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What the f***‽ How much swearing is there on TV?

Warning: this article contains copious swearing. Let me start with a confession: I swear. Not gratuitously, but once in a while it’s nice to let off steam with a well-placed “damnit” or two, when running…

What? I called you a ditch, Mike, a ditch … Courtesy of FOXTEL

Warning: this article contains copious swearing.


Let me start with a confession: I swear. Not gratuitously, but once in a while it’s nice to let off steam with a well-placed “damnit” or two, when running against a door or crushing my fingers in a drawer. But I’ve noticed a trend to my swearing habits. After binge-watching Deadwood I have been known to intone “cocksuckers” with alarming frequency.

Learning to curse, with help from Deadwood.

And for a while The Wire’s “shiiiiiiiiiit” was a favourite.

Senator Clay Davis shows how it’s done on The Wire.

But I don’t just swear. It’s worse: I study swearing.

Not just any swearing though. I’m interested in how TV characters swear. Recently I investigated some common American swear words in 38 TV episodes. I chose US TV series because they are so incredibly popular around the globe, meaning most of us are regularly exposed to American TV dialogue.

For this study, I used a broad definition of “swearing” so included words like “God”, “Jesus”, “Christ” and “Lord” if they were used in expressions such as “for God’s sake” or “oh dear Lord”.

I included taboo words such as “piss” or “prick”.

And I included variations – for example I included “goddamn” under “damn”, “ass-hole” under “ass”, “pissed-off” under “piss”, “son-of-a-bitch” under “bitch”.

The F-word included a range of well-known variations such as “fucking”, “fucked up”, “motherfucker”, “fuck it”.

So what did I find? If we look at pure frequency, then “fuck”, “god”, “hell”, “ass”, “shit”, “damn”, “bitch”, “piss”, “crap”, and “screw” are the most frequent in my data.

The 10 most frequent swear words in the survey.

But no need to panic. The 170 examples of the F-word in my data only occur in 10 of 38 episodes. That’s less than a third. Actually, only four swear words occur across at least half of the episodes analysed: “god”, “hell”, “damn”, and “ass”.

Thematically, words with religious origin are most frequent, then those that make reference to bodily excretions, sexual activity and a taboo body part. Of course such expressions have often lost their original meaning.

The origin of the most frequently-used swear words in the surveyed TV episodes.

What TV series contain the most swear words or taboo expressions?

For this we need to consider the length of an episode: an episode of 45 minutes contains more dialogue than one of 25 minutes. There is, then, a higher chance for viewers to encounter such expressions.

Taking this into account, the top five episodes in my data are from The Wire, True Blood, Entourage, Dexter, and Breaking Bad. All contain between about 10 to 20 swear words for every 1,000 words of dialogue.

How “fuck” is used in The Wire.

But not all of the included swear words are offensive. Most of us would not have a problem with the expression “oh my God” – although a minority might consider it profane. So what does the picture look like when excluding all the words with religious origin?

Frequency of usage of swear words without religious origin.

The picture doesn’t actually change much: in relation to the amount of dialogue, the worst offenders are the episodes from The Wire, Entourage, True Blood, Dexter, Southland, Breaking Bad, The Shield, My Name is Earl, United States of Tara and In Treatment.

Not surprisingly, many of these shows come to us from US cable channels HBO, Showtime, AMC and FX.

Those channels are not governed by the same regulations in the US as broadcast channels. They have much more freedom not just with language but also with nudity and sex, controversial subject matter and graphic violence. In contrast, my own research and that of Paulo Quaglio has shown that family-friendly shows such as Gilmore Girls or Friends won’t contain “shit” and “fuck”.

One reason the episode from My Name is Earl (NBC) makes it into the top-ten is simply because one character repeats “crap” three times for emphasis: “crap, crap, crap”. One episode cannot stand for a whole TV series, so we need to include more episodes per TV series, and the results might also change if different expressions are counted.

In TV dialogue these expressions are one way in which scriptwriters can be creative.

For instance, lots of different words are combined with “ass” in my data to create adjectives such as “big-ass”, “creepy-ass”, “dumb-ass”, “kick-ass”, “lame-ass”, “shit-ass”, “short-ass”, “stupid-ass”, and even “fiend-ass”. They are also used to express a character’s personality – as is the case in The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon’s “(oh) dear lord” and “(oh) good lord”.

Sheldon’s catchphrase.

They express characters’ emotions, their relationships to other characters and create realism. In her 2005 book Writing the TV Drama Series, scriptwriter Pamela Douglas tells the story of how HBO produced alternate dialogue for syndication. In these “clean” episodes, tough criminals ended up swearing about the “freakin” snow. I see this as unrealistic and undesirable for intelligent television.

I don’t believe swearing is inherently bad. It fulfils many important functions. But I’m not advocating swearing indiscriminately.

When we, rather than TV characters, swear we need to know when such language is appropriate and when not, when it’s friendly and jocular and when it’s hurtful and abusive.

After all, no-one likes a coc … well, you get the point.

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17 Comments sorted by

  1. Linette Harriott

    consultant

    Hi Monika, thanks for all the hard work of watching and counting. I have often wondered about the recent escalation and what it means. What are your thoughts on Battlestar Galactica's "fracking"?

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  2. Monika Bednarek

    Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at University of Sydney

    The data included episodes from the following TV series:
    Twenty-Four, NCIS, Rome, Legend of the Seeker, Lost, Tru Calling, Birds of Prey, Bones, The Wire, The Shield, Breaking Bad, Southland, The Big Bang Theory, The Office (US), Desperate Housewives, How I Met Your Mother , Community, Entourage, United States of Tara, My Name is Earl, Glee, Dollhouse, Grey’s Anatomy, House, In Treatment, Supernatural, True Blood, Arrested Development, Dexter, Fringe, Gossip Girl, Human Target, Jericho, Modern Family, Prison Break, Pushing Daisies, The Good Wife, The Vampire Diaries.
    (The Sopranos and Battlestar Galactica were not included. But sci-fi series often have creative replacements; see also Firefly's "gorram")

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  3. Nicholas Orford

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    Thhere is far too much swearing on tv. Last night due to insomnia I switched on the tv at about 1pm. A movie was on sbs. I watched it for a few minutes. The f word was used many times and then the c word many times with gross desciptions of female anatomy. After a few minutes I switched off. Why anyone would make sucha movie is beyond me. I can only assume that the powers that be in sbs are a bunch of infantile degenerates. Unfortunately late at night there is only this type of garbage or full on commercials or some fraudster telling me I will go to heaven if I send him/her some money.

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    1. Paul Miller

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Nicholas Orford

      Re: 'infantile degenerates'

      I daresay a compelling case could be made for suggesting that those who give swear words such power to upset them are the ones demonstrating a lack of maturity.

      Poor dialogue bothers me; whether the dialogue is true to life and/or entertaining means a lot more to me than whether it contains swear words or not.

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  4. Liz Downes

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    Maybe there's an argument here for more Australian made shows on TV? Whatever happened to that good old standby "bloody"? Is it still the great Australian adjective? "Bloody hell" is still the first phrase that leaps to my lips when things go wrong - though it is now more likely to be supplanted by stronger expressions in more extreme or outrageous situations.

    Seeing "crap" at number 19 reminds me of the time I innocently used it at the dinner table in my early teens thinking it was simply a stronger word for "nonsense" - my father was not amused!

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    1. Allan Gardiner

      Dr

      In reply to Liz Downes

      Although it may have been a bit 'dicey' for you to do so, you could have told your father that many Americans 'shoot crap' at the table every day, and that since you only had some sugar cubes sans any numbers on them, you thought that you'd just try your hand at shooting the bree_Ze'itgeistic instead. It's all in the narrative Liz.

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  5. bill parker

    observer

    I am tempted to say "so what". We all know what the words are and the shows are not shown during inappropriate times.

    To quote Nicholas Orford:
    "Unfortunately late at night there is only this type of garbage or full on commercials or some fraudster telling me I will go to heaven if I send him/her some money."

    I do not watch TV anymore for THOSE reasons. Its mostly crap. So its either iView or SBS for me and then selectively. If I want street speak, I know where to find it and sometimes is funny - Housoes for e.g.

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  6. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Farmer

    What an excellent field of study ... and many thanks for posting that wonderful linguistical joke from the Wire ... forgotten how clever those script writers were.

    The thing that interests me is the "cross cultural" aspect of this "swearing" - notably the prissy notions yanks display towards good old Saxon gutteralism... "hell" is swearing ... "darn" and "heck" and "geez"? And it's not the context that makes the word naughty - it's the word itself regardless of context hence the euphemisms…

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    1. Monika Bednarek

      Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at University of Sydney

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      I agree, a cross-cultural study of these expressions in TV series would be highly interesting. I haven't done this, but just out of interest I did look at some typically British/Australian expressions like 'bloody' , 'sod' and 'bollocks'. Not surprisingly, they are rare or non-existent in the US data. Another interesting issue is how such expressions are translated (dubbed or subtitled) into other languages!

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  7. Allan Gardiner

    Dr

    If you have to swear, then do as I did and just swear an oath to yourself that you'll never swear again, and remember to always watch out for those ars..err..artful dodgers who'll try to swear you to secrecy about something involving their sw_orn'ery enemies.

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  8. John Pickard

    Eclectic naturalist

    Where do you find the stamina to binge-watch some of these shows? You're a better man than me Monika! Included in your list are shows that you couldn't pay me to watch.

    Having grown up in factories, worked in factories, farms, etc. before public service and academia, my language is highly variable, and I have a very extensive vocabulary of swear words. After 15 months in Antarctica where every second fucking word was fuck, I had to unlearn this vocabulary when I returned to Australia.

    But…

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    1. Jim KABLE

      teacher

      In reply to John Pickard

      During the fundamentalist protestant prudish years of my childhood: Strike me pink! Strewth! Gee whizz! Gosh! Golly! Sugar! - all just other ways of being blasphemous or otherwise indelicate! Cease and desist - do not follow that path to perdition - we were warned/advised. Shakespeare, I blame!

      Years later, living/teaching in Japan. Cute was small children learning some English saying: "Oh, my God!" "Omigod!" (OMG - ?) or bigger people who had mixed with "the wrong crowd" and been "taught" to…

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