Scene from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (detail) by William Hogarth


A frequent discussion in the backrooms of television productions concerns the use of swear words on the screen. What language should allowed and when? In the cause of realism, it is obvious that some characters have to be allowed to be colourful in their language. Characters need to be able to swear and curse if that is demanded by the nature of that character. There is nothing odder than hearing, say hardened criminals, using words like “frigging”, and “bleeding” when we know that they would be saying “fucking” and “fucking”. 

Television guidelines generally refer to “coarse language”, but don’t specify what words are regarded as coarse or the context that might make them coarse. In general, Australian television veers towards the conservative in the use of swear words and this is emphasised by international distributors who are wary of narrowing their markets with programs that cannot be sold as daytime programs. You only have to listen to the language of US cable shows to realise how sanitised our programs are.

These thoughts were prompted by reading about a failed attempt to pass something called the Clean Airways Act, which specified the actual words that should not be allowed on US television – quoted in a recent article in The New Republic

It is not often that you read an article that explores a topic from so many angles as this one does. Steven Pinker’s piece entitled “What the F***?” explores swearing, particularly on television, from a linguistic, neurological, psychological, theological, biological and historical (have I left anything out?) point of view.

The author begins by posing – 

Late-night comedians can say rude things about their nation’s leaders that, in previous centuries, would have led to their tongues being cut out or worse. Yet, when it comes to certain words for copulation and excretion, we still allow the might of the government to bear down on what people can say in public.

Then, having considered the grammar of swear words and a discussion about profanity and religion moves onto the role of sexuality in swearing. He finishes with the following thought –

When used judiciously, swearing can be hilarious, poignant, and uncannily descriptive. More than any other form of language, it recruits our expressive faculties to the fullest: the combinatorial power of syntax; the evocativeness of metaphor; the pleasure of alliteration, meter, and rhyme; and the emotional charge of our attitudes, both thinkable and unthinkable. It engages the full expanse of the brain: left and right, high and low, ancient and modern. Shakespeare, no stranger to earthy language himself, had Caliban speak for the entire human race when he said, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.”  

This is not an argument for the indiscriminate use of swearing, but rather one for TV to be allowed to reflect reality. “Puck you, Miss” is fine for Jonah in Summer Heights High but not for an adult crime series.