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The evolution of swearing in television catchphrases
Language and Literature  (IF0.674),  Pub Date : 2022-05-05, DOI: 10.1177/09639470221090371
Kristy Beers Fägersten, Monika Bednarek

Catchphrases have long been a hallmark of US-American sit-coms and dramas, as well as reality, game and variety show programming. Because the phenomenon of the television catchphrase developed throughout the era of network, commercial broadcasting under Federal Communications Commission guidelines regulating profanity in network television, catchphrases traditionally have not included swear words. Nevertheless, certain past television catchphrases can be regarded as euphemistic alternatives of swearing expressions (e.g. ‘Kiss my grits!’), while contemporary catchphrases from cable or streaming series do include explicit swearing (e.g. ‘Don’t fuck it up!’). We examine a database of 168 popular catchphrases from a 70-year period of US-American television programming according to categories for bad language and impoliteness formulae. We identify three categories of catchphrases based on structural-functional similarities to swearing expressions, and we trace the distribution of these categories over time and across networks. The data reveal a trend towards explicit swearing in catchphrases over time, not only in series on cable and streaming services, but across networks. We conclude that the expressive nature of catchphrases and their structural-functional properties render the inclusion of swear words both more palatable to a television audience and more compatible with television norms, thus propagating catchphrase swearing on cable and streaming television services, and mitigating the use of swear words on network television. Due to appropriation phenomena, swearing catchphrases may serve to blur the lines between actually swearing and simply invoking a swearing catchphrase, thereby potentially increasing tolerance for swearing both on television and off.