Opinion: The risks of using asterisks in place of swearwords

by David Marsh

Omitting letters can confuse. How is the poor reader expected to differentiate between b******* and b*******?

“The practice of hinting by single letters those expletives with which profane and violent people are wont to garnish their discourse, strikes me as a proceeding which, however well meant, is weak and futile. I cannot tell what good it does – what feeling it spares – what horror it conceals.”
Charlotte Brontë would have approved of Guardian policy, which is to print swearwords in full, with no asterisks, although in the words of the editor-in-chief “only when absolutely necessary to the facts of a piece, or to portray a character in an article; there is almost never a case in which we need to use a swearword outside direct quotes”.
I’ve blogged before about our use of swearwords, which has increased since I last analysed the figures a couple of years ago: 808 “fucks” in the Guardian in the past year (compared with 705 in the year to April 2010); 69 “cunts” (up from 49). In the latter case, however, the increase is largely down to reports on or relating to the John Terry trial.
We have become so used to reporting language as it is spoken, or alleged to have been spoken, that during my close involvement in editing many of these stories it never crossed my mind that we might not quote the words, however offensive, in full. Nor had I paid much attention to other newspapers’ approach until a Twitter user commented that, before he saw the word “knobhead” in the Guardian, he did not know what the word denoted by another newspaper as k******* was supposed to be. I sympathise. How is the poor reader expected to differentiate between b******* and b*******? (The former, of course, is “bastards”; the latter, “bollocks”.)
The language spoken in this case was not in question. (John Terry admitted using the words “fucking black cunt”; the chief magistrate accepted that the England defender might have used the phrase not to insult Anton Ferdinand “but rather as a challenge to what he believed had been said to him”.) Yet readers of almost all newspapers, as well as radio and television viewers, were judged not grown up enough to see, in full, the actual words. This seems wrong to me for several reasons.
First, people are being denied a full and accurate report of what the entire case hinged on: the swearing was central, not peripheral. Second, the shocking force of the language used is surely diminished by reducing it to asterisks. Third, readers are being treated as children, unable to cope with the reality – however unpleasant – of what, we now learn, highly paid professional footballers say to each other on the pitch.
The evidence is that Guardian readers are comfortable with our approach. Rather than complain about whether we should have published them or not, they have been discussing the nature of the swearwords themselves (notably the extent to which they are sexist). This seems healthy. One reader wrote: “Thanks, in any event, to the Guardian for reporting without coyness what Mr Terry is alleged to have said to Anton Ferdinand. I never cease to be amazed by newspapers which shyly make him say ‘f***ing black c***’, leaving intact the one word which aroused Mr Ferdinand’s wrath.”
Ken Loach, in a row over censorship of his film The Angels’ Share, objected to the fact that all but seven instances of “cunt” had to be removed, despite the screenwriter’s protests that in Glasgow “you wee cunt” could be a term of endearment. To Loach, the issue typifies the hypocrisy of the establishment: “The British middle class is obsessed by what they call bad language. The odd oath, like a word that goes back to Chaucer’s time, they will ask you to cut. But the manipulative and deceitful language of politics they use themselves.”
Lenny Bruce had something similar in mind when he said: “Take away the right to say ‘fuck’, and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government’.”
To those who say they don’t want their children to read such words, and imagine newspapers are somehow protecting the young innocents by not spelling them out, I recommend a visit to the school playground.

This article was first published in the UK Guardian.


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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