Swearing - does anyone give a f@#k anymore?

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NEWCASTLE United's new manager Joe Kinnear gave his first press conference last week, and it was a f***ing cracker. He walked into the room and fixed the assembled football reporters with a hard stare. Then the profanities began.

Kinnear: "Which one is Simon Bird (Daily Mirror's north-east football writer]?"

Bird: "Me."

Kinnear: "You're a c***."

Bird: "Thank you."

Kinnear: "Which one is Hickman (Niall, football writer for the Express]? You are out of order. Absolutely f***ing out of order. If you do it again, I am telling you, you can f*** off and go to another ground. I will not come and stand for that f***ing crap. No f***ing way."

And so on, with Kinnear fitting 52 obscenities into his first five-minute press conference. Anyone close to football has heard managers vent their frustrations in the earthiest terms, but even by the standards of the Govan Guv'nor in full flight ("I'm no' f***ing talking to you. Veron's a great f***ing player. Youse are all f***ing idiots," was Sir Alex Ferguson's pithy rejoinder to journalists who doubted one of his signings) Kinnear's outburst was an epic eruption of bile.

But then it was meant to be. Kinnear clearly chose his words carefully, deliberately selecting the inappropriate terms that would be most appropriate for his purposes. The 61-year-old Cockney geezer meant to offend. He wanted a confrontation. He admitted as much when he told the assembled reporters that "if it (his description of them as "c***s" and "so f***ing slimy"] is libellous, it is going to where I want it to go".

Kinnear has presumably read part of last year's report by Yehuda Baruch, a professor of management at the University of East Anglia, and colleague Stuart Jenkins. After studying the use of profanity they concluded that swearing has become so commonplace that its judicious use in the workplace can help foster solidarity among employees and allow them to express frustration. Fair enough, but presumably Kinnear skimmed over the bit where the academics reckoned that, if used where appropriate, swearing can help develop social relationships when entering a new work environment.

Kinnear's potty-mouthed diatribe at least proved that swearing retains the ability to shock, a fact that is no longer a given after the walls of Reithian propriety have been dismantled brick by brick over the best part of half a century. Whether it was Lady Chatterley's first public outing (two million copies were sold in the year after the ban was overturned in court), the Oz trial, or even the removal of the Lord Chamberlain's right of censorship over plays which led to Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting making it on to the West End stage, 'clean' entertainment has been in full retreat for decades.

Swearing has become so ubiquitous in British culture – at all levels – that we barely notice it any more. The National Theatre of Scotland's triumphant stage play Black Watch is littered with C words and F words and one of the company's hit shows at the 2007 Edinburgh International Festival – Anthony Neilson's Realism – had a musical number called 'He's a C***', complete with dancing girls.

No one seems to mind that a fashion label is called FCUK, or that Gordon Ramsay has made a career out of effing and blinding, recently racking up 111 obscenities during an episode of The F-Word in which he called a visitor to his kitchen "a f***ing useless twat". But then my generation grew up sniggering at Kenny Everett's character Cupid Stunt, while as pre-teens we roared with cruel laughter at a young Tourette's sufferer on Blue Peter who involuntarily spat profanities at adults in a manner mimicked in playgrounds the length and breadth of the country.

Swearing is habitually used, not to shock, but to punctuate and provide emphasis and rhythm. In Four Weddings And A Funeral – one of the most successful British films of recent years – there is only one word in its first three minutes – a constantly repeated "f***", most of them uttered by that nice Hugh Grant. In 2004 the two most popular songs of the year were ones which described the break-up of a relationship: Eamon's 'F*** It, I Don't Want You Back' (complete with 33 swear words in three minutes) and Frankee's 'F*** You Right Back'.

Swearing has its pioneers. In 1976 Johnny Rotten's use of the F word on Bill Grundy's live television chat show created moral outrage and weeks of tabloid headlines. Yet last year, when his alter ego John Lydon was the first man to say "f***ing c***" on television during I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here!, it registered barely a flicker of Whitehousian public outrage: fewer than 100 complaints from an audience of more than 10 million.

Swearing goes all the way to the top. John Major famously called the men in suits who ended his premiership "the bastards", Princess Diana damned the Royals as "that f***ing family" and when Tony Blair offered Margaret Beckett the job of foreign secretary, all she could say was "f***!" as he roared with laughter. Even that most imperturbable breed of all, senior Whitehall mandarins, were unmasked as closet swearers when, after a bad day at the office, slightly hysterical senior civil servant Sir Richard Mottram wrote a memo to the minister for transport, Stephen Byers, informing him: "We're all f***ed. The whole department's f***ed. It's been the biggest cock-up ever and we're all completely f***ed."

Even in some schools cursing is treated with tolerance. This summer, Peter Buckroyd, the head of the English body responsible for standards in exams taken by schoolchildren south of the border and for training examiners, argued that a pupil whose response to the question "can you describe the room you are sitting in?" was "f*** off" should get two marks (one for accurate spelling, one for successfully conveying meaning).

But Alan Large, the head of a Northamptonshire school, ran into some difficulty when he introduced a policy of allowing pupils to use five swear words per lesson. Under pressure from parents who swear like navvies but don't want their children to follow suit, he was swiftly forced to recant by local police and education authorities.

Yet according to Zoe Redhead, the headteacher of the famously democratic Summerskill School in Suffolk, swearing – which is allowed in the school's grounds – is not in itself the problem. "They're just words," she argues. "They're only insulting if they're said in a certain way, if a pupil feels like they're being picked on or intimidated. The language used while someone is being bitchy is superfluous to the actual problem."

The "certain way", of course, is exactly the way that Kinnear tried to use them. His aim was to intimidate; the swear words were simply the means by which he communicated that intent, and were backed up by his threat to withdraw the co-operation upon which football journalists depend.

The link between verbal threats and actions has been made by the police, who recently began to categorise verbal abuse as a violent crime. The change led to a sharp jump in recorded violent crimes, but according to Police Federation's Mark Botham, alcohol, abusive swearing and violence go hand in hand.

Intent is key, a fact that is now widely acknowledged and is shaping our perception of what constitutes swearing and how seriously we should take the insult in question. In a study for the British Broadcast Standards Commission in 2000, there was a wide variation in the swear words that were deemed the most offensive, with younger respondents finding racial slurs far more offensive than older respondents yet being far more tolerant of "traditional" profanities. So 38% of over-55s found the word "prick" to be "very severe" compared with 19% of 18-35s.

But swearing and cursing has also historically had a role in defusing conflict. Flyting – the precursor of the rap battles and 'dozens' which are common in urban black America – was a contest of insults, usually conducted in verse, in which the winner was the one who was most offensive about his opponent. These verbal jousts, designed to forestall actual violence, were commonplace in Germanic, Norse, Arabic and even Inuit cultures, but the best known example is "The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie", an exchange of poetic abuse between the Scottish bards Walter Kennedy and William Dunbar acted out before the Court of King James IV.

Flyting is part of a continuity of swearing broken only by a Victorian concept of propriety which has forever skewed the way we use lots of words. Take "c***", for example. It's an Old Norse word "kunton" that became "kunta" and is used unashamedly by Chaucer (queynte) and Pepys (cunny), while Shakespeare used it liberally in Twelfth Night, Henry V and Hamlet, where the Dane lays his head in Ophelia's lap and speaks to her of "country matters". Milton Street in Southwark and Grape Street in York were both once called Gropec***lane, while the word itself, once almost a euphemism, only became taboo around 1795, the point at which it disappears from all dictionaries. Nor is the word the only one that has undergone a transformation: "piss" was used in the King James Bible. Neither survived the Victorians.

Thomas Bowdler, at the time of the French Revolution, removed all the bawdy and offensive references from Shakespeare with the words: "I regret that no parent could place the uncorrected book in the hands of his daughter, and therefore I have prepared the Family Shakespeare." It sold well for a short time, but then disappeared.

To 'bowdlerise' now survives as a pejorative term, a fitting epitaph for a literary King Canute who tried, and failed, to hold back the unstoppable tide.

A (bad) word to the wise

1936: Music hall comedian Hector Thaxter is the first man to say "arse" on the radio.

1965: Kenneth Tynan is the first man to say "f***" on television.

1967: After an episode of Alf Garnett's Till Death Us Do Part, Mary Whitehouse declares "the end of civilisation as we know it".

1971: Philip Larkin writes "They f*** you up your mum and dad" in one of Britain's 10 most popular poems.

1972: OED includes the word "f***" for the first time.

1996: Student hackers tinker with Britain's first talking bus stop in Leeds, with the result that a queue of passengers are greeted with the words: "F*** off and walk, you lazy bastards."

2005: BBC receives a record 55,000 complaints about its decision to broadcast Jerry Springer: The Opera, which contained 3,168 F words and 297 C words.