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I know it when I hear it: what's offensive language and how do we classify it?

Posted on 28 February 2014 by Henry

The first word ever spoken could have been the result of someone stubbing their toe in a cave, and our ancestors were probably hurling abuse at each other the moment they started communicating. From the dawn of the expletive, no doubt, what was offensive to some was of no concern (or even humorous or endearing) to others.

So what is offensive language? Is it swearing, profanity, or obscenity? Abuse, cussing, and cursing? A derogation, denigration, or deprecation? An execration, imprecation or malediction? A 'no-no'? It could be any of these things, or none of them.

Our 2007 study Public Perceptions of Highly Offensive Language (PDF, 3.37MB), found that words used to express fear, pain, or anguish in films were not considered highly offensive, whereas words directed at people aggressively or as terms of abuse were seen as more offensive. Participants also felt that offensive language could be harmful to children and young people by encouraging its use in inappropriate settings.

Participants in our joint project with the Broadcasting Standards Authority, Viewing Violence (PDF, 1.79MB), thought that language could intensify the degree of violence in clips they were shown, and that offensive language seen as pointless or gratuitous was considered to be more offensive than if the same words were used for dramatic effect or realism.

In Young people's perceptions of the classification system and potential harm from media content (PDF, 1.21MB), young people told us that offensive language in films could heighten the impact of violence, and that hateful speech or terms of abuse could be particularly harmful. Overall, they felt that the use of offensive language in films and games doesn't generally harm society as a whole, but can have negative consequences if young people (particularly children younger than them) mimic this language in inappropriate settings.

So can we give an age-restriction to a film for offensive language alone?

We can. A film can be restricted if it contains language that's 'highly offensive to the public in general', rather than being offensive only to someone in particular. The language must also be offensive to such an extent or degree that it would be likely to cause serious harm to people under the age of the restriction. For example, if a child sees offensive language use as normal and acceptable, they might be encouraged to use this language in a way that could be socially detrimental.

This is the gist of section 3A of the Classification Act. It means a film or other publication, such as a book, can be restricted for offensive language - even if there's no sex, horror, crime, cruelty or violence.

The likely harm to young people from offensive language is related to the context in which the language is used, and so specific words won't automatically lead to a restriction. Our research shows that very few words are thought to be offensive regardless of how they're used (though New Zealanders definitely think that some words are more offensive than others).

The number of times an offensive word is used can add to the impact of the language, but there isn't a specific number that automatically leads to a restriction. For example, 10 f-bombs do not make a film R16. What matters is how those f-bombs are dropped. (The frequent use of the f-word in The Wolf of Wall Streetcould be described as carpet bombing.)

If you want to read more about offensive language there've been some interesting news articles lately:

Some other studies of ours that deal with the classification of offensive language are:

We'd love to hear from you if you have any questions via email, Facebook or Twitter, or if you'd like some examples of films that were restricted for language. There are summaries of reasons for most of our classification decisions that are available on request. But be warned - they may contain highly offensive language.

June 2016: Note that our research has been updated since this blog post was published: Understanding the Classification System: New Zealanders' views (2016) (PDF, 1.33MB)

Henry works in the Information Unit at the NZ Office of Film and Literature Classification. His views do not represent those of the Chief Censor or of the Classification Office. The Information Unit provides information to other staff, to the public, and to industry members - they are not involved in assigning classifications. Keep up with our blog posts by following us on Facebook and Twitter.

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