Sociology of Swearing

Young man wearing sun glasses with a t-shirt that reads 'Let me hear the f*cking bass'

Why is swearing on TV more offensive than graphic depictions of violence?

In December 2011, The then-Australian Minister for Communications, Senator Stephen Conroy, created a media controversy when he swore during a live address on the national public broadcaster, the ABC. This live gaff had me thinking about swearing, the power of ‘bad words’ and the regulatory bodies that set and enforce the standards for television programming. It’s popped back into my mind as I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about power dynamics and the changes in linguistic practices.

Speaking to the National Press Club about the proposed tax for the National Broadband Network, Conroy said:

“If a tax goes up, God, that is sovereign risk, but if a tax goes down, its fucking fantastic. Excuse me – that is fantastic.”

This comment went to air during 12:30 pm and 1:30 pm. As Aidan Wilson (2011) points out, Conroy’s offence was not simply using a ‘vulgar’ word, but also that his address was followed by the ABC’s afternoon children’s shows.

The language guidelines for TV shows can be confusing. Why are some words allowed in some contexts and not in others? It’s not simply a timing issue – some swear words are only allowed to escape the mouths of thespians late at night but not during the day. This makes sense if you’re trying to protect children from being exposed to certain swear words.

The again, some words are generally considered to be more offensive than others – but the social norms on this are not clearly articulated by law.

Regulation of social norms

Some words are only allowed to be said a certain number of times per TV episode. Writing for Life’s Little Mysteries, Natalie Wolchover (2011) argues that the USA’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines are difficult for the average viewer to fathom as the FCC does not make a list of banned swear words publicly available. These murky laws also affect audiences in Australia (where I live), since a great deal of our TV programming comes from America. Wolchover argues that the FCC ‘leaves it up to programmers to tread carefully through the murky waters of its regulations.’

Wolchover contacted FCC media relations spokesperson Janice Wise for clarification about the swearing guidelines and she felt none the wiser for it. Wise told Wolchover:

“No one is going to tell you what you can and cannot do, because it changes on a case-by-case basis… What you would do if you were a TV programmer is look through all the case law and see what the FCC has acted on in the past.”

So is it the case that in some cases the same swear words are more or less offensive than others? In The Social Construction of Reality, sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1967) illustrate that human communication relies on verbal signs and visual symbols that take on different meaning in particular contexts. Yet when it comes to particular swear words being said on television, why do regulatory bodies censor on a case by case basis and why can they not be clear about which swear words are especially offensive and why?

Australia has its own regulation agencies, of course. The Australian Press Council has been referred to as a ‘toothless tiger’ by media analysts. For example, see the September announcement of the Labor Goverment’s media inquiry in the The Australian (Franklin and Chessell 2011) and the Sydney Morning Herald (Taylor 2011), and the coverage of November hearings of NEWS Limited chairman and chief executive John Hartigan in The Australian (2011). In fact, the media enquiry seems to show that journalists watch the TV show Media Watchwith trepidation’, fearing its critique more than a rebuke by the Press Council.

Social context

Polite use of language is shaped through context. It can be determined by culture, such as in the difference between language use in Japan and Australia (Obana and Takako 1994), as well as particular situations. Generally, research has found that men swear more than women, but this also depends on context. Swear words are used to add emphasis to masculinity, but younger people of different genders tend to swear just as much as one another (Newman et al. 2008). At public schools, swearing is sometimes conceived as an act of resistance but not necessarily meant to be offensive or malicious (Plank et. al. 2001).

Melanie Burns (2008) argues that swearing serves two social functions. First, it is a physiological release of energy – in this sense, swearing is a socially-sanctioned way to express aggression. Second, swearing is a sociolinguistic marker. It helps people to express their belonging to special cultures and subcultures. Some words are taboo at certain points in time, though the shock value can be diluted through repeated use. Burns notes that the word fuck is taboo because it refers to sexual intercourse, but it is is also an adjective and an “intensifier” intended to add emphasis and emotion. It is more commonly accepted in everyday speech in working class areas, and other communities. Burns concludes:

“Many people disapprove of swearing, seeing it as representing a decline in moral standards or as a sign of limited education. Despite unfavourable perceptions of swearing, it clearly is an important facet of individual and group functioning, and it provides an insight into social interaction.”

Here is where one verbal slip during a press conference draws critique. The media revelled in the controversy of a politician using a swear word – a verbal release of emotional intensity. Politicians are supposed to uphold higher morals – fair enough, but the media furore over one word seemed imbalanced when at that same time slot, movies and TV shows allude not only to sex, but also depict graphic violence.

It’s reminiscent of George Carlin’s The Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV. In the 1970s, Carlin noted that depictions of murder and rape are routine, but obscene words draw heavy censorship. Polite spoken language, it seems, matters more than visual violence.


Australian, The (2011) ‘Labor Chasing Press Scapegoat Says News CEO John Hartigan,’ The Australian, November.

Berger, P. and T. Luckmann (1966) The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Anchor Books.

Burns, M. C. ‘Why We Swear: The Functions of Offensive Language, Monash University Linguistics Papers 6(1): 61-69

Holmes, J. (2011) ‘Jonathan Holmes Reports from the Media Inquiry – Day Two,’ Media Watch, 18 November.

Franklin, M. and J. Chessell (2011) ‘Labor Targets “Toothless” Australian Press Council but Ownership Off-Limits, The Australian, 15 September.

Newman, M. L., C. J. Groom, L. D. Handelman, and J. W. Pennebaker (2008) ‘Gender Differences in Language Use: An Analysis of 14,000 Text Samples,’ Discourse Processes 45(3): 211-236.

Obana, Y. and T. Takako (1994) ‘The Sociological Significance of “Politeness” in English and Japanese Languages — Report from a Pilot Study,’ Japanese Studies, 14(2): 37-49.

Plank, S. B., E. L. McDill, J. M. McPartland and W. J. Jordan (2001) ‘Situation and Repertoire: Civility, Incivility, Cursing, and Politeness in an Urban High School,’ Teachers College Record 103(3):504-524.

Taylor, L. (2011) ‘Media Regulator a “Toothless Tiger,”‘ Sydney Morning Herald, 15 September.

Wilson, A. (2011) ‘Swearing on TV? F#@%ing Fantastic!,’ Crickey, 14 December.

Wolchover, N. (2011) ‘Which Swear Words Are Banned From TV?,’ Life’s Little Mysteries, 11 April. (Archived).


This article was first published on my Tumblr.

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