March 30, 2006


If the researchers for a BBC-commissioned study can only find 28 rude words in British English, then they're really not looking very hard. Fortunately, whenever the next study is conducted, the BBC will be able to exploit an in-house resource cataloging vernacular obscenities.

BBC America recently started up a "British American Dictionary" on its website to help us poor colonials understand the argot of such shows as Little Britain and Footballers' Wives. The maintainers of the dictionary fielded submissions from users (much like Merriam-Webster's Open Dictionary), and visitors to the site have approached the task with gusto. According to a recent article in the Scotsman, the dictionary already tops 2,500 terms, broken down by category and region. "As with all dictionaries," the Scotsman reports, "the most well-thumbed sections doubtless relate to sex and insulting words." (Can an online dictionary be well-thumbed? Well-clicked, maybe?)

Sad to say, the "insulting words" and "sex" categories are still on the meager side, currently containing only 36 and 19 terms respectively. But that's still way ahead of the 28 items ranked for rudeness in Andrea Millwood-Hargrave's report. And the moderators of the dictionary are no doubt withholding the really offensive stuff, since even in the posted entries the F-word, the S-word, and the C-word have been daintily asterisked. (This despite the site's wry disclaimer: "Please note: the dictionary contains many words that are not used in the politest of conversations. If you search for insulting words or browse through our collection of insulting words, you may be insulted.")

I eagerly await the study that analyzes the relative rudeness of bampot, berk, div, gobshite, knob jockey, tosser, and twonk. (For connoisseurs of such verbiage, let me recommend the excellent new edition of Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, edited by Jonathon Green. According to Cassell's, twonk is a blend of twat and plonker, dating to the 1980s.)

[Some previous Language Log posts on related topics:

"On second thought, make that 'fuckingly brilliant'" (11/3/2003)
"Bad words getting better?" (12/28/2003)
"Maybe better make that 'freakingly brilliant'" (1/25/2004)
"Some people should get a life" (1/25/2004)
"The FCC and the S-word" (1/25/2004)
"Imprecational categories" (3/21/2004)
"The FCC and the S-word (again)" (4/21/2004)
"The S-word and the F-word" (6/12/2004)
"Twat v. Browning" (1/19/2005)
"Now the FCC tells us, three months too late" (3/1/2005)
"Bovine Excrement on NPR" (3/11/2005)
"Another bullshit night in suck city" (3/19/2005)
"Adios, FCC?" (6/23/2005)
"[Expletive discussed]" (7/1/2005)
"You taught me language, and my profit on't / is, I know how to curse" (7/17/2005)
"Curses!" (7/30/2005)
"Modesty at Henry Holt" (8/17/2005)
"No fuckin' winking at the Times" (8/17/2005)
"Leading questions and frickin' cooks" (8/31/2005)
"Call me ... unpronounceable" (9/6/2005)
"Effing avoidance (cont.)" (9/13/2005)
"Plain speaking" (10/6/2005)
"Football's F-word" (11/29/2005)
"Delete expletives" (3/29/2006)


Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at March 30, 2006 01:03 AM