploitation, there's jealousy and cuckoldry.
Sexuality is, contrary to some of the fantasies of the 1960s,
it's a highly inflammatory thought to humans
and so it's not a complete coincidence
that words that refer to sexuality can pass over into taboo.
Sex has given us one of our most versatile swear words.
It can be used as a verb, a noun and an adjective.
It is, of course, the F word.
And you are about to hear it, repeatedly.
I love Basingstoke! Fuck.
You're the only person on Earth who does.
I love sheepskin. Fuck. Biscuit.
I love - biscuit - sheep. Fuck!
'Jess Thom has Tourette's syndrome,
'which involves involuntary movements and vocal tics,
'random noises and words, like, in her case, "biscuit".'
The first - fuck - noise I can remember was a squeaky one
when I was about six.
My tics when I was younger and all through my childhood were
much more motor and also much more mild - fuck - than they are now.
Fuck. For lots of people, Tourette's gets better as they get older.
Fuck. For me in adulthood and in my early 20s, my tics got much more
noticeable to other people - fuck - although the sensation for me - biscuit - didn't change that much.
'It was in her 20s that Jess developed coprolalia,
'the uncontrollable use of obscene words that affects only 10% of Touretters.'
I was speaking to my dad on the phone - fuck - the other day
and he's used to very rude swearing in our conversations, constantly
peppered with tics, but sort of understands them for what they are.
Fuck. But then I used "fuck" to describe something.
I said "something was fucking something" and he knew instantly
and told me off and told me and told me to mind my language. Fuck.
And it really made me laugh, as it was like he sort of - ha-ha! -
he'd heard all the, you know, he hadn't heard all the...
all the... all the offensive words
because he knew they were tics and had no meaning,
but as soon as I'd used something deliberately he pulled me up on it.
-It just proves it's not the words themselves, it's where they come from.
And it's what spin they're given by the speaker.
Absolutely, and I think lots of people misunderstand Tourette's
when they say, "I wish I had Tourette's, "I could get away with swearing,"
or, "It means I could say whatever I - biscuit, biscuit - whatever I wanted to."
The whole point is I can't say whatever I want to.
Lots of what I say I don't want to say, I just...
It's just there - fuck - and it's - biscuit, biscuit, biscuit!
Happy Christmas - but, you know, that doesn't mean that I haven't...
I can't articulate my thoughts and make myself understood.
'As an attempt to tackle misconceptions of Tourette's syndrome head on,
'Jess has been keeping a diary of her complex tics
'and using them to inspire fantastical visual works.'
I think one has to be creative about it to have a decent quality of life,
and not let the tics impact on me, especially socially.
Part of the - biscuit! - one of the big elements of Tourette's
is the social - fuck - impact it has,
and by engaging with people and engaging with it creatively - fuck -
and celebrating the humour and saying, "Look, it's not OK to laugh
"because I have Tourette's, but it's all right to laugh."
Fuck. I'm saying laugh at the funny things - fuck -
that I say as tics that are the result of Tourette's - biscuit -
because they're often - fuck, biscuit - very visual.
It's almost a surreal use of the accidental collision of words,
and to make something out of them.
Jess has also created an alter ego, Tourette's Hero,
to encourage other Touretters, young and old, to embrace their condition.
Do parents of the kids you work with,
do they worry about your language at all?
Fuck - I think there's always a concern with children and swearing.
But I think open and honesty is the key to them feeling comfortable,
and families - fuck - feeling confident
and just getting on with what you're doing, but answering
and addressing any concerns that they might have, that's the...
That's the sort of way - fuck, biscuit - the way forward. Ha!
Why do you keep going like that?
Because I have Tourette's syndrome and that means my body moves
and makes noises I can't control.
But it's not a big problem, in fact, it's not really a problem,
it's my power.
Look, we can we can wave. We've got the cameras.
Jess and other people with Tourette's syndrome provide
an insight into what is going on inside our brains when we swear.
What's interesting is that swear words tap into the most
primitive part of our brains,
the parts that control many aspects of our lives,
from movement, habits and emotions, to our speech.
It's like a signal box for the brain,
and our swearing researcher Timothy Jay explains
that this has been identified as the basal ganglia.
The basal ganglia, perhaps you can explain to me,
they are more associated with emotion than with reason,
-is that a fair description?
-Er, and movement, yes.
Yeah, and I think that's why, that's the problem with the moving,
the inappropriate moving, those can't be inhibited.
You have to have that balance between action
-..or you have seizure.
Exactly, and so it might be suggested that people with Tourette's
therefore are... their brains are not inhibiting the things that...
-..And they're just going directly, this...
And I think looking at these people with various kinds of brain
disorders, this really gets to the deeper picture of what cursing is.
The depth of the recesses of the mind, the various,
the limbic system, the amygdala, the basal ganglia, the bits that are
really to do with our most primitive and deep-seated emotions.
Yeah, see, a lot of early language analysis looked at it, kind of, very superficially,
and emotion wasn't really part of that, not good or bad emotion,
so it gave kind of a polite, but false, view of language,
and you really, I mean, everybody has this built in to them.
I think of it as kind of like the warning system in your car.
How you use it depends on you, but we've evolved this,
erm, kind of through the fight or flight response to respond to threats
and to be aggressive. I think that's in that lower part
of the brain, the basal ganglia, where that comes from.
'When the basal ganglia malfunction, we lose inhibition,
'as in Tourette's.
'I want to see if they are also involved in controlling my speech,
'so I'm going to deliberately suppress or inhibit words
'whilst having a brain scan.
'My task is to talk about different topics without repeating any words.
'It's a bit like the radio show Just A Minute,
'and my subject is swearing.'
All kinds of, as it were, Krypton or internal languages used by...
'As well as the usual parts of my brain that are involved in selecting
'words, other parts of my brain are marking words that have already been
'said as taboo, like swear words are,
'and then inhibiting their re-use.
'Professor Cathy Price takes me through the results.'
What you're doing is you're inhibiting the repetition of words.
So what we predicted was that you would activate
-your left head of caudate, which is what we see here.
This tiny little structure here, and there's a lot else going on here.
Another thing that we predicted
was that, um, you see this, this activation in the frontal lobes,
because, the frontal lobes are involved in controlling what you're
saying, and sort of selecting words and inhibiting words, so...
this will please, you know, several people in the literature!
It all makes sense with the current theories.
This is amazing. It confirms that the lower part of the brain,
the head of caudate in the basal ganglia,
are directly involved with inhibiting speech.
What's also fascinating is that
if these parts of the brain are damaged,
by stroke, for example, then language can be suddenly disrupted.
Cathy compares my scan with those of a patient who has had such damage to this area.
'His language disorder was worse than Tourette's -
'initially all he could do was swear.'
This is you on the left, it's your brain,
and these are the areas that you activated when you were doing
Just A Minute and you were inhibiting saying other words.
If we look at where this patient's got damage, you can see, here,
this is your left head of caudate here
and you can see the activation in here.
If you look here, it's missing.
It's been damaged.
So this is basically showing you that this patient has damaged
the left head of caudate, which you needed for Just A Minute
and he probably needed to stop himself swearing.
And here's Leslie, the patient Cathy's talking about.
I'm going to say a sentence and if you could repeat each after me.
All right? The cat chased the bird.
The cat...chased...the bird.
'For me, the thought of losing such a crucial part of myself
'is terrifying, but Leslie has worked hard for the past 14 years
'to go beyond just swearing.'
And those are the words that came easily?
-The only words that came easily were the swear words?
-This is a common thing, but it must have surprised you.
And you must have been distraught, as well.
Yeah, I was. It was, it was frightening, really frightening.
You surprised yourself with your language, even?
It was the first bit of noise that came out of my mouth for...
Oh, two or three days you sort of just lay there,
didn't do anything, did you?
Even to feed him.
-And it was a good crunchy Anglo-Saxon word?
'Leslie is one of many who have been cursed with swearing after a stroke.
'Swear words are some of the most powerful and resonant words'
of any in our language.
So why do swear words remain when all other language is lost?
When you've had a stroke, the first thing to recover are the easiest words,
the most automatic things start to recover first,
so if you used to swear and use swear words, even if you inhibited
them in certain situations, they might be the first to come back.
The problem there, though,
is that they might be the first ones to come back,
but then you've also got to be able to inhibit them,
so if you've got damage to mechanisms such as your left head of caudate
that are involved in suppressing words, and you've got a patient
that's just recovering their automatic speech, they might end up
swearing too much because they can't inhibit what they're saying.
So what you're saying is not that they put swearing into their normal speech,
but the swearing is the only thing they can do often or at least at first?
Yes, the frequency might increase in the post-stroke phase,
partly because they're unable to inhibit it,
partly because it might be the only thing that they're able to say
and to generate, and partly because there might be a lot of emotion driving the system, as well.
'Professor Timothy Jay has a theory
'for why rude words are linked to emotions.'
The valence of these words, the arousal level of these words
comes from the surround of learning them,
whether your parents are punitive
or they laughed the first time you say "fuck"
or do they get angry and and punish you? There's no other language that
gets this reaction, so it has this, "Wow, this is a very powerful thing
"I just said, I can tell that by the way my mom reacted to me",
and I think that emotional tag gets stored with the word
in a way that other language doesn't have those kind of tags.
We're the only animal that can express these emotions symbolically,
so we can say, "fuck you" instead of hitting you or biting you.
And little kids, it's funny, little kids, before they really
learn how to swear and say, "I hate you, Mommy" or, you know,
"fuck you", they will,
three year olds will bite you and scratch you, you know?
Anybody who's sent a kid to day care will see that.
But when we learn how to use language to express that emotion,
-that primitive animal anger goes away.
So I think there's an evolutionary advantage to...
That's very interesting.
Yeah, to be able to emote or verbally aggress towards someone.
The idea that swear words play a positive role
in human social interactions intrigues me.
It makes me wonder whether there are any other beneficial uses of abusive language...
To find out, I'm going to compare myself with one of the most
prolific users of profanities in the kingdom.
-Stephen, how are you?
-Good to see you.
-Delighted to see you.
'Brian and I are going to be guinea pigs for Dr Richard Stevens,
'who is researching the link between swearing and pain.
'He was inspired by his wife's experience in childbirth.'
During the bad contractions, she found it useful to swear
and as the contractions eased she was a bit apologetic,
and the midwife said, "Don't apologise, we hear this language all the time."
And that was really what sparked my interest -
childbirth, all these women swearing, this supposedly beautiful moment,
isn't that interesting? Why do swearing and pain go together?
Plus I injured myself a few times along the way as well and swore a bit.
'But Brian doesn't need to be in pain to unleash a torrent of abuse.'
There was a woman. A... A...
Shit, I'll start again. Take two!
"Oh, shit, I've said fuck! Oh, fuck, I've said shit!"
No, look! "I name this ship Felicity Ann, and God save all those
"who sail in there. Up there. Oh, shit. Oh, fuck, I've said shit.
"Oh! Shit, I've said fuck!"
No. There was a woman down the alleyway, Mrs Holmes,
and she's going to report me for saying "bugger", you know.
"Oh, just wait till I see your mother. You're in real trouble."
"Oh, if you're going to go and see her, then tell her this -
"bugger, shit, fuck, shit, fucking sphincter, arsehole, up your arse,
"up your cunt, fuck you sideways, you fucking boring fucking whore,
"fuck off, you cow!
"Go and fucking repeat that to my mother."
'Unfazed, Richard starts us off with a demonstration to show
'the subliminal effect of swear words.
Right, get ready.
Some words are going to flash up on the screen
in different coloured inks.
OK? Try and ignore the word altogether and just tell me the colour of the ink.
-Just say it out loud and say it together.
BOTH: Green. Orange. Brown. Blue. Red. Orange.
And we've got one final one to do again. Exactly the same task.
-Try and ignore the word, try and tell us the colour of the ink.
-Colour of the ink only.
OK, here we go.
BOTH: Red, green, brown, blue
Brown...blue, orange, red, blue!
Oh, pussy, orange! Green. Blue.
But you want to say dick! Pussy.
You've got written on there dick and pussy, you want to say dick and pussy!
Well, I don't know what it's supposed to prove except that it's extremely good fun.
What this demonstration is designed to show us is that
you cannot help but process and understand swear words, OK?
They're powerful, emotional words, even if you're trying to ignore them.
'The next demonstration should show how these powerful words
'of abuse can be used to good effect.
'But, first of all, we've got to do a control experiment...
'with neutral words.'
Before you go I want you to think of a word you'd use to describe a table.
A word to describe it?
A single word that you would describe a table with.
-OK, that's a good word.
So when you put your hand in the water I'd like you to repeat
that word at an even and steady pace.
A steady volume.
Keep your hand in as long as you can and take it out when you're ready.
Just to let everyone know, these are not plastic.
These are real ice cubes. That is cold actually. Functional.
Functional. Functional. Functional. Functional. It's beginning to hurt.
I'm not to swear, I'm sorry. Functional. Functional. Functional.
Functional. This really hurts. Functional.
I'm going to get hypothermia.
Functional. Oh, God, I can't take it, I'm sorry. Ohh!
It's actually worse when you take it out!
Fantastic. I'd like you to do that again, I'm afraid.
-Oh, hell. Yes?
-This time I'd like you to... Can you tell me a word
you might say if you hit your finger with a hammer?
-Well, I'm afraid, I'll be dull and it would be "fuck".
Oh, yes. Ohh, yes.
Ah-ha! Fuck. It's all right for the moment.
I'm going to save them up. It's not too cold, but I will go "fuck".
Oh, fuck this for a game of fucking soldiers.
-Fucking... Oh, fuck.
I'm so fucking sorry! It feels better, it feels better.
Saying "fuck", it actually doesn't feel so bad.
Fuck me, I could stay here forever,
especially if I could say "wanker" and "cunt".
Fuck! Fuckity, fuckity fuckity fuck poo.
What's it feel like, Stephen?
Very cold. Numb. Tingly. Very tingly. Very tingly.
I can keep it in here in a way that I couldn't before.
I genuinely mean that. That's quite extraordinary. There it goes.
-Lovely. Thank you very much.
'But Richard also wants to find out how this works for a hard-core swearer like Brian Blessed.'
-Same thing again.
-Right-oh. Oh, it's lovely and warm.
Wooden. Wooden. Wooden. Wooden.
It is cold, isn't it? Oh, it is.
What sort of actor is Ralph Fiennes?
-I've never met him.
-Oh, you're supposed to say "wooden"!
Wooden. Oh, wooden! Oh, I'm not picking this up.
Ken Brannagh. Wooden. Patrick Stewart. Very wooden. A fire risk.
Cor, fuck, it's getting cold now.
No, you mustn't swear.
No, that's a point. Wooden. Wooden. Wooden. Wooden!!
-Steady, even pace, please.
Wooden. Wooden. I'll take it out.
Well done. It's really cold, isn't it?
Excellent, I'll just make a little note of that time.
OK, Brian, and so this time I'd like you to use a word
you might use if you hit yourself on the thumb with a hammer.
Can you give me your word that you might use?
-Yes, I'd say, "Bollocks. Fuck it."
-Just one word.
Oh. Oh, bollocks. Oh, bollocks.
Bollocks. Is that all I can say, is "bollocks"?
Steady, even pace, please.
Steady? Can't keep the fucking thing... Steady pace.
Bollocks. Oh, fuck it.
-That's great. Thank you.
-So, you have data for us.
It's worked out pretty much as I thought it would.
At least, with you, Stephen, we found exactly what
we did in the experiment for the majority of people, which is
that if you swear while you've got your hands in the ice cold
water you keep it in there for longer.
You don't find it as painful. You tolerate the pain better.
So you kept your hand in for 38 seconds with the neutral word,
but for two minutes 29 seconds when...
-Was it really?
-..With the swear words.
And you were commenting while it was going on about feeling much better.
It definitely felt much better.
So it's like you're having an emotional reaction,
sparking off an emotional reaction in yourself in swearing.
In effect, you're shocking yourself to a certain degree,
as if you're shocked by your swearing.
And then you have it, it's called the flight or fight response, which is the adrenalin.
Our most recent study which we've done is we decided to
take into account how much people swear on an everyday basis.
And Brian, I formed an impression of you from the moments this morning.
So, as someone who swears a lot, you can habituate to swearing.
It kind of loses its potency.
And with you, you kept your hand in for one minute 27
in the neutral condition and for slightly less, one minute 22, in the swearing conditions.
'So swear words are most effective if they are not overused.
'Their power comes from the taboo we put on them.'
But swear words are more than just cathartic pain relievers.
They help us bond with people, in particular through jokes and humour.
Oh, bit (BLEEP) nippy. Think we're in for (BLEEP) fall of (BLEEP) snow.
That's all we (BLEEP) need.
-That one will cost you 20p!
-Got a (BLEEP) swear box in here now!
Don't worry, have these on me.
That's a (BLEEP) good idea.
-Like at church. 5p a time.
-Quite right, too.
About time this did something like the (BLEEP) church.
-Dozy lot of (BLEEP).
-That will cost you 10p.
When uttered at the right moment, a rude word can suddenly bring
an otherwise dull and lifeless sentence dramatically to life.
In the distinctly unamusing world of humour research,
this is known as a "jab line".
It adds emphasis and a touch of the unexpected -
a common component of humour.
But nowhere has swearing been taken to such operatic levels
as in The Thick Of It.
No, I don't use lifts, I'm claustrophobic.
Not hugely. I can be in rooms, you've seen that.
I just don't do lifts, that's all.
This lift is... I mean, it's fucking huge!
This is bigger than some rooms!
This is bigger than some people's flats!
It's about not being able to get out.
Oh, well, that's great(!) That's fucking great.
That's another fucking thing, right there.
Not only have you got a fucking bent husband
and a fucking daughter that gets taken to school
on a fucking sedan chair, you're also fucking mental!
Jesus Christ, see you, you are a fucking omni-shambles, that's what you are.
You're like that coffee machine, you know,
"From bean to cup, you fuck up."
'The brains behind the Baroque language of The Thick Of It is Armando Iannucci.'
People have strange views about swearing,
and we all do. Some people worship it,
almost to a mad excess, some people are afraid of it
or decry it to a... what I would consider an equally mad excess,
but I think one of the things it's hard to deny is that it...
-it fuels a sentiment...
-..gives it an energy and a drive that any replacement word just doesn't.
There is a difference between, "What do you think you're doing?"
and, "What the fuck do you think you're doing?"
Yes, and also, you know, it...
it works as a, you know, a verb and an adverb
and it has many functions, there's a line people keep quoting back
to us of Malcolm Tucker's, is his phrase when someone knocks on
the door - "Come the fuck in or fuck the fuck off", where it's used...
It's kind of used in different... it's different...
It pars in three ways.
The reason swearing is there in The Thick Of It is primarily
because I wanted it to feel authentic.
And I wanted the viewer to think that you were genuinely
eavesdropping on what the world behind closed doors
in Whitehall was really like.
It got this kind of endorsement from the, you know,
the political world saying, "Yes, no, this is what it's like".
We seemed to kind of get away with it to the extent that
I got letters from, you know, 84-year-old ladies saying that they
found Malcolm Tucker's language kind of positively Shakespearian and...
Yeah, there is an element of that, I mean you think of Ben Johnson,
a character like, er, Sir Humphrey Wasp, do you remember,
in, is it Bartholomew Fair, who's great phrase is "a turd in your teeth"?
-Yes. Yeah, yeah.
-You can almost imagine Malcolm Tucker saying "a turd in your teeth".
Oh, yes, it's Elizabethan, it's Chaucerian, shall we say?
There is a good... good get out word, isn't it?
It's full of it, and therefore we were allowed,
we effectively ran up to about 100 fucks a programme, really.
Did you have negotiations about how many fucks per cunt?
Well, yes, in the end I had to...
There was a series, there was an e-mail exchange
where for the new series I was told,
erm, you know, if I wanted up to three cunts
I would have to get the fuck rate under 100 per episode,
and I remember saying, "Well, we've only got plans for one cunt
"this episode, so, am I allowed to go beyond 100 fucks per ep?"
Er, I don't know where we got to, but anyway.
What about wanks?
Wanks. Oh... They're just like breathing!
The acceptability of swear words has changed considerably over
the past 100 years.
An oft-quoted turning point was when Penguin Books
won the right to publish Lady Chatterley's Lover,
despite its previously unprintable four-letter C and F words.
Are you going to put this book on open shelves?
Are you going to display it in the library?
-No, we shan't do that.
The reason for that is we don't want the book to fall into the hands
of unsuspecting people, who might be shocked.
You can now buy Lady Chatterley in any bookshop, but while some
words are more acceptable, others are becoming more taboo.
We are a bit less scandalised by
sex, sexual language. "Fuck" isn't as
incendiary as it might have been 50 years ago.
However, we're still very, very touchy about race and gender
and sexual orientation.
We have words for the word, like the N word is what you'd see in an
American newspaper and an American newspaper would not print that word.
Even if it might print a word like "piss", which would have
been beyond the pale a few decades ago, and...
And even the word "niggardly" has apparently...
-Did you ready about that?
-Yeah, by association.
What happened there?
An employee of the city of Washington DC,
who at a staff meeting talked about "the niggardly budget".
Now, "niggardly" is an old Norse word that has nothing to do with
the Spanish word "negro" for "black"
It's just sheer coincidence it happens to have the same sound.
But he was accused of using a racial epithet
and he was actually fired. He was then offered his job back,
-but because people took umbrage.
-That tells us about the sensitivity.
It tells us the words matter to people, desperately.
'For middle-aged, middle-class white men like me,
'the N-word is a definite taboo.
'I want to find out whether comedian Stephen K Amos thinks racial
'or sexual epithets are ever acceptable or even funny.'
Stephen, you are, like me, a member of proud minorities...
You're very obviously gay, but I believe you're also,
you came out recently as being black. Is that... is that correct?
Yeah, much to the confusion of the audience. They were like, "really?"
"Tell somebody." Yeah.
No, I am a member of both communities and very proudly so, yeah.
Somebody said to me at a gig not that long ago,
I think it was near Essex kind of way - not that all Essex people are
like this gentleman, but he went, "Oh, can I tell you this joke?"
And I went, "You don't really tell a comic a joke."
He went, "Oh, no, it's funny, it's funny."
"All right then," and he goes, "Well, guess what,
"There's this coon, yeah?" and I went, "Mate, I beg your pardon?"
-And he went, "Not you!"
-Like I was going to go,
"Why, pray continue, Oscar Wilde, tell me more!"
I was just incensed, and then when I pulled him up on this,
I went, "how can you say it?"
And he went, "But you're doing, you're doing black jokes."
I'm like, "It's not the same!"
Yeah, now, that's a really interesting point, because
Chris Rock, who I think is brilliant, one of the best,
the American comedian, he uses the N word quite freely,
and, indeed, so do a lot of, you know, gangster rappers and,
you know, a lot of black comedians. I don't know if you use it.
I still can't say it.
I have to say "the N word" cos I'd blush
if I said it to you. I'd feel very self-conscious.
It's crazy, but... Do you think that's OK, then?
Like, like we can say "queer" because we are,
or I can say "kike" cos I'm Jewish or whatever, does that..?
I personally think you can,
because again it goes back to what I was saying about the intent.
If I or you use the word "queer",
it's clear that we're not being derogatory.
If a black person, be they a rapper or a comic, uses the N word,
I would like to think it's quite clear that they're not being racist.
There's a whole, there was a whole group called NWA,
wasn't there, stood for "N With Attitude".
-I still can't say it!
Oh, thank you!
Wash your mouth out!
I don't personally use it myself, um, because I come personally
from a generation where I remember it being such a derogative word.
That's why I don't use it.
I can remember right now being called that same word many,
many years ago, as a kid, walking down the street, with my mum.
Someone shouted it out of a car.
That, at that moment, there was a very, very different feeling,
And so I can understand the kind of less demonising of the word,
now it's so liberally used in songs and in stand up.
If you say to someone, you know, racial taunts, language, leads
to violence, can lead to death, even, they'll say, "Oh, come on,
"sticks and stones may break my bones, but words cannot hurt me."
What would you say to that?
This documentary I did called Batty Man, you know,
I asked inner city young people what they think about gay people.
A lot of them were quoting the lyrics, the language,
the words, of some ragga superstar, who was basically
telling them that gay people were allowed to be shot.
"That batty man down the street, you know, oh, look at him,
"shoot him, man," but they were repeating that to me
with big smiles on their faces,
because it was just indoctrinated into their souls that this was...
But they couldn't make the connection between
that's what white southerners in Georgia and Alabama
thought about lynching black people...
That it was OK, singing songs.
I would argue that no-one was ever pushed into gas ovens
or beaten to death on Clapham Common
because the word "fuck" had been used, or "shit", or swearing.
-It hasn't done any harm to anybody.
Personally, I would argue that.
Whereas, say, "you Jew", "you nigger", whatever,
does seem to lead to an attitude of almost dehumanising people
from minorities. And once they're dehumanised, you can kill them,
as the Nazis showed on an industrial scale.
HITLER SPEAKS IN GERMAN
It's not just classic swear words that can be used to foment hate.
Some fairly ordinary words were used by Hitler
and his propagandist Joseph Goebbels to terrible deadly effect.
A tirade of hate speech labelled Jews as rats,
vermin and bacillus, infecting the German nation.
The persistent use of these words dehumanised the Jews
and allowed the Nazis to make anti-Semitism acceptable.
One of the most chilling aspects of the Nazis and the Holocaust
is the way the unspeakably despicable acts
of murder and violence of the death camps were veiled by anodyne words.
Hate speech gave way to something more subtle
and, arguably, more insidious -
Annihilating a whole ethnic group was called The Final Solution.
The murderous industry was disguised by expressions like
"special treatment", "bathhouses", and "auxiliary equipment".
These bland, neutral words allowed the perpetrators
to disassociate from reality and disconnect from their emotions.
Used this way, euphemisms are more dangerous and infinitely more obscene than swear words.
But it's not just tyrants and dictators
who use loaded language and weasel words,
as Professor Pinker points out.
Politicians have to be masters of the strategic ambiguity in language
to be able to promise something to one constituent without alienating another.
Often, great crimes are hidden with the use of euphemism,
as George Orwell pointed out in Politics Of The English Language.
We talk about "collateral damage", meaning the, er,
obliteration of villages, the massacre of civilians
or "transfer of populations", which refers to horrific forced displacements.
'But this verbal slipperiness is grist to the mill for political satirists.'
Over the last 20 years, maybe from Major and Blair onwards,
there's been a withdrawal of the active in political language.
If, for example, a politician says something offensive,
he or she won't say "I apologise for causing offence,"
they'll say "I apologise if offence was caused."
Because that shifts the blame on to you for being bloody offended in the first place,
rather than the politician, so suddenly, they sort of devolve themselves
of active responsibility for anything.
It is a subtle alteration of agency, I suppose.
Once you click on to that and start analysing other things that they say,
in terms of how they put their policies out or what they're going to do for Britain, as a whole,
you start noticing this thread running through all of that.
I think it's a way of being able to negotiate policies
-that if they go badly wrong, won't come back to, er, bite...
-Bite them in the arse.
While politicians are infamous for being disingenuous,
we're all guilty of not saying what we mean,
of telling little white lies, for the sake of diplomacy.
It's called politeness.
In some ways, politeness is another form of euphemism.
It's a way of not saying what you really mean, in order to protect people's feelings.
Politeness lubricates the wheels of social intercourse,
and if you're not well versed in the codes of conduct, it can be confusing.
'All cultures have their own rules, and I'm hoping Omid Djalili
'will enlighten me on the puzzling politeness of the Persians.'
-..has quite a famous,
but nonetheless, mystifying, code of etiquette called Taarof.
I'm so sorry, let me apologise immediately.
No, it's wonderful.
That sounds more Britain's code of etiquette, apology.
But erm, do you... how did this arise
and does it really, er, count in all levels of Iranian society?
It's a dance you play to show, I suppose, social parity.
Social equity, that we're all equals.
If I was to come in here, there'd be a little dance we have where he would give me
the best food and I would say "Thank you so much, can I have the bill?"
And he will say, "My food's not really worth you paying anything."
"Please," I said, "No, please, I must pay."
He goes, "No, no, no, no, of course...
"You are a huge person in our community."
And I said, "I will, I must pay," and he'll go,
"but really, you mustn't pay." And I say, "I really, really must pay."
And he'll go, "I'll get the bill then."
He has every intention of charging me, I have every intention of paying,
and yet we play this wonderful dance, er, of giving eulogies. It's about giving eulogies as well.
It's about giving lots of compliments to someone.
We want to show we're a loving culture. But it's also about humility.
We say, "Cheshm ro ghadamet" which means,
"May you walk on my eyeballs", which means "How low can I get?"
I'm bowing, I want to get as low as I possibly can, so you can walk over my brow...
erm, to show that... It's, it's a way of giving a compliment, you see.
Right. But it's not seen as servile or, er, you know,
-and sort of greasy or...
-No. No, it's warmth.
We give all this love out
and yet English people feel it's great, until... "Am I supposed to do the same?"
This person wants to...
I often say, I love you so much I'm going to cut my arm
and write you a poem in my own blood.
And people say, "Oh, lovely but...
-"don't expect that from me."
-It's a bit too much.
-I remember John Cleese...
..saying to me years ago, when I first got to know him,
he said, "You know, you will never get anywhere in this business
"unless you stop being so fucking polite."
-He said that to you?
-And I said... well, he said, yes.
He said, "Politeness is very rude, you know."
I said, "What, what do you mean?"
He said, "If someone comes up to you and says, "I really like this programme,"
"and you go, "Oh, no, no, it's nonsense," you're making them feel stupid.
"It's terribly easy. All you have to do is say "Thank you."
Whether language is perceived as being impeccably polite,
or downright offensive, is a matter of place and company.
Words and phrases that are acceptable in a football stadium or a building site
would be out of order at a vicar's tea party.
# You've never won fuck all You've never won fuck all. #
So we modify our language and mince our words,
use "darn", "crikey", "blooming" and "shucks" instead of outright profanities.
We use euphemisms to protect delicate ears and spare our blushes.
'And as nothing shames us more than our own bodies,
'hospitals are breeding grounds for euphemisms.'
Medicine and euphemisms have long been bedfellows.
For centuries, doctors and nurses have used Latin technical terms
for certain parts of the body,
which are themselves euphemisms from another culture.
For example, the word "penis" comes from a Latin word meaning "tail"
and the word "vagina" is a Roman synonym for "sheath" or "scabbard".
Doctors and nurses are very comfortable using these words,
but we often prefer to use delicate phrases, like "private parts"
or "down there" or "the waterworks" or, heaven help us, "the doings".
Our intense embarrassment about what our bodies should be doing naturally can cause problems
when it comes to speaking to strangers about our condition.
Morning, everybody. We're going to go through some of the terminology that you've been hearing,
and we look at some of the terminology that you've learned about the English language...
'But the fact that we prefer to use all manner of colloquialisms
'and colourful language, instead of saying what's wrong,
'can cause confusion for foreign nurses.
'Julia Saunders runs courses designed to disambiguate new staff
'at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King's Lynn, Norfolk.'
-Has anybody ever come up to you and said, "My arm or my leg is giving me a bit of gyp?"
-That's quite a Norfolk term.
-Giving you trouble, giving you pain.
Giving me trouble, giving me pain, or they'll say, "this gammy leg of mine".
'Julia tells me about one Portuguese nurse
'who was flummoxed by our funny phrases.'
He was on the ward one day and a lady called him over and says,
"I need to spend a penny."
"And he said "That's fine. I'll be with you in a moment."
She again called him over and said "I need to spend a penny"
and he said, "I truly will be with you, Madam, in a moment,"
very polite and then the third time he went over he said,
"My dear, he said the paper lady's in the next bay
"and you can spend as many pennies as you like when she comes,"
and then the staff nurse came in and said "George, she needs to go to the toilet."
And he was mortified, he said he felt so silly,
he wouldn't have made her wait if he'd have realised what that phrase meant.
'But hospital staff themselves
'use euphemisms to soften the harsh realities of life and death.'
If you've got somebody who's died,
you may want the body to be taken off the ward.
So you don't stand at the head of the desk or
if it was in the middle of a Nightingale ward where the desk was in the middle,
and say, "one for the morgue," even though everybody kind of knows someone's died.
You say to the porters, "Hello, I've got a gentleman or a lady..."
I would say it, "a gentleman for Rose Cottage"
-The porters know exactly what you mean.
-Is that specific to King's Lynn?
No, that's a term that gets used throughout.
And sometimes in Paediatrics I've heard,
I've not actually used that term, but they sometimes say,
-"I've got a little one for the rainbow's end."
I suppose also, that's a reminder to the other people in the ward that they might...
One day we will all go to our Rose Cottage or our rainbow's end.
Death and sex seem to win the prize
for the most euphemisms and dysphemisms in the English language.
Indeed, "dead" is a four-letter word that's almost as unsayable as the F-word itself.
Instead we prefer "passed on", "passed away", "pushing up daisies",
"gone to meet his maker"
or in the great phrase of the immortal Monty Python parrot sketch,
"shuffled off this mortal coil and gone to join the choir invisible."
And when it comes to the glorious act of coitus,
well there's diddled and banged and porked and shafted
and shagged and rogered, all giving rise to the most marvellous
opportunities for double entendre and innuendo.
# There's no entertainment like the British music hall... #
British entertainment has long been a hotbed of double entendre and euphemism.
From music hall to Carry On films, British audiences have lapped up smutty puns
and nudge-nudge wink-wink jokes.
By not saying exactly what they mean, entertainers get away with murder...
metaphorically speaking, of course.
In the Sixties, radio programmes like The Goon Show and Round the Horne
served up wordplay, innuendo and nonsense verse for the delectation of the nation.
RECORDING: We are the Universal Party,
so called because we're at it right, left and centre.
Yes, shake hands with your prospective member.
And what's your policy?
We have a three-pronged manifesto.
Three distinct prongs, it's got. Show him. Get out your manifesto.
-One, double the building programme, so there's latties for all.
Remove the American missiles from our shores.
Particularly that one, what's it called, Polari.
It wasn't till I got to university that a friend played me
some cassettes of Round the Horne and Julian and Sandy in particular,
and a group of us used to use it in our pathetic way,
we'd talk about trolling along King's Parade and 'Ooh, vada that, do you think it's trade?"
and all those awful, contemptuous, queeny remarks,
which we were aware were rather sort of naughty and subversive,
because they were, sort of, hard-edged and brittle, in the way that queens can be.
'A lot of these expressions came from the secret gay slang, Polari.'
-What are you doing here?
-Can I take you for a ride?
I haven't been taken for a ride since last I was in this street.
In you pop.
'Bette Bourne used to speak Polari during its heyday.'
You had this language, and, as you say, it was yours.
It made you feel like it was part of a secret club. That was wonderful.
You were part of an exclusive club,
it was the only bit of exclusivity that working-class queens had,
and it was fun.
Vada the bona carts on that omi over in the corner there,
the one with the bright blue ogles.
So it was a mixture of Italian and, I think, backslang,
and almost some Romany I think, some gypsy was in there, wasn't it?
Backslang, Romany, yeah, all sorts of words.
Can you see that queen zhooshing along there, mincing along.
There was troll, wasn't there, trolling along the street.
Trolling was also very much linked with cruising.
So if you say you're going trolling, it meant you're going cruising.
Then zhoosh was also decorational trim.
She's got a bit of zhoosh round the edge of that frock
or she's wearing bit of zhoosh.
It meant a feather boa.
How did you feel about the fact that the writers
of the incredibly popular radio comedy Round the Horne, Barry Took and Marty Feldman,
brought it out into the open with Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick,
"Hello I'm Julian, and this is my friend Sandy."
We loved it, because we didn't think of it as particularly gay.
It was just very, very funny.
And my father, who was very anti-gay
and made no secret of it to me, later on,
he loved that show and people laughed like hell on Sunday,
and also Sunday was the day off when we could all be a bit naughty.
They knew is was naughty, but they didn't quite know what it meant.
They used to say things like,
"Oooh isn't he butch?" and "That's your actual French."
-To anyone with ears to hear, it was most obvious that these were two gay men.
-Yes, it was.
The fact that the people around us wouldn't know what the hell
we were talking about at all was also part of the fun.
Secret languages and slang may seem like an abuse of language,
but they actually strengthen a sense of community.
Like secrets whispered between best friends, collusion bonds people.
Today, kids are speaking a new argot.
They smatter their language with words their parents and teachers struggle to comprehend.
Slang empowers them.
I say "'sup" like "Wassup?"
They say you got a swag.
Hey blood, there go the bro-skis.
-I say "hey" I say "hi".
But teenspeak is like a linguistic arms race.
Once the code has been cracked,
new combinations and expressions must evolve,
to define who's in and who's out.
Students from Berkeley High School in California
published a dictionary of slang in 2004, but already the words used have changed.
What's a scrub?
It's like er, I guess you could say a chump or like somebody...
OK, he's a scrub, he's a loser. Yeah, OK.
This language is, like, so out of date.
It moves too fast, moves too fast for us, for us old people.
-Moves fast for us.
Because it's the only public school in Berkeley,
so everybody that's not in a private school is here in Berkeley High.
That's why it can change overnight, it's because there's 3,500 kids at the school.
There's no difference in how everyone talks, it's just one giant melting pot.
So it's just... we have all the language and we use it all.
Exactly, it's like good food, you get lots of cuisine, add the spice of different culture.
Language does not have a right and wrong.
Language is just how people, how people communicate.
-That's a very...
-This is just how teenagers communicate.
The Berkeley High School kids tell me they pick up lots of their new words from music.
Nothing new there.
We've been jazzing up our language with cool expressions from pop culture
for the best part of a century.
# But I wouldn't give a sucker or a bum from the rucker
# Not a dime till I made it again
# Ho-tel, mo-tel,
# Whatcha gonna do today?
# Cos I'm a get a fly girl,
# Gonna get some spank and drive off in a def OJ.
# Everybody go ho-tel, mo-tel... #
For the past 40 years,
hip-hop has been bringing the language of the streets into mainstream use.
Terms like bling, jiggy, bootylicious, dope, phat and breakbeat
have all been given a place in the dictionary,
and other words like ill, ice, hood, whip, jet,
spit and diss have been given new meanings.
Hip-hop has entered the lingua franca,
'but is that a good or a bad thing?'
To say if it's positive or negative is,
you know, depends on your experience with it.
But to look at the uses of Twitter, or Facebook,
or status updates, you have to now put a thought in 140 characters or less.
So it lends itself to short conversation and slang and,
er, delivering a point quickly.
And, and of course what happens also is that a phrase seems to start
in the music world and in that community then gets taken
up by the wider culture and almost gets, you might say it gets
degraded, so phrases, obviously you think of, like,
"Yo homie". You know. "Whassup?"
-And that suddenly enters a beer commercial.
I was in the locker room working out in the gym
and I hear an older white gentleman, something like 60 years old
talking on his cell phone and he ends his conversation
and I didn't know who it was. I was, sort of, listening behind me.
He says "Hit me back later," and I say, "What, since when?!"
Language circulates and, as soon as you speak it
and put it out in the public, it gets picked up, whether it's through media,
or people travelling, and circulates.
As soon as I say, "pop your collar", it ends up in Germany, right,
it ends up in Tanzania, and it ends up in Australia.
Because of the same circulation through popular media and cultural flows
and so a lot of this stuff is happening sort of everywhere.
As you say there's, it's both, like, it's a local thing, a neighbourhood thing,
-but also a kind of citizen of the world thing, and the two can coexist.
And the music is a vector for
the ideas that are smuggled inside it, in some instances.
Yeah, yeah, that get circulated, that get circulated.
Whether you like it or not, hip-hop is very powerful,
not just in influencing trends in slang and fashion,
but in acting as a voice of the disenfranchised.
It provided a soundtrack to the Arab revolutions
and one artist has even been credited with sparking the Tunisian revolt.
The power of language, whether to foment civil unrest, or promote racist ideologies,
should never be underestimated.
But there is a fine line between wanting to prevent hate speech
and stifling free speech.
While we should all be aware how we use or abuse words,
I would argue that we shouldn't try to suppress them.
As we've seen from swearing,
making something taboo only adds to its power.
For me, language in both its graceful and disgraceful forms,
whether it's swearing, slang, double entendre,
dysphemism or euphemism, should be celebrated for its creativeness.
We should ignore the pedants and purists
and revel in its rebelliousness and allow language to evolve organically.
And above all, we should use it with relish and delight.
'I'll be looking at how we spread the word...with writing.
'I'm going to see some of the oldest and most precious written words...'
All of the Ten Commandments.
Amazing. So that alone is a priceless document.
'..some of the most beautiful scripts and world-changing books,
'as well as some very futuristic modes of communication.'
Oh, my goodness, this is magical!
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
This programme looks at the ways language is used and abused. While not everyone approves of 'bad' language, Stephen learns that swearing plays an important part in human communication the world over.
He undergoes an MRI scan and discovers the parts of the brain associated with swearing - and meets a sufferer of Tourette's and a stroke patient who swear they can't help using the f-word. Stephen and Brian Blessed participate in some rather colourful experiments to examine how swearing can help relieve pain.
Stephen discusses the positive and negative power of 'bad' words in humour and social interactions with Armando Iannucci, Stephen K Amos and Omid Djalili, and discovers how we use double entendres, euphemisms, and politesse to hide true meanings.
Stephen meets nurses, teenagers, and rappers to discover how slang and jargon can both aid and thwart clear communication, but ultimately add to the richness and texture of language.