Ofcom swears at the general public for five days during obscenity survey

'Warning: this report contains highly offensive language and discussion of content which may cause offence'


NSFW UK comms regulator Ofcom has taken the unusual step of employing survey company Ipsos MORI to swear 186 times at 368 different members of the public and record what they thought about it.

The survey was the latest in a series of four-yearly polls used to discover how the public react to different words and how the understanding of what is and isn't perceived as foul language changes over time.

Ofcom uses the information gained to better understand complaints and monitor what language is being used before and after the UK's 9pm broadcasting watershed.

The methodology of the survey included two parts. The "quantitative" approach sounds almost comical: "It ran over five days... with 368 respondents being asked about all 186 words. Respondents individually assessed the acceptability of each word before and after the watershed, reviewing around 37 potentially offensive words each day."

The exact format of these sessions is not revealed, but it does sound like 368 people had to sit down at a desk on their own and have a list of rude words read out to them over the course of five days by someone with a clipboard. While a case could certainly be made for the importance of conducting such research, pity the poor statistician questioning their life choices as they ask their fourth person of the day "What about 'knob'? What do you think about 'knob'?"*

The "qualitative" approach was more interactive, and consisted of "37 online discussion groups and 25 depth interviews involving participants from a variety of locations and backgrounds." So respondents got to find out what their peers thought of the word "knob" too.

As a result of these deliberations, Ofcom was able to create a detailed list of the relative offensiveness of all 186 words, separated into nine categories: General swear words; Words for body parts; Sexual references; Political references; Race, nationality and ethnicity; Sexual orientation and gender identity; Religious references; Mental health and physical ability; and Non-English words.

These categories were then further broken down by level of offensiveness – mild, moderate or strong – along with a breakdown of levels of general recognition among the respondents and extra notes concerning context.

The result is a guide to profanity which will be hugely useful to any writer, or anyone in general who just fancies swearing a bit more creatively. It has certainly introduced this scribe to several new offensive terms that will doubtless be used in future arguments, pub conversations and angry letters to banks and government bodies as soon as the opportunity arises.

In terms of what the list considers to be the top-rank current swears, the survey sadly does not have a top 10 or a complete list of what are the most and least offensive words on the list.

But the survey did single out c**t (vulgar slang referring to a woman's genitals) and motherfucker as the two universally recognised most offensive words on the list, despite an acknowledgement that the former had the capacity, particularly in Scotland, to be used "colloquially as an affectionate or endearing term, such as calling someone a 'clever c**t'." Despite this cheerful abuse, it was generally accepted that it might not be the best idea to use either word before the 9pm watershed, when children might be watching.

Fuck – a word which makes up almost 50 per cent of the total linguistic output of some UK residents due to its almost unique multi-faceted usage as a verb, an adjective and a noun – was also categorised as "strong", although the survey noted that participants of different age groups viewed it differently, with older respondents considering it more offensive than their younger counterparts.

Despite these differences, "they largely agreed, on a precautionary basis, that they did not want children to be exposed to this word," which is probably sensible, but its ubiquity was reflected by the recognition that "it tended to be used in a more general way rather than targeting an individual or group."

The fact that vague, generalised swearing was considered less offensive than foul language directed at specific people was also shown by the fact that a higher proportion of words were considered "strong" in the categories of words relating to "Race, nationality and ethnicity" and "Sexual orientation and gender identity", perhaps also reflecting an increased sensitivity on the part of the general public towards these categories.

By contrast, offensive terms associated with political preferences were considered more acceptable, with none being considered "strong" insults, so it seems we are free to call each other Karens, remoaners, gammons and snowflakes as much as we want in any context.

The "Non-English words" section contains a handy translation table for those who do not speak the relevant languages. Some of these are very offensive indeed and should probably not be wielded by anyone who lacks the suitable linguistic and cultural context, or possibly anyone at all. But the "mild" South Asian pan-linguistic term Uloo Ka Patha – which literally translates as "son of an owl" and reportedly means "idiot", "imbecile" or "moron" – definitely deserves wider use.

For those interested in what Ipsos MORI has to say on the subject of profanity in broadcasting, you can read its quick reference guide to the survey here [PDF], while the longer and more detailed summary report is here [PDF].

We have contacted Ipsos MORI for comment, but they haven't fucking got back to us yet. ®

*It turns out "knob" is considered a moderate obscenity in the "body parts" section, with a high degree of recognition by all participants.

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