"The dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book".  ~Walt Whitman



Joe Sinclair

When someone mentions the "B" word, three words used to spring to my mind: BITCH, BOWDLER*, and BLEEP.  I have just added a fourth: BALDERDASH.

It never ceases to amaze me that the word “bitch” is apparently regarded as a seriously unacceptable breach of propriety in America, while it is considered little more than a mild epithet in England, where it has no deeper connotation (except as the female of “dog”) than does “mare”, “cow”, or “sow”, all of which might equally be used to express displeasure with the distaff side.

But I have only to tune in to one of those prime time American TV shows, Judge Judy say, to find the “B” word constantly bowdlerised to its initial letter, or "bleeped out", or – since, in my case, my hearing requires the use of subtitles – blanked out totally on the screen.

Even more ridiculous, in fact, than the initialization of the word, is its metonymic adaptation to make it acceptable, when everyone knows what is meant and the entire word is echoing through our brains. 


The censorship of public broadcast language is most prevalent (at least amongst the major broadcasting nations) in America and Japan, and to a lesser extent England.  France, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and Italy, for example, are much more liberal towards swearing, more averse to censorship and, possibly, more inclined to avoid obscenity in the first place.

In America the Federal Communications Commission, the official body responsible for protecting the public from this perceived menace to its morals, has for many years been involved in a number of debates and disputes over its censorship's apparent conflict with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution - the one dealing with freedom of expression.  This has involved a number of rulings by the United States Supreme Court, of which the most current is the definition of offensiveness where:

This clearly goes way beyond the brief we have set ourselves for this article, namely the objection to the use of certain words in the media. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court decision was made at least partly if not mainly as the result of a George Carlin sketch.  In 1972 George Carlin released an album of stand-up comedy in which he described "seven words you can never say on television".  These are shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits. When he subsequently performed his routine in Milwaukee he was arrested for disturbing the peace. A year later he performed a similar routine that was broadcast uncensored by station WBAI .without repercussion.

A George Carlin You-Tube clip featuring the seven-letter word routine http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lqvLTJfYnik

Our "B" word, unsurprisingly, does not appear in the list.  Later, however, the comedian Lenny Bruce compiled a list of his own, six of which coincided with Carlin's. Of the two additional words on Bruce's list, one was a "B" word of his own, namely Balls.  Personally I find balls as inoffensive as bitch.  Again, this may be a simple sociolinguistical distinction between the UK and the US.

So who decides what is obscene and what is not?  Since the mid-nineteenth century the definition (framed on the results of earlier court cases) has been "whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall."

In the United States, following on from what we stated earlier, the courts have held that indecent material is protected by the First Amendment and cannot be banned entirely. It may, however, be restricted in order to avoid being broadcast during times of the day when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience.  The watershed(1) is delimited by the hours of 6.00 am and 10.00 pm.  Outside these hours children, whom this regulation is designed to protect, may be supposed to be asleep.  This is rather wider than has been determined for the United Kingdom.  I guess our children are deemed to need more sleep than their cousins across the "Pond".

Moving eastwards now, we learn from the news agency Pravda [July 2013] that Russia, too, has decided to ensure its children are protected from the dangers of exposure to indecency, obscenity and profanity.

"State Duma Deputy Yelena Mizulina intends to make further amendments to the Law "On the Protection of Children." The chairwoman of the Committee on Family, Women and Children put forward a suggestion to punish people for using dirty language in social networks.

"According to politician, the pages full of posts and messages containing swear words, will have to be blocked within 24 hours, if harmful information is not deleted. This should apply to pages on social networks, websites, and various forums. According to Mizulina, children can begin to see profanity as a norm. It is assumed that possible innovations will be discussed on July 30th.2013.

"The law "On the protection of children from information harmful to their health and development" was enacted in Russia on 1 September 2012. The law introduced a register of banned sites. In addition, books, concerts, TV programs and other information is now marked with special marks limiting the age of the audience.

"Noteworthy, United Russia deputy Vitaly Milonov put forward a similar initiative on 25 July. He proposed to tighten control over social networks and allow people to dating sites are through their passports.

"The chairman of the Moscow Regional Bar Association, PhD, Associate Professor Sergei Smirnov commented the proposal from State Duma deputy Elena Mizulina.

"I have not seen anything like this in our laws. Foul language is obscene vocabulary, which is not common to use in communication and in business relations. When people express their thoughts or emotions with the use of profanity, many are offended by it. Obscene lexicon is equated to disorderly conduct, there is an appropriate article in the Code of Administrative Offences."The scientific and technological progress is advancing, people communicate not only in the real world, but also in the virtual world. Children and students often use the Internet. For some, the Internet is a half of their life. So, it's time to initiate and adopt such amendments. I think the idea of deputy Mizulina is relevant and timely.

"Obscene language offends both children and adults. A ban on its use is not an infringement of human rights. This is a direction towards a civilized lifestyle. If we do not use foul language in real life, then why do we use it on the Internet? Deputy Mizulina calls to protect vulnerable layers of the population - particularly children. I think that this initiative should be supported," the lawyer told Pravda.Ru." 

Pornography laws by region

[Click on thumbnail for full size picture]

Green is legal

Yellow is legal with some restrictions

Red is illegal

Grey data is unavailable

*  Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) has contributed his name to posterity, having produced and published an expurgated version of the entire works of William Shakespeare.  Nowaays the adjectival  "bowdlerise" is commonly associated with censorship of literature, films and television.

(1)  This is what we Brits call it.  To the Americans it is a "Safe Harbour".

A favourite piece of verse that I have quoted on numerous occasions, deals very specifically with this question of obscenity, bowdlerism and balderdash in language and I was unsure whether it was more appropriate to this article or to my article on Eroticism in Poetry in the Arts section of this issue.  The beauty of the internet is that I am no longer faced with a choice of that kind . . . I can use it to illustrate both articles by simply providing this link. CLICK HERE to Those Four-Letter Words.