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Great Britain

Swearing has its place in journalism – when used sparingly and skilfully | Paul Chadwick

It is difficult to discuss coarse language without using some. So, if reading on, be warned. Our style guide says the Guardian is “more liberal than any other newspapers, using language that most of our competitors would not”.

The editorial guidelines say: “Respect for the reader demands that we should not casually use words that are likely to offend. Use swearwords 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. The stronger the swearword, the harder we ought to think about using it … and never use asterisks, which are just a cop-out.”

As a readers’ editor swiftly learns, thresholds and tolerances vary. Mostly, when I enquire I find that writers and editors have deployed the controversially strong words for considered effect. This is particularly so in satire. Stewart Lee, for example, has hinted at his assessment of the UK prime minister by repeatedly fixing him with his career gaffes as nicknames, like so: “What was Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Cake Bumboys Vampires Haircut Wall-Spaffer Spunk-Burster Fuck-Business Fuck-The-Families Get-Off-My-Fucking-Laptop Turds Johnson up to now? I wondered.”

In former days, profanities were the focus. Now, at least in secular societies, taboo words associated with genitalia, sex, excretion, race and ethnicity tend to cause most concern. “I must be old-fashioned,” wrote a man upset by several uses of “cunt” in the same article. “My dad used to call it ‘pit talk’ where he worked.” In this case, the relevant editor had thought carefully before publication. The writer had skilfully skewered a senior figure’s use of the word to abuse on Twitter a younger person who had called attention to what seemed to the younger man to be double standards around race and ethnicity. In the context, and noting that a warning had been given, I supported the editor’s decision.

Do not think sweary uses of religious words no longer offend. A commentator’s “Boris Johnson, the Minister for Oh-Christ” caused upset. And when, in a piece about housebuying, a writer self-assessed with “I mean, Jesus Christ, I’m an idiot”, a reader let me know that “the use of a name sacred to many people as a swearword or for humorous emphasis is both gratuitous and offensive”.

Respect for sincerity of religious belief requires that the offence caused should be acknowledged. But in a secular society that values free speech, there is no general right not to be offended. What can reasonably be hoped is that, especially at a time when public discourse seems louder, harsher, coarser, writers will recognise that overuse drains the strongest words of the potency writers need.

Conveying views such as mine on this issue runs the risk of compounding the offence already caused. Yet I find most complainants respond good-naturedly. A favourite reply came from a vicar, who graciously took the point but lamented nevertheless the decline of written English, and ended with a list of 13 “mild” swearwords – product, he said, of his research – so that his sign-off to me read as follows: “ Goddam Jesus Christ Minger Sod off. No offence! Best wishes …”

Paul Chadwick is the Guardian’s readers’ editor

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