The History of "The Short Guide to Short Words"

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In the beginning was the word1...

This was where the 'Short Guide to Short Words' appeared on h2g2 for the second time. It is a serious but entertaining entry, which takes a look at the history and usage (and abusage) of swear-words in the English language. It ambles through the Old Testament, various legal trials, a murder and parenthood, pausing to laugh at the English class system, IT certifications, bathroom porcelain, various forms of academic madness and oversight, and an electronic road-sign on the road to the airport in Stockholm on the way. It was fun to write, and even more fun to research.

The Short Guide has a long history.

I joined h2g2 in August 2000, and spent more time on here than is rational. I ambled around, wrote a couple of innocuous entries, and generally enjoyed the place. I got into a couple of very heated conversations about the censorship - yes - there was censorship here even then. Freedom of speech is something I feel passionate about.

The discussions in those days were mostly about religion (not offending those with deeply held religious feelings), about adult content (what was it acceptable and not acceptable to say on an open web site), and about trolling. There were no formal guidelines, the community was smaller, and the Italics were treading their own path guided by their own common sense and the community.

It is important to remember that those days were not a golden idyll.

In the winter of 2000 and 2001 the site disappeared while the BBC took it over and imposed their new rules and did some sanitation exercises.

Another day, another dolour

When the site came back the new rules were enforced rigorously, including one which I still feel to be completely ineffective and ludicrous which requires the asterisking of 'offensive' words. It was not clear at that time which words were offensive, because a lot of it was contextual. In the perfect phrase of Jerry Sadowitz 'It is ok to say I pricked my finger, but not ok to say I fingered my p***k'2. And there is scope for confusion with asterisks. B******s and B******s look identical, and you cannot tell which one refers to illegitimate people and which one refers to gonad-shaped nonsense.

Off the top of my head

So, early in the morning of the 24th April 2001, I sat down and wrote in my (physical) journal, a list of the swear words I knew, their origins, their usage in the US and in the UK, quotations showing usage by Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jonathan Swift, Philip Larkin and others, and anecdotes about trials and other legal events they had sparked3. I put it up into Peer Review, where it was removed, and where I was told rather firmly that 'defining a list of dirty words' was not in any way clever4. I defended what I had done as having social, legal, and linguistic content, and slung it up onto Geocities.

I had not realised that the Geocities link, which did remain in my U-Space, was granted special dispensation there, and I hereby publicly record my grateful thanks to whichever Italic discretely and anonymously put the moderation note on my U-Space to permit it. If it is placed anywhere else in h2g2 it gets zapped.

In exile

The Short Guide accreted various other anecdotes5, including my two favorites, the Penn State University Wimmins' Group C**tfest in 2001 and the fact that the all female rock group called themselves 'Fanny' and their first single release covered Cream's 'Badge'.

By the time of the January meet in 2002 the BBC had had time to come to grips with what they had acquired, the dust had settled on moderation issues, the Zaphodistas had made their protests, Lucinda had created his own list of Naugty Words which were and were not acceptable to say on h2g2, and water had passed under a variety of bridges. To my surprise, when I asked her, Peta said 'put it into Peer Review' and see what happens.

And home again

This is that page.

It got missed by the mods for a while and stayed up, unstarred and glorious, for an entire weekend.

There was a long discussion in Peer Review which is attached to the bottom of this page now, and eventually the text was used by the BBC as a discussion document to define what was and was not suitable for its message boards and communities. This was what I had hoped to achieve, and I was very very happy about this.

Eventually a mildly sanitized version was written and published with the title 'The Origins and Common Usage of British Swear Words'. It was one of the few edited entries which was not announced on the front page of the site. The BBC wants the f-word to be at least 3 clicks away from any wandering children.

So there you go. Most of the discussions are attached to this page. The Geocities version is on my page. The dust has settled. And we still have to live with those f*****g stars...

a girl called Ben

5th October 2002

1The word, incidentally, is 'Scatolinguistics' which means the study of dirty language.2As demonstrated, you gotta love the Beeb!3I was slighty stunned by how much I knew about bad langauge.4To which one can only say 'Poo! Pee! Willie! Bum!'5Supplied by the long list of researchers who are co-credited with writing this entry.

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