In March 2020, I launched an online survey looking at the offensiveness of certain words. The idea came from some research I had carried out into the language of young people in Manchester, with a focus on swearing. I wrote an academic article called Teenage Swearing in the UK (email me if you are interested but don’t have access to the journal), and made the point that what different people view as ‘swearing’ or offensive varies enormously. People take offence at different things, depending on a) what was said; b) who said it; c) how it was said; and d) what the context was.
It’s actually quite difficult to explore people’s attitudes to offensive words in context. Once you start trying to account for all the different possible influencing factors, it is difficult to know where to stop. However, it is relatively straightforward to explore people’s attitudes to individual words, as long as you accept the obvious limitations (see below).
This survey was very simple. Participants were shown 11 isolated words, and asked to rate each of them on a scale of offensiveness with the prompt: ‘How offensive do you find each word?’. They used a slider, with a scale of 0-10 to give each word a rating. They were then asked to choose the most offensive words from the list (up to 3), by dragging the words into a box. Finally, they were asked to indicate their age, gender, and nationality. There was also a space for them to add any comments.
The 11 words used were: arse/ass, bastard, bloody, bugger, cunt, dick, fuck, motherfucker, pissed (off), shit, wanker. The choice of these words was pretty arbitrary. I wanted relatively common words that I knew would be viewed as representing a range of offensiveness, but I consciously avoided some obvious words which were overtly sexist, racist or homophobic. A simple online survey is not the place to explore such complex language.
The survey ran for a week, and had 2788 complete responses. The age range and gender mix looked like this:
Far more women than men took part (1706 women, 983 men, 47 non-binary), and the largest age group was people in their 40s. The oldest participant was 85.
Although 69 nationalities took part, in many ways this became a study into specifically ‘English’ views on swearing, as most respondents said they were from England. The top 6 nationalities were English, American, Scottish, Canadian, Australian, Welsh.
Before I start with the results, it is worth highlighting the obvious limitations of the survey. Otherwise, some of you will be reading this unable to concentrate due to the desperate need to point out why it is bad research. This isn’t bad research, but it is simple research. The design of all research involves compromise in one way or another, and I compromised on sophistication in favour of attractiveness and shareability. I could have created a more detailed survey and tried to recruit maybe 50 participants, but I chose to keep it simple get more responses. This isn’t a PhD.
The biggest limitation is that offence depends on context, and this survey takes the words out of context. Several people made this point, either as an observation or as a criticism. I completely agree with this; context can be vital for meaning, especially with regard to offensive language. But I would also argue that some words are still perceived as being ‘stronger’ than others, even out of context. The survey is trying to explore that underlying ranking of the words.
A few people made the comment ‘I don’t find any of the words offensive, so I can’t choose my top 1, 2 or 3’. This is a fair comment; I can see that the question ‘How offensive do you find [word]?’ is potentially problematic in this regard. But this is a compromise. If I had asked people to rate the words in relation to some societal norm then it would have made it less personal, and could have resulted in people thinking ‘Well I find the word [xxxx] very offensive but I know other people don’t seem to, so I’ll rate it 3 rather than 9’. The vast majority of people seemed to be able to rate the words in terms of some sense of offensiveness, so I think it worked overall. Again, compromise.
What follows is a selection of the results. There are lots of things to explore with data of this kind, but these are some of the highlights.
The most obvious place to start is the overall pattern of offensiveness of the words. This boxplot shows the inter-quartile range (the middle 50%) of the ratings for each word, ordered from least to most offensive. Every grey dot is a response, so you can see the range of views for all the words. However, there is a clear pattern.
I measured the mean offensiveness score for each word as reported by men and women. The two groups seemed to view the words in very similar ways, although women had a slightly higher average offensiveness score overall. There were some slightly bigger differences in individual words such as cunt, dick, and shit, but even then, nothing of any real significance.
This chart shows the mean offensiveness score of each word as rated by respondents from the UK, the USA and Australia.
And this chart shows the same, but only with people from the four regions of the UK. I think the lower score for cunt from Scottish participants reflects a generally held view.
There were some differences in the overall ordering of the words in terms of offensiveness between nationalities. This shows the word order by participants from the 5 most represented nationalities.
This chart looks at UK respondents only. It takes the 7 most offensive words, and looks at the relevance of age. There is a very clear pattern, especially with regard to older participants (although look at bastard).
Top 3 words
There was a great deal of consistency when it came to people selecting the most offensive words from the list.
This obviously isn’t a full, in-depth analysis of the results of the survey, these are simply some of the key findings, with very little commentary. I’ve deliberately kept any discussion to a minimum for two reasons: 1) I may decide to write this up in more detail elsewhere if I have time; 2) The findings as they are presented here might provide some useful prompts for discussion for A Level English Language classes. Your ideas as to why these patterns have emerged are just as valid as mine.
If you took part in the survey – thanks! It’s been fun 🙂
If you have any questions or comments about any of this, please email me: R.Drummond@mmu.ac.uk or contact me on twitter: @RobDrummond.