When I was a kid I heard that “bloody” was considered a bad swear word in England though I could never figure out why. The Pythons used it all the time, but it meant nothing to me. From my cursory research (Wikipedia) I have learned that it could be a blasphemy relating to the Virgin Mary or Jesus, a minced oath (?) or a smear against Charlemagne. Apparently it was still considered a controversial word to use on television as late as the 1970′s.
Fast forward to the naughties – the other day I was enjoying an episode of The IT Crowd. Keep in mind, I watch all my British shows on DVD so I was a little slow on the uptake. Then it occurs to me, “Hey, Jen just said f**ker. And at one point, this was on tv.” The use of the word didn’t offend me, but it made me curious about the rules for swearing on British television. The only place you would hear that particular expletive on American tv would be on an HBO series or some similar pay channel.
So I Googled around and discovered in the UK there is a Broadcast Code and an agency (Ofcom) to investigate viewer complaints against the television and radio industry. There is mention of the “watershed” hour, 9 pm, when more mature subjects, language, etc. are considered acceptable. It’s not really that different from our FCC and more family friendly programming in the early evening hours.
So then why the difference between what the American and British networks will broadcast? Well, I am of the opinion that it generally sounds better when a British person is doing the swearing, but I’m not sure that’s the answer. I have heard the claim that America clings to its puritanical roots in matters like this. A better way to illustrate this point is to say that America is still a relatively new country. Like a youngster, we require precise rules to function in our world. We can be immature and embarrassed to publically hear the words that grown-ups sometimes use. But the UK has been around much longer and endured more than we have. It’s going to take a lot more than a bad word to make them blush or cry. (See the Lewis Black YouTube video below. Warning: there is some swearing. And I know he’s not British, but this bit really accents the post!)