‘Twat’ is not a swear word. This may come as a surprise to those of us who have studiously avoided using it in front of our mothers-in-law and elderly relatives. But after David Cameron said it in a radio interview, Tory press officers were quick to point out that Ofcom does not consider it to be one.
Oddly, in the same interview, Cameron felt the need to apologise immediately after saying that the public were ‘pissed off’; a phrase that one would have thought was far less offensive than ‘twat’. Indeed, Ofcom’s own research suggests that Cameron rather boobed. It records that focus groups considered ‘piss off’ to be a ‘common, everyday word, not really offensive’. But ‘twat’ was found to be ‘very polarising… offensive especially to British Asian females and some women from other groups, but many, especially men, think it is an everyday word and quite mild’.
The process by which English swear words lose their offensiveness is thoroughly Burkean. For example, the word ‘berk’ is now so inoffensive as not even to make Ofcom’s list of naughty words. But when it was first coined in the 1930s it was short for ‘Berkshire hunt’, Cockney rhyming slang for a word that no politician would dare utter on the radio. Yet.