Foul-mouthed mothers are causing problems for Mumsnet

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Such streams of expletives are causing trouble for Mumsnet. On August 19th the Times reported that sponsors were threatening to pull adverts from the website. Among them were, a price-comparison site, the National Trust, a conservation charity and Bulgari, a jeweller. They are reportedly wary of being associated with increasingly foul-mouthed mothers. Are they right to fret?

To answer this question, The Economist examined over 200,000 discussion threads from one of Mumsnet’s most popular forums. We looked for instances of the words that Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, deems offensive. The analysis does not capture every curse. Some mums choose to self-censor; others use knowing acronyms (CF, for instance, means “cheeky fucker”). Nevertheless, a clear trend emerges from the number-crunching: swearing is indeed on the rise.

The occurrences of what Ofcom deems the “strongest” language (think C-words and F-bombs) have tripled since 2008. Terms which it considers “strong” and “medium” have also increased, at a slower pace. This appears to be at the expense of “milder” cursing (such as “God” and “bloody”), the prevalence of which has declined by a quarter.

Unsurprisingly, nothing gets online mums more riled up than talking about their relationships. Much of this is venting about husbands’ emotional distance, flagging libido or adulterous tendencies. By contrast, debates about the book of the month elicit, on the whole, much milder language.


Illustration by Sally Thurer

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The creators of Zoobe intended to make their program cute, clean and simple: a mobile app that turns voice recordings into 3-D animated videos, starring woodland creatures with gigantic heads. It was introduced in 2013 as a playful alternative to text messaging and quickly became a hit on its home turf in Germany. Users record brief messages on their smartphones, and anthropomorphic beings recite them back, in a video that can be shared with friends or posted online…

While they talk, Zoobe characters dance and undulate in a disturbingly sensual manner, making the videos exploitable in a way that the Internet tends to quickly discover. Earlier this year, when English-language Zoobe videos began surfacing on American Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr feeds, the Zoobe menagerie adopted a saltier vocabulary.

…‘‘The juxtaposition between the character’s appearance and the horrible things I have it say makes it 10 times funnier… the language got more foul, because as it turns out, it’s hysterical to watch cute, fuzzy little characters yelling obscenities or spewing dark humor.’’