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The British are famously obsessed with class: the words that we have for members of different social classes (“toff”, “chav”) are often thrown around as insults in their own right.  But it seems that the top and bottom ends of the British class hierarchy many have more in common than you might expect when it comes to bad language.

The British National Corpus contains 100,000,000 instances of spoken and written British English collected between 1960 and 1992. McEnery and Xiao (2004) analysed this corpus in painstaking detail to discover who uses “fuck” and its variants.

They found that for “fucked” and “fucks”, most of the instances came from social class AB, the 27% of the population that are classed as upper and middle management or professional. The AB class also came second in the use of the plain form, “fuck”, and placed a credible third in the use of “fucking” and “fuckers”. The 23% of the population classed as DE – the unemployed through to semi-skilled manual workers – took the podium for most common used of “fuck”, “fucking”, and “fuckers”.

It’s theC1s, the lower middle class, who most strongly preserve the norms of good language. C1’s are the Hyacinth Buckets of the British class system and they have a reputation of being the class most concerned with social appearances. The C1s always come in last of all the social classes in all forms of he word, and the only form that makes any kind of showing at all from the C1s is “fucking” – though whether as an expletive or the literal use, the record doesn’t show!

Interestingly enough, the ABs are lifelong swearers and, of the 210 recorded instances of the use of the word “fuck” and its derivatives by children younger than 14, 209 are from the upper two social tiers. In the 60 and above age group, all seven instances of the word came from the ABs.

The lesson would seem to be that, if you want to ape your betters, a liberal smattering of the f-word isn’t out of place.

McEnery, A., Xiao, Z (2004). Swearing in Modern British English: The Case of Fuck in the BNC Language and Literature, 13 (3), 235-268 DOI: 10.1177/0963947004044873

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