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The Routes of English - BBC Radio 4
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Man cursing


Unspeakable English

We've been swearing for centuries, and those in power have been trying to censor us for just as long.

Nowadays, many people are quite relaxed about swearing, although they will be careful about the context - we still try to avoid bad language in front of the children or in polite society.

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Football crowds
One of the best places to find unspeakable English is the sports field. It's not only the players who are adept in the use of colourful language but also the fans, yelling obscenities at their team to drive them forward. The bad language of the crowds can have another purpose, according to John Williams, sociologist at Leicester University. Sound

Swearing by ...
How has a category of words developed with such a peculiar power to hurt, offend and insult? It seems to have started with 'swearing by' people or things, according to Geoffrey Hughes of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg Sound

How old is that swear word?
It's commonly believed that many of our current expletives can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon. Kathryn Lowe, from Glasgow University, maintains that this is a myth and that many swear words come from more recent times. Sound

The Church Court
There are archive records from the 14th century church courts, relating how ordinary people spoke. These were ecclesiastical courts dealing with lay and religious matters. According to historian Justin Champion, in one archive from 1610, both sides abused each other using choice language, much to the disgust of the court officials. Sound

Censorship
Bad language has been subject to censorship since the reign of Elizabeth I. Perhaps the greatest censorship trial was over publication of 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' by D H Lawrence in 1960. This book contains several uses of the 'F' word. Social commentator, Richard Hoggart, appeared at the trial and defended the book strongly. In retrospect, he is surprised by how the 'F' word was then viewed. Sound

The final taboo
Racial namings, such as 'you black bastard', have become the most explosive swearwords of our time. Geoffrey Hughes has studied the effect of these expressions in South Africa as has Kathryn Lowe in Britain. Sound



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