It created a national outcry when the F-word was used on TV in 1965 when the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan uttered the word on live British TV for the first time ever. These days, it is used so often that some would argue that it has lost its ability to shock. Gordon Ramsey apparently used it 80 times in a single TV program, for example.
Almost without exception, leading comedians use the word as a matter of course. They regard it as a useful device to alter the meter of a tag line. It apparently has the ability to transform a mediocre line into a funny one. The evidence is often cited that jokes will lose much of their appeal when bad language is subtracted from their punch lines. I wonder if it is just me that laments the fact that this device of language has become a substitute for genuine wit.
Earlier this year, I watched a football match, shown live on TV, at the local pub. It was Fernando Torres’ first game for Chelsea following his transfer from Liverpool. The room was full of Liverpool fans and I sat at a table with a young couple. The atmosphere was charged and about half way through the second half, the young woman began to use the most foul language, thinking nothing about shouting the F-word right at the top of her voice.
Without question, the evidence is right in front of us that attitudes to the use of such language has changed remarkably within the space of a single generation. But the question I want to tackle is: does it matter?
Now I don’t want you to think that I am any kind of angel. There have been occasions when I have certainly used bad language myself (I am not proud of the admission) but I cannot believe that I would ever think it acceptable to shout such language at the top of my voice, in a public place. Furthermore, despite my own shortcomings, I can honestly say that I don’t like the sound of bad language on my own lips.
There are those who would argue that words are just sounds and that therefore no offense is actually contained within them. It is the person that hears the sounds who decides to be offended, or otherwise, by the sounds they hear. They would also argue that language is never static, but a constantly evolving medium with words always changing their meaning. They might cite the word ‘gay’ as an example of this – a word that has changed meaning roughly within the same period.
Whilst the above is undoubtedly true, the example I gave of the young woman in the pub was shocking for reasons other than her use of the F-word itself. Firstly, she thought it acceptable to be shouting at the top of her voice in a public place and secondly, her display of anger and aggression seemed completely acceptable both to herself and her companions. Now that represents a major change in attitudes that has taken place with the last generation.
Of course, should that young couple now have, or eventually produce, their own offspring, they will transfer their changed attitudes not only toward the use of language itself, but also to the kind of behaviour that is acceptable within public places. Society is being changed by the working of these mechanisms and for some reason, we have become tolerant toward such changes whether or not they are good or bad for society as a whole.
The reason I think the increased use of the F-word does matter is that it is an indicator of a much larger problem. Attitudes are simultaneously being changed towards many of what might be regarded as our traditional values. The majority of parents no longer teach these values to their children. They are not taught them at school which, these days, must confine itself to the business of education, and they are not taught them at church because the vast majority of our population no longer attends.
From the recent rioting in England, I think the direction that our society is heading is clear enough. The important question that remains is: do we care enough about what is happening to want to change it?