‘Weeds of Our Own Making’: Language Ideologies, Swearing and the Criminal Law

Elyse Methven   | Bio
Associate Lecturer at the School of Law, Macquarie University, and a Quentin Bryce Doctoral Scholar at the Faculty of Law, University of Technology Sydney.


In adjudicating offensiveness, judicial officers create and apply a number of ‘common sense’ judgments about how language works. These ‘language ideologies’ are rarely informed by, and are often contrary to, empirical research and linguistic literature; they are instead constructed through constant repetition of popular views and questionable assumptions. Through the cases Jolly v The Queen and Heanes v Herangi, this article examines how judicial officers construct realities about swear words in the criminal law. In the first part, I briefly set out the legal doctrine in relation to offensive language crimes. Following this, I draw on critical discourse analysis to critique language ideologies in offensive language cases. I argue that offensive language crimes, as they are currently framed and interpreted, encourage judicial officers to pick and choose from whichever linguistic or ‘folk-linguistic’ ideas they see fit, and enable them to elude the rigorous critiques to which linguists are exposed.


1 Jolly v The Queen [2009] NSWDC 212. Constable Hauver gave evidence that after he had admonished Jolly, Jolly replied, ‘Get fucked. You, I’m going to sue you, you cunt. You let the fucking dog bite me and didn’t pull it off. You can get fucked’.
2 The defence of ‘reasonable excuse’, contained in s 4A(2) of the SO Act (NSW), provides that it is a sufficient defence to a prosecution for an offence under s 4A(1) if the defendant satisfies the court that the defendant had a reasonable excuse for conducting himself or herself in the manner alleged in the information for the offence.
3 Jolly v The Queen [2009] NSWDC 212, [22].
4 Ibid.
5 Diana Eades, Sociolinguistics and the Legal Process (Channel View Books, 2010) 241.
6 Theo van Leeuwen, Discourse and Practice: New Tools for Critical Discourse Analysis (Oxford University Press, 2008); Norman Fairclough, Language and Power (Longman, 1989); Norman Fairclough, Discourse and Social Change (Polity Press, 1992).
7 Theo Van Leeuwen, ‘Discourse as the Recontextualization of Social Practice: A Guide’ in Ruth Wodak and Michael Meyer (eds), Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis (Sage, 2009) 144, 144, citing Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaelogy of the Human Sciences (Tavistock Publications, 1970).
8 See, for example, Summary Offences Act 2005 (Qld) s 6; Summary Offences Act 1953 (SA) s 7(1)(a); Police Offences Act 1935 (Tas) s 12; Summary Offences Act 1966 (Vic) s 17(1)(c); Criminal Code (WA) s 74A; Crimes Act 1900 (ACT) s 392; Summary Offences Act 1978 (NT) s 47 and s 53.
9 Worcester v Smith [1951] VLR 316, 318 (O’Bryan J).
10 Robertson v Samuels (1973) 4 SASR 465, 473-474 (Hogarth J); Gul v Informant Sen Cons A Creed [2010] VSC 185. For example, the Supreme Court of Victoria held that the phrase ‘fucking bitch’, used by Ms Gul when accused of ingesting an (allegedly stolen) Easter egg in Big W, was indecent pursuant to s 17 of the Summary Offences Act 1966 (Vic).
11 Gul v Informant Sen Cons A Creed [2010] VSC 185; Hortin v Rowbottom (1993) 68 A Crim R 381; Edbrooke v Hartman [1991] QDC 15, 5 (Wylie QC, DO).
12 Green v Ashton [2006] QDC 8; Spence v Loguch (unreported, NSWSC, Sully J, 12 November 1991); Heanes v Herangi (2007) 175 A Crim R 175; Hortin v Rowbottom (1993) 68 A Crim R 381.
13 See, for example, Del Vecchio v Couchy [2002] QCA 9; Heanes v Herangi (2007) 175 A Crim R 175; Douglas Conners v Craigie (unreported, NSWSC, McInerney J, 5 July 1993); Bills v Brown [1974] Tas SR (NC) N13; Ball v McIntyre (1966) 9 FLR 237; Worcester v Smith [1951] VLR 316; Police v Butler [2003] NSWLC 2.
14 Police v Pfeifer (1997) 68 SASR 285; Pregelj v Manison (1987) 51 NTR 1; Luke McNamara and Julia Quilter, ‘Time to Define the Cornerstone of Public Order Legislation: The Elements of Offensive Conduct and Language under the Summary Offences Act 1988 (NSW)’ (2013) 36(2) University of New South Wales Law Journal 534.
15 McNamara and Quilter have also argued that authorities on the issue in the Northern Territory and South Australia tend to embark on a global inquiry as to whether a single mens rea state must be proven for offensive language and conduct charges, as opposed to asking whether a fault element attaches to each of the actus reus components. See Luke McNamara and Julia Quilter, above n 14; Luke McNamara and Julia Quilter, ‘Turning the Spotlight on “Offensiveness” as a Basis for Criminal Liability’ (2014) 39 Alternative Law Journal 36; Jeffs v Graham (1987) 8 NSWLR 292.
16 SO Act s 4A; Criminal Code (WA) s 74A; Crimes Act 1900 (ACT) s 392.
17 Criminal Procedure Act 1986 (NSW) ss 333-337; Criminal Procedure Regulation 2010 (NSW) cl 10, Sch 3; Penalties and Sentences Act 1992 (Qld) s 5; Police Powers and Responsibilities Act 2000 (Qld) s 394; State Penalties Enforcement Act 1999 (Qld) Sch 2; Police Offences Act 1935 (Tas) s 61; Monetary Penalties Enforcement Act 2005 (Tas) s 14; Summary Offences Act 1966 (Vic) ss 60AA, 60AB(2); Criminal Code (WA) ss 720-723; Criminal Code (Infringement Notices) Regulations 2015 (WA) Sch 1; Summary Offences Regulations 1994 (NT) regs 3-4A. See also Elyse Methven, ‘A Very Expensive Lesson: Counting the Costs of Penalty Notice for Anti-Social Behaviour’ (2014) 26 Current Issues in Criminal Justice 249; Tamara Walsh, ‘Won’t Pay or Can’t Pay-Exploring the Use of Fines as a Sentencing Alternative for Public Nuisance Type Offences in Queensland’ (2005) 17 Current Issues in Criminal Justice 217.
18 Northern Territory, Parliamentary Debates, Legislative Assembly, 22 October 2014, 12th Assembly (Mr Elferink).
19 Police Administration Act (NT) ss 123, 133AB; Police Administration Regulations (NT) reg 19A. See also North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency Ltd v Northern Territory (2015) 326 ALR 16.
20 See, for example, NSW Ombudsman, Review of the Impact of Criminal Infringement Notices on Aboriginal Communities (2009); Rob White, ‘Indigenous Young Australians, Criminal Justice and Offensive Language’ (2002) 5 Journal of Youth Studies 21; Tamara Walsh, ‘Who Is “Public” in a “Public Space”?’ (2004) 29 Alternative Law Journal 81.
21 Human Rights Law Centre, High Court Upholds but Curtails Northern Territory’s Paperless Arrest Laws (1 November 2015) .
22 Police Offences Act 1935 (Tas) s 12, prohibits, inter alia, ‘cursing’ or ‘swearing’ in any public place, or within the hearing of any person in that place.
23 When comprehensive obscene language provisions were first introduced under the Vagrancy Act 1849 (NSW), police and magistrates commonly chastised the use of the words bastard, bloody, bugger, whore or hell in a public place. Now, police use offensive language to primarily target the words fuck (and its derivatives), cunt or a combination of both, cited in Michael Sturma, Vice in a Vicious Society (University of Queensland Press, 1983); NSW Ombudsman, above n 20; Jo Lennan, ‘The Development of Offensive Language Laws in Nineteenth-Century New South Wales’ (2007) 18 Current Issues in Criminal Justice 449; Brian Taylor, ‘Offensive Language: A Linguistic and Sociolinguistic Perspective’ in Diana Eades (ed), Language in Evidence: Issues Confronting Aboriginal and Multicultural Australia (University of New South Wales Press, 1995) 219.
24 Dalton v Bartlett (1972) 3 SASR 549; Romeyko v Samuels (1972) 2 SASR 529; Hortin v Rowbottom (1993) 68 A Crim R 381; Del Vecchio v Couchy [2002] QCA 9; Heanes v Herangi (2007) 175 Crim R 175.
25 Heanes v Herangi (2007) 175 Crim R 175, 218; citing Mogridge v Foster [1999] WASCA 177, [7]-[8] (McKechnie J).
26 Dalton v Bartlett (1972) 3 SASR 549; Romeyko v Samuels (1972) 2 SASR 529; Hortin v Rowbottom (1993) 68 A Crim R 381.
27 The expression ‘folk linguistic theories’ is often used in linguistics to express the same idea encapsulated by the term language ideologies: Ruth Wajnryb, Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language (Simon and Schuster, 2005) 108-109.
28 See, for example, Diana Eades, above n 5, 241.
29 Jan Blommaert, Discourse: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2005) 253.
30 Diana Eades, above n 5, 242.
31 Criminologists and criminal law scholars have also recognised that the language of ‘common sense’ is part of the persuasive rhetorical arsenal of the ‘uncivil politics of law and order’. See Russell Hogg and David Brown, Rethinking Law and Order (Pluto Press, 1998) 19.
32 Ibid, 18.
33 Ibid, 18-19.
34 Diana Eades, Courtroom Talk and Neocolonial Control (Walter de Gruyter, 2008) 35.
35 Timothy Jay, ‘The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words’ (2009) 4 Perspectives on Psychological Science 153, 153 citing The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); Kate Burridge, ‘Linguistic Cleanliness is Next to Godliness: Taboo and Purism’ (2010) 26 English Today 3.
36 Geoffrey Hughes, Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English (Blackwell, 1991) 8-9.
37 Keith Allan and Kate Burridge, Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language (Cambridge University Press, 2006) 75.
38 Richard Stephens and Claudia Umland, ‘Swearing as a Response to Pain – Effect of Daily Swearing Frequency’ (2011) 12 The Journal of Pain 1274; Wajnryb, above n 27; Jay, above n 35.
39 Timothy Jay, Why We Curse: A Neuro-Psycho-Social Theory of Speech (John Benjamins, 1999) 16-17.
40 Keith Allan and Kate Burridge, Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language (Cambridge University Press, 2006); Luke Fleming and Michael Lempert, ‘Introduction: Beyond Bad Words’ (2011) 84 Anthropological Quarterly 5, 5-6.
41 Jay, above n 35, 154.
42 Ibid.
43 Wajnryb, above n 27, 7.
44 Ibid; see also Jay, above n 39; Melissa Mohr, Holy Shit (Oxford University Press, 2013); Tony McEnery, Swearing in English: Bad Language, Purity and Power from 1586 to the Present (Routledge, 2004).
45 Mohr points to James O’Connor’s book, Cuss Control: The Complete Book of How to Curb Your Cursing (Three Rivers Press, 2000) as encapsulating this common sense attitude towards swearing including that swearing is wrong because ‘it shows you don’t have control’, ‘it discloses a lack of character’, ‘it’s abrasive, lazy language’ and ‘it lacks imagination’ cited in Mohr, above n 44, 13, 18. See also Fleming and Lempert, above n 40; Kristin L Jay and Timothy B Jay, ‘Taboo Word Fluency and Knowledge of Slurs and General Pejoratives: Deconstructing the Poverty-of-Vocabulary Myth’ (2015) 52 Language Sciences 251; Edwin L Battistella, Bad Language: Are Some Words Better than Others? (Oxford University Press, 2005).
46 Jay, above n 39, 10.
47 Hughes, above n 36; Geoffrey Hughes, An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-Speaking World (Routledge, 2015); Jay, above n 39; Jay and Jay, above n 45; McEnery, above n 44; Allan and Burridge, above n 40; Burridge, above n 35; Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (Viking Penguin, 2007); Mohr, above n 44; Fleming and Lempert, above n 40; Wajnryb, above n 27.
48 Eades, above n 5, 245-247.
49 Janet Ainsworth, ‘You Have the Right to Remain Silent … But Only If You Ask for it Just So: The Role of Linguistic Ideology in American Police Interrogation Law’ (2008) 15 International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law 16 (citations omitted).
50 Alessandro Duranti, ‘Linguistic Anthropology: The Study of Language as a Non-Neutral Medium’ in Rajend Mesthrie (ed), The Cambridge Handbook of Sociolinguistics (Cambridge University Press, 2011).
51 Diana Eades, ‘Theorising Language in Sociolinguistics and the Law’ in Nik Coupland (ed), Sociolinguistics: Theoretical Debates (Cambridge University Press, 2016) (forthcoming) 368.
52 It is difficult to know from this statement whether Cogswell DCJ considered that the invocation of the families of police having sexual relations with each other crossed the line. If he had been just talking about the officers themselves, would Jolly have had the defence of reasonable excuse available?
53 See, for example, van Leeuwen, above n 6, 12-17.
54 Ibid, 13.
55 Ibid, vii-viii.
56 Ibid, 17.
57 Fairclough, above n 6, 51.
58 Van Leeuwen, above n 6, 60; Hilary Janks, ‘Language and the Design of Texts’ (2005) 4 English Teaching 97, 107.
59 Janks, above n 58, 99 fn 1.
60 Stutsel v Reid (1990) 20 NSWLR 661 provides another example of where it would be absurd to construe swear words literally. In that case, the respondent, Brian John Reid, said to police officers on Anson St, Bourke at 1.15am on 10 February 1990, ‘Why don’t you fuck off you dog arse cunts?’ Similarly, the appellant in Couchy v Guthrie [2005] QDC 350 yelled a number of phrases towards a man in a garage area beneath a boarding house, open to, and in view of, Gibbon Street, Woolloongabba, including: ‘Hey, I’ll fucking kill that dog cunt’; ‘He’s just a fucking cunt. A dog. I will fucking kill him’.
61 Wajnryb, above n 27, 69.
62 Ibid.
63 Ibid.
64 Blommaert, above n 29, 40.
65 Wajnryb, above n 27, 70.
66 For example, it was argued that the primary trigger for Cameron Doomadgee’s arrest and subsequent death on Palm Island was Doomadgee’s singing of the ‘one-hit-wonder’ by the Baha Men ‘Who let the dogs out … Woof, woof, woof, woof, woof’, to which Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley took offence. Chloe Hooper, The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island (Random House, 2010).
67 David Crystal, The Encyclopedia of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 1995) 401 (emphasis added); Hughes, above n 36, 47-50.
68 Heanes v Herangi (2007) 175 Crim R 175, 219, citing Heydon J in Coleman v Power (2004) 220 CLR 1.
69 Heanes v Herangi (2007) 175 Crim R 175, 205, 212.
70 Ibid.
71 Ibid, 40.
72 Allan and Burridge, above n 40, 31.
73 Pinker, above n 47, 331.
74 Blommaert, above n 29, 40.
75 Christopher Fairman, ‘Fuck’ (2006) 28 Cardozo Law Review 1711, 1719-1720 fn 56.
76 Henry Hitchings, The Language Wars: A History of Proper English (John Murray, 2011) 241.
77 Kate Burridge, Weeds in the Garden of Words (ABC Books, 2004) 8.
78 Kate Burridge, ‘Taboo, Verbal Hygiene – and Gardens’ (2010) 47 Idiom 17, 22.
79 [2003] NSWLC 2.
80 Police v Butler [2003] NSWLC 2, [23].
81 Keft v Fraser (unreported, WASC, Rowland J, 21 April 1986).
How to Cite
Methven E. ‘Weeds of Our Own Making’: Language Ideologies, Swearing and the Criminal Law. LiC [Internet]. 2018Dec.19 [cited 2024Jul.13];34(2). Available from: https://journals.latrobe.edu.au/index.php/law-in-context/article/view/43

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