language ‘bad language’

Back on the 16th on ADS-L, Joel Berson noted this attachment to a review of the movie 21 Jump Street by Wesley Morris in the Boston Globe:

Rated: R (crude and sexual content, pervasive language, drug material, teen drinking, and some violence)

Berson puzzled over pervasive language, but noted that the phrase seemed to go back to about 1994 in movie reviews on Google Books. Neal Whitman immediately nailed the expression’s natural habitat, in the U.S. at least: in movie ratings, where language is used to mean ‘offensive, obscene, bad language’ (either by semantic narrowing or by truncation of the longer expression); see Whitman’s posting on mild language ‘mildly offensive language’ with respect to movies rated PG, here.

Then I noted the OED3 subentry for language ‘bad language’ more generally — for which this dictionary provides only British cites. (NOAD2 does have a subentry for language ‘coarse, crude, or offensive language’ in AmE, but marks it as usually occurring in bad/strong language rather than on its own.)

Outside the MPAA ratings scheme, the narrow sense of language seems to be rare in AmE, though it’s not unknown. But Language! as an interjection does seem to be specifically BrE.

The Motion Picture Association of America ratings descriptors for “Profanity: abusive, vulgar, or irreverent language” (here):

Some language
Brief language
Mild language
Some brief language
Some mild language
Strong language
Brief strong language
Some strong language
Pervasive language
Pervasive strong language (The Big Lebowski)
A substantial amount of strong language (The Usual Suspects)
“Salty language” (My Fellow Americans)

These are amplifications of the basic rating system: G for general audiences, PG indicating that parental guidance is suggested, PG-13 indicating that some material may be inappropriate for children under 13, R indicating that children under 17 must be accompanied by a parent or adult guardian, NC-17 indicating that no one 17 or under will be admitted. But there is some latitude in how the ratings are applied:

If a film uses “one of the harsher sexually derived words” (such as fuck) one to four times, it is routine today for the film to receive a PG-13 rating, provided that the word is used as an expletive and not with a sexual meaning (link)

I’ll say more on this point at the end of this posting.

Now to the OED on narrowed language:

colloq. = bad language at sense 2a. Also int., indicating that the speaker should desist from using such language.

1860   Dickens Uncommerc. Traveller in All Year Round 10 Mar. 464/1   Mr. Victualler’s assurance that he ‘never allowed any language, and never suffered any disturbance’.

1865   Dickens Dr. Marigold i, in All Year Round Extra Christmas No., 7 Dec. 4/1   But have a temper in the cart, flinging language and the hardest goods in stock at you, and where are you then?

1886   W. Besant Children of Gibeon I. ii. ii. 263   The evening is the liveliest time of the day for Ivy Lane..the street is fullest, the voices loudest, the children most shrill, the women most loquacious, and the ‘language’ most pronounced.

1893   F. C. Selous Trav. S.-E. Afr. 3   The sailor..had never ceased to pour out a continuous flood of ‘language’ all the time.

1929   C. C. Martindale Risen Sun 173,   I have heard more ‘language’ in a ‘gentleman’s’ club in ten minutes than in all that evening in the Melbourne Stadium.

1974   ‘M. Innes’ Mysterious Comm. vii. 75   ‘You behave like bloody fools.’ ‘Language, now, Mr Honeybath, language.’ [the interjectional use]

1995   J. M. Sims-Kimbrey Wodds & Doggerybaw 172/2   ‘E’s allus usin’ langwidge, ‘e is. A weeannt let them kids near ‘im.

The interjectional use is familiar to me from my time in Britain, but I don’t recall ever having heard it in the U.S. Here’s another British cite:

Sorry! was a British sitcom that aired on BBC1 from 1981 to 1982 and from 1985 to 1988.

… One of the running gags of the series is Sydney frequently shouting “Language, Timothy!” when he feels [his son] Timothy has said something inappropriate, even though most times nobody would typically find the words even close to offensive. (link)

As for the plain noun uses, here’s one from the antipodes (from the NZ Truth (Wellington NZ) in 1910):

“I threatened to throw him off the car because he used language to me,” said [tram conductor] Cusack. (link)

Such uses aren’t unknown in the U.S. Doug Wilson reported on ADS-L that WNI3 (1968) has as sense 4c for language, “abusive epithets : PROFANITY”, with an example from Ring Lardner’s story “Horseshoes” (in the Saturday Evening Post of 8/15/14):

I shouldn’t of blamed the fellers if they’d cut loose with some language [; but they didn’t]

The OED supplies only British examples, though this could just represent a bias in its sampling. My impression, however, is that this use is rare in AmE. But examples are difficult to search for, since we need to exclude postnominal modifiers (as in things like “He used language that was unacceptable in polite society”, which are common).

A final word on MPAA ratings that involve language, in this infuriating story about the ratings assigned to two recent movies: the documentary Bully and the adventure-drama The Hunger Games. From the L.A. Times (here):

‘The Hunger Games,’ ‘Bully’ prompt ratings fight
Profanities get ‘Bully’ an R rating; teens fighting to the death gets ‘The Hunger Games’ a PG-13 rating, generating much criticism of the MPAA system.

By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
March 17, 2012
Reporting from Washington— The Republican presidential primary has painted bright ideological lines on a number of culture war issues. But liberals and conservatives are finding surprising common ground on one charged topic: the need to overhaul the nation’s movie rating system.

Ratings of two upcoming films — “Bully,” a documentary on bullying that received an R, and “The Hunger Games,” about teenagers in a group death match that received a PG-13 — have revived debate over the system put into place in 1968 by the Motion Picture Assn. of America, a trade group comprising the six largest Hollywood studios.

Lawmakers, parents’ advocates, filmmakers and teenagers are complaining that language and sex are scrutinized while violence gets a pass (“Bully” received an R because it contains scenes of teens hurling profanities). Critics also say that the [five ratings] are blunt tools rather than nuanced instruments and that the overall process is too secretive and rigid.

“The hypocrisy is that the very movies that contribute to violence can be seen by teenagers because they get a PG-13,” Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Mich.) said, referring to “The Hunger Games.” “And the one film [‘Bully’] that actually teaches them to respect others is given an R.”

Apparently, Bully has too many fucks in it; see above. (As for The Hunger Games, many critics have complained that a movie that’s expected to get a big audience, especially by appealing to young people, will almost always get a PG-13 rating, no matter what its content.)


3 Responses to “language ‘bad language’”

  1. Dennis Preston Says:

    These “shortened” comments are very common in sports (and deserve some attention, with apologies if they have already been discussed elsewhere). Almost any body part you can think of can be mentioned without a modifier (broken, strained, pulled, etc…) — knee, toe, arch, ligament, shoulder — with the understanding that it is wounded. I wonder if the classic form of this is not “attitude”? “He came here with an attitude” cannot mean it was a good one.

  2. Rick Sprague Says:

    I can remember being corrected by my mother with “Watch your language!”. I was not a frequent transgressor, but it’s easy to imagine that this would soon have been abbreviated, if regularly repeated, to simply “Language!”. Taken in context, it certainly meant taboo language, at least in our familiolect, and so acquired the restricted meaning. I’m a bit surprised you don’t find it more common in AmE. Perhaps, since the advent of cable TV, parents are less alert to or more tolerant of profanities these days.

  3. nick Says:

    There’s a fantastic (but quite possibly apocryphal) story told of a poet who visited a British school to read some of his work, and was quietly taken aside by the headmaster who told him ‘In this school we don’t like poems with language in.’

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