March 29, 2006

Delete expletives

While we're on the topic of standards in public discourse: Ben Goldacre at badscience has recently posted the BBC's "ranked list of rudeness". He originally saw it at a meeting with "the editorial policy/legal people at the BBC", when he asked them "which swear words am I allowed to use?"

The list was treated as sensitive information by the BBC EP/L people --

"... the offending piece of paper was physically removed from my hand (I think they had the idea that I would scan it, post it on my blog, and write an article about it).

... I mentioned this to someone else from the BBC at a party recently: she sent me a copy this morning, and as you can see, I have indeed scanned it and posted it on my blog. Disappointingly the list turned out to be from a report which is freely available in the public domain ... "

Don't you hate when that happens? Specifically, the source is a December 2000 report by Andrea Millwood-Hargrave, "Delete expletives?", which identifies itself as "Research undertaken jointly by the Advertising Standards Authority, British Broadcasting Corporation, Broadcasting Standards Commission and the Independent Television Commission". It's more recent and more scholarly than George Carlin's famous 1973 "Filthy Words" monologue, but not as funny. Also, three of Carlin's "seven words ... that will curve your spine, grow hair on your hands and maybe, even bring us, God help us, peace without honor" are unexpectedly missing from Millwood-Hargrave's list of 28, as are three of the four that he added in a later installment. I'm not sure whether this is because of differences between British and American norms, or simply due to limited survey funds.

This raises again the difficult question of how to inculcate and enforce linguistic taboos without violating them. Cultures down the eons have managed this, but it's not always an easy trick.

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 29, 2006 11:19 AM