Brian Edwards Media

Reflections on the F-Word

images1Warning! This post contains frequent and explicit use of the F-word. If you are offended by seeing this word in print, either by itself or in combination with other words, you would be best not to read on. Otherwise:  

I very rarely say ‘fuck’. It’s not that I’m particularly prudish. ‘Fuck’ is a wonderfully explosive swear word, but only if it’s sparingly used. If I say ‘fuck’ or ‘fucking’, my friends and family know that I’m either extremely passionate about something or extremely angry. So in a sense my objection to people who pepper their writing or conversation with this and other ‘four-letter words’ is that they debase the currency.

This is nowhere more evident than in stand-up comedy. If you are offended by the frequent use of ‘fuck’, ‘fucking’ or ‘motherfucker’, you won’t get many laughs watching Ben Elton, Billy Connelly, Mike King or almost any of the current crop of stand-up comedians. Four-letter words have become part of the lingua franca, the lingo of stand-up.

In a Top of the Morning interview with Ben Elton many years ago, I asked why he and so many other stand-up comics needed to swear so much. Surely, if the routine was really funny, it would stand on its own feet without the pervasive prop of ‘bad language’.

Elton said his mother would agree with me. She was constantly telling him off for his ‘disgusting’ on-stage language. But it was now almost impossible to connect with a stand-up audience without including ‘fuck’, ‘fucking’ or ‘motherfucker’ in almost every sentence. The punters expected it. I had a similar response in an interview with Mike King.

I have considerable respect for the intellect, integrity and comedic talents of both men, but it is hard to resist the thought that stand-up comedians are finding obscenity a convenient substitute for wit.

Over the last week, I’ve heard ‘fuck’, ‘fucking’ and ‘motherfucker’ used on two New Zealand television shows – Seven Days and Outrageous Fortune. Seven Days is a highlight of my viewing week. At its best it’s side-splittingly funny. And it achieves this effect solely through the quick-wittedness and social irreverence of the talent. So why does it need the f-words? It would be interesting to calculate whether the incidence of obscene language increases as funniness and audience response decrease. ‘Whoops, losing them, better throw in a few “motherfuckers”!’ This may have been what was happening on last week’s uncharacteristically lacklustre episode of Seven Days. But as a comedy parachute it failed to open.

Outrageous Fortune is a different cup of tea. This, the scriptwriters would no doubt have us believe, is how  lawless, dysfunctional, Westie families talk. The justification for this sort of language, if justification is needed,  is social accuracy. I’m inclined to think that ratings may be the real justification. Outrageous Fortune has to be… well… outrageous. And it is. More nudity, sex, drug-use, crime and undeleted expletives than you can shake a stick at. I love it. But after a while I tire of the undeleted expletives. They grate.

It suddenly occurred to me that I was actually annoyed not with the producers or scriptwriters,  but with the characters themselves. I wanted to give them a telling off. ‘Now listen, Cheryl, Van, Loretta, Jethro, Pascalle, Munter…. Don’t you realise that all this ‘fucking’  just shows what an impoverished vocabulary you have. You’re not all entirely stupid. It’s just a really bad habit you’ve got into. And it’s all so… unnecessary.’ Which, when you think about it,  is a real tribute to the producers, directors, scriptwriters and actors on Outrageous Fortune who have drawn me so fully into their world.

But the question remains – are four-letter words essential to successful, high-rating television comedy or drama? I would have thought not. A decade or two ago you would not have heard the word ‘fuck’ anywhere on radio or television in this country. Its total absence was perhaps out of tune with the realities of how many Kiwis talk when they’re passionate or angry. But neither ‘fuck’ nor any other word considered offensive by the average citizen ever appeared in The Billy T James Show or in Gloss, our highest rating comedy and drama series.

Maybe we’ve just got into a rather bad habit.

 ***

And for the record:

Radio New Zealand’s programme rules state: ‘In general, senior managers will never approve the word “motherfucker”, and the word “fuck” will only be approved in rare circumstances where context justifies its use.’

The Radio Network has an even stricter policy.  ’Fuck’ may not be used by its programme hosts or talk-back callers. Like all talk-back stations, the ZB network operates a 7-second delay, allowing hosts to delete unacceptable material before it is broadcast. Obscene language will occasionally slip through, but is unlikely to be grounds for a complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

TV3 will allow limited use of obscene language after 8pm but takes a much more relaxed approach after 9.30. (Outrageous Fortune and Seven Days are both TV3 programmes broadcast after 9.30.)

TVNZ takes a similar position. Though it will on occasion broadcast the f-word after 8.30pm, it prefers to restrict its use of the word until after 9.30. If the word is used more than twice, the programme will be preceded by a viewer warning.

Most New Zealand newspapers will not print the word ‘fuck’ in full, preferring to use asterisks as in ‘f**k’. This always struck me as rather silly, since there are very few New Zealanders who would not be able to fill in the missing letters.

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29 Comments:

  1. I’m ambivalent about swearing. I am very, very good at it myself, but I despair of others when it comes to using it most effectively. I put this down to having grown up in a small, working-class (mostly unemployed, in other words) town in Ireland, where it was almost deemed a waste to allow a sentence to pass without adorning it with “fock” or one of its derivatives. Even my mother was a frequent “feck”er, especially when she – inevitably – burnt the dinner. I find New Zealanders are mostly just bad at it. I think it’s the accent. Or possibly the timing; or the fact that they use it in a way that is meant to say that the speaker cares not a whit for the mores of society, rather than as simple decorative punctuation.

    Incidentally, listening to some television and radio announcers pronouncing the name Phil Goff often puts me in mind of a Yorkshire native telling someone to go forth and multiply.

  2. A woman I know heard someone saying fuck. She said that word upset her. I jokingly said go home and when alone shout it out 50 times. And she did so! “Well how do feel about it now?” I asked. “Constant repetitions of swear words should diminish the shock.”
    She said “No. It still offends me!” then she gave me a great big smile. What did it all mean? Dunno.

    • A woman I know heard someone saying fuck. She said that word upset her.

      Judy and I went to see a production of The Vagina Monologues in Auckland. At one point the audience was asked to stand and repeatedly sing “Cunt, Cunt, Cunt…” from memory to the tune of Frere Jacques. This is not a word either of us would ever say, and I’m actually not comfortable writing it here. I thought the whole thing was stupid and embarrassing. So did many other people in the audience.

  3. The print media writing f**k and c**t is similar to one swimming naked in public during daylight, not much more to reveal.

    • The print media writing f**k and c**t is similar to one swimming naked in public during daylight, not much more to reveal.

      Well expressed.

  4. Not a blog where one of “breeding” would normally venture to offer a comment, on. Suffice it to say: any use of profanity is most wrongful — irresepective of stress, frustration or provocation. What happened with “Gosh”, “Good Heavens” “Goodness Gracious Me” etc. These expressions were from a more gentile – and gentler – Age, and used in “polite company”.

    Just no standards, these days.

    • Not a blog where one of “breeding” would normally venture to offer a comment, on.

      A reasonable personal view. I assume you mean ‘genteel’ rather than ‘gentile’.

  5. Interesting post – curiously, I have always felt that, in general, New Zealanders of whatever class, weren’t that enamoured by swearing.

    I love to swear – but rarely feel comfortable doing it here in NZ – especially among the chattering classes.

    As many will attest, it’s different in the UK. I was in London a few weeks ago, and was struck, once again, of how much swearing goes on, ‘by all walks of life’

    Indeed, on a couple of occasions – walking along the South Bank on a sunny Friday evening, being one – I was reminded of how much fun it was to hear an upperclass female swearing away like the proverbial.

    As for Scotland – well – all you need to do is watch ‘In the Loop’. Now that’s what I call swearing! Outstanding!

    • Interesting post – curiously, I have always felt that, in general, New Zealanders of whatever class, weren’t that enamoured by swearing.

      Now that’s interesting, because I have known you for probably 15 years and I’ve never heard you say anything stronger than ‘bloody’. Or are you just more polite around me? Agree with you entirely about In The Loop – wall to wall swearing of the vilest sort plus the most excoriating abuse. But it’s funny and very much in keeping with the characters. A marvellous film, worth seeing twice for the vileness you might have missed the first time.

  6. BE: I assume you mean ‘genteel’ rather than ‘gentile’.

    I stand corrected: indeed, I meant ‘genteel’. But, on this occasion, I can be forgiven for the misspelling, as I was still reeling from the shock of having read such unadulterated filth which triggered off my dyslexia.

  7. You are right – people who know me, especially professionally, don’t hear me swear much – mostly because I have trained myself out of it. And all because of what I said in the first post – the reactions I got from kiwis around me.

    Also, in the early days on radio etc, for example, talking with Kim Hill about that interweb, I used to have a real horror that I would forget and just come out with something spectacularly wrong.

    So I think that too helped install a verbal firewall.

    Curiously – and I have just thought of this – my Dad who was a school teacher, didn’t swear until he retired. Then he just let rip. My sisters were so shocked! Lord it was funny watching their faces.

    I still manage some impressive outbursts – next time we catch up I’ll have a good practice :-)

    And by the by – this being a media blog, we could start a great competition as to the identity of the television presenter/personality who, off air, is one of the most prolific swearers I have ever come across.

    On the movie – In the Loop – it is worth seeing again – but not for the ending – plot – characters – conclusion – all seemed to just give up the ghost.

    • And by the by – this being a media blog, we could start a great competition as to the identity of the television presenter/personality who, off air, is one of the most prolific swearers I have ever come across.

      I’ll be in for this. Same initials as mine?

  8. I couldn’t possibly comment – suffice to say his boyish good looks and easy charm is a byword.

  9. Golly! I used to get lectured for using ‘bloody’, and ‘God’, ‘damn’, and ‘Christ’ were thumping crimes, and of course ‘bugger’ was totally off limits. Strangely enough ‘cor blimey’ was alright (‘God blind me’) Gads! (i.e. Gods!) was okay, so was ‘crikey’(Christ).
    When I became too intimidating to thump, I developed a passion for swearing – rebellion I guess, and a backlash against a middle-class Victorian overload.
    Oldsters have always complained, endlessly and forever, about the morals of the young and the corruption of the ‘Queen’s English’. Personally, I think it’s probably a bunch of old cobbler’s (awls).
    A media player thang arrived last night, (it was a pity about the spelling) but the message was clear: “a word so popular it is commonly known as the F-word. It can stand for pain, pleasure, hate and love. It is thought to derive from ‘frichen’ (to strike). It may be used as a transitive verb, intransitive verb, adjective, an adverb, and an adverb enhancing an adjective, as a noun, as part of a word, and as every word in a sentence. It is versatile, unique and flexible, it can also mean: fraud, dismay, trouble, aggression, difficulty, inquiry, dissatisfaction, incompetence, and dismissal. (for Monty Python, by Steve Leyland)”.
    What is clear is that the listener needs to pay careful attention to the context to establish the meaning.
    Lenny Bruce (1925-1966) was one of the first stand-up comedians I remember challenging the hypocrisy. I guess that when the word ‘wears out’ and no longer has the power to offend, new ones will just have to be found.

    • I guess that when the word ‘wears out’ and no longer has the power to offend, new ones will just have to be found.

      Precisely. And then an excellent word will be lost to the English speaking world.

  10. I’m tempted to say “what a load of crap!” just for the sake of irony, but I’ll refrain

    Pretty mild irony! And you didn’t refrain.

  11. 11

    Bernard Blinkingbird

    Swearing – for the most part – is just an excuse for lack of self control and the inability to express yourself, properly. There was just no good reason why such swearwords should be put into print, here.

    • Swearing – for the most part – is just an excuse for lack of self control and the inability to express yourself, properly. There was just no good reason why such swearwords should be put into print, here.

      Well, I don’t agree with your thesis. But, putting that aside, I’m not sure how one could have written on the topic without using the words. A necessary evil, if you like. And writing ‘f**k’, as I suggested in the post, would have been just plain silly. And there was a warning, so you didn’t have to read the piece at all.

  12. Hi Brian
    Your comments about Outrageous Fortune’s desperate crutch of biffing in the vernacular to spice up the plot is just another reason I think it is over-highly rated.

    • Your comments about Outrageous Fortune’s desperate crutch of biffing in the vernacular to spice up the plot is just another reason I think it is over-highly rated.

      You’re right, I did say that. But I think there are two reasons – the one you suggest and writing characters that are true to life. I’m sticking by my view that OF is brilliant and the final episode of this series was sensational.

  13. Yo! “Lost to the English speaking world”? Nah, surely it will become an accepted part of the language, taught at the knee (where it isn’t already), and haven’t you noticed that fewer bros’ stumble with “umm” or “ahh” now that they have the versatile F-word (which they’ll replace with other vocab as that expands)? And doesn’t it send a message … when rapping with PR you know when you’re going to talk ‘straight’ with the dude because his “verbal firewall” has gone Berlin, and he feels totally chilled out with you?
    “Debase the currency…”? It IS the currency. My stash is on it’s growth, after all, it’s been a hell of a ride from Middle English. That amazing word almost feels as close to Mandarin inflexion as we’ve ever had. Just words … expanding, despite our efforts to suppress them and freeze time – we die – they keep growing.
    Remember when ‘bastard’ was the greatest personal insult that could be inflicted?

  14. I swear all the time, it’s a good outlet for my repressed anger. But I never swear, gratuitously. And I never swear in a public place, unless I’ve totally lost my rag.

    • I swear all the time, it’s a good outlet for my repressed anger. But I never swear, gratuitously. And I never swear in a public place, unless I’ve totally lost my rag.

      Seems reasonable to me. Though I’m not entirely sure what ‘gratuitous’ swearing would sound like.

  15. Yep, I have the odd swearing tirade, when I’m a tad angry and I usually utter ‘Fire Truck’ instead of the four lettered original unless I’m really in the mood and in my own four walls with consenting adults! I was ‘instructed’ when in my formative years not to take the Lord’s name in vain – and I didn’t, though I must admit to muttering the old cliche from ‘McPhail & Gadsby’, ‘Jeez, Wayne’ at times.

  16. “Not in my neck of the woods. Who are you associating with?”

    The Great Unwashed, Brian. So then, who are you associating with?

  17. The “Bugger dog” ad had the immediate effect of increasing the acceptability of “bugger” – would an ad of that sort do the same if the dog used the F word?

  18. When it’s loud and obnoxious, show-offy, deliberately uttered to cause offence to people in hearing proximity; as opposed to exclamation, shock and surprise.

    Yep, sounds about right.