Not OK Boomer: Ofcom unveils new list of 'offensive' words

·3-min read
JK Rowling - JUSTIN TALLIS
JK Rowling - JUSTIN TALLIS

“Gammon” and “Karen” have been added to a list of offensive words by Ofcom, as political labels are ranked by the watchdog for the first time

Terms including “Remoaner”, “Snowflake”, and “Boomer” have been included by the media regulator in a survey of swear words and offensive terms which could upset TV and radio audiences.

Audience attitudes to modern political labels like “Gammon”, used to insultingly describe predominantly middle-aged men on the political right, will be considered by Ofcom when assessing complaints in future.

Broadcasters will also be asked to consider these words (along with racial, religious, and anatomical terms) when producing programmes, in order to avoid causing undue offence.

'Potentially offensive language'

Adam Baxter, the director of standards and audience protection, Ofcom, said: “People’s views on offensive language can change significantly over time.

“So to ensure we’re setting and enforcing our rules effectively, it’s essential we keep up to date with how viewers and listeners think and feel.”

He added: “Our research covered the widest range of potentially offensive language.”

Former BBC Newsnight presenter James O’Brien’s use of the term “gammon” on his LBC show has been used by Ofcom to show how the word is used to negatively label a section of the right-wing, particularly those who support Brexit.

Audience survey

Ofcom said that insults such as "gammon" and “Karen”, a label for a demanding middle-class woman, have only gained their pejorative meanings in recent years, requiring the watchdog to conduct research to gauge how offensive they are on air.

The survey of audience attitudes towards these political labels found that in the main they cause only “mild” offense compared to the extreme offence of strong language and racial epithets.

It has also found that, in contrast to other potentially offensive terms, those signifying political attitudes were not recognised by as many people despite their growing use online, although younger generations were more likely to understand their meaning.

Words found to be mildly offensive in Ofcom research included “Boomer”, a pejorative term for Baby Boomers perceived to be out of touch, and “Snowflake” for younger people perceived to be overly sensitive.

TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist), a label often used by transgender campaigners for those opposed to their views, including JK Rowling, has also been revised by Ofcom.  

Terms found to be “moderately” offensive included “femin-Nazi” (for femisits seen as being overzealous) and “yoon”, a word used by Scottish nationalists to describe those in favour of union.

While such terminology will factor into future Ofcom decision making, the watchdog has stressed that there is no ban on these words and that freedom of speech is particularly important when it comes to the sphere of politics.

Mr Baxter said: “Broadcasters’ and audiences’ right to freedom of expression is important.

“These findings will help us to strike the right balance between protecting audiences – and children in particular – from unjustified offence, while still allowing broadcasters the creative freedom to reflect real life in their programmes.”

Ofcom has advised broadcasters that context will play an important role in how its views on-air of swearing and use of offensive words, with greater justification required for the inclusion of racial slurs in particular amid “heightened societal concern”.

A long list of racial epithets were deemed to cause “strong” offense, along with the swear words the C-word, similar to the findings of previous research in 2016.

Ofcom’s research into attitudes towards offensive language now includes views on non-English words which may be heard on-air in the UK, including derogatory terms in Hindi and Urdu.

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