Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Mild Language

Posted by Neal on March 6, 2005

On Saturday, we took the kids to see “Because of Winn-Dixie,” which was actually pretty good. Adam did well handling the sad parts: A few months ago my wife would have had to take him out of the theatre and do some shopping while I sat with Doug and finished her popcorn. But now he just covered his eyes and wiped his tears while we whispered it was going to be all right, and a few minutes later he was flapping his arms, kicking his feet, and giggling at the funny stuff again. And I got a big laugh out of a scene near the end, where a guy named Otis (played by Dave Matthews) comes to a party bringing a gallon jar of pickles. It went something like this:

Opal: Oh, pickles are just what we needed! They’ll go great with the egg-salad sandwiches.
Gloria: It ain’t a party without pickles!
Mr. Alfred: I’ve been to a number of parties without pickles. [realizing his faux pas] And not a single one of them was any fun!

There’s something about pragmatics to be written about that, but I haven’t put my finger on it yet.

Anyway, my wife and I enjoyed the movie and recommend it, but if you go, there’s one thing you should know: This movie is rated PG for mild language. And let me tell you, when they say “mild language,” they’re not talking about the soothing monologues of the late Mr. Rogers, or the news from Lake Wobegon. If you watch a movie with mild language, I’m warning you, you’re liable to hear a damn or a hell!

But seriously, somewhere along the way, the word language in the context of movies and videogames has come to mean obscene, profane, or otherwise offensive language. I looked at 20 pages of Google hits for the phrase and never once found mild language referring to gentle, inoffensive language, except in this one comment by someone named Ricardo at The Daily Ablution, and even he was referring to the ratings-label usage:

By the way, I recently saw an ad for a film with the warning “contains mild language”. Could someone please explain, does ‘mild language’ mean it has no long words, or contains lots of words like ‘nice’?

The few times that mild language appeared in other contexts, it was in phrases such as mild language deficits or mild language delays, where mild actually modifies the entire compound noun language deficits or language delays.

(Or does it? Maybe it’s not [mild [language delays]]; maybe it’s really [[mild language] delays]. Like, a kid who starts to use the really hard-core cuss words when he’s five years old, but doesn’t learn how to use the milder ones until he’s in high school.)

So how did this semantic shift happen? I’m guessing it started with ratings labels that mentioned strong language. How do you grade something like that? Slightly strong, moderately strong, very strong? It was probably easier just to take an opposite of strong, namely mild, and go with it. It’s still kind of weird, though, like using hot water to refer to hot water, and cold water to refer to lukewarm water, and having no way at all of referring to actual cold water, or even plain old room-temperature water.

And I wonder if the prevalence of these ratings labels will cause a shift in the meaning of mild. I’ve been placing the meaning shift on language, so that it means “offensive language,” but someone could keep the usual meaning for language, and decide that mild must mean “slightly obscene.” It puts mild jack cheese in a new light, as well as mild-mannered Clark Kent, and of course the baby Jesus, holy infant so tender and mild.

8 Responses to “Mild Language”

  1. Ingeborg S. Nordn said

    I’d put the meaning shift on “language” myself–people still warn others “watch your language” after hearing something offensive, and I’ve heard “use language” as a euphemism for “use profanity” when I was growing up. (A bizarre way of thinking, though–that interpretation could mean “every word is a dirty word”!)

  2. triticale said

    The mention of young people learning strong “language” before mild reminds me of an amusing incident some years back. A neighbor’s five year old stepchild was very angry at her, and combined the f-word with “poo-poo pants” thinking both were of equal power.

  3. triticale said

    In the context of movie ratings, language is not used literally, but as a parameter, measuring how much and how strong the use of offensive language is. In this case the parameter was activated, but only mildly.

  4. Your pickle example illustrates the principle that we should respect the positive face of those we interact with and that means not just valuing them but valuing what they value — in this case pickles at a party.

    Fun stuff.

  5. Anonymous said

    You ask,
    “So how did this semantic shi*t happen?”

    Neal, how does any big shi*t happen? Just take a look at the recent tectonic tsunami shi*t! How could that *ucking shi*t ever have been predicted? Some things have to be taken as unknowable, un*orseeable and unpreventable and that probably goes *or this semantic shi*t under discussion as well.

    Then you ponder, “And I wonder i* the prevalence of these ratings labels will cause a shi*t in the meaning of mild.”

    Rest assured, a shi*t may be quite mild but the meaning of mild will neither dri*t nor take a major shi*t in our li*etime.

    Then you muse some more,
    “I’ve been placing the meaning shi*t on language, so that it means “o**ensive language,” …”

    Don’t you agree that most pronounced shi*ts are patently o**ensive to one’s auditory and ol*actory senses? They just plain grate and smell bad! Take rap *or example. It’s replete with shi*t words that have stunk up the airwaves *ar to long and I’m so totally *ed up with it that I could just *art!

    You’re the linguist *or goodness sake, so do something about it and stop wasting your time talking about all this language shi*t. Make a di**erence!

    I’m sorry but I’m not trying to be really shi*ty; my “*” key is broken on my computer!


  6. BTW, I’ve recently seen TV ads for movies which were rated PG for “slapstick/crude humor and some language” without any further description. (Thinking very literally, a movie without language would have to exclude not only dialogue but also written titles and credits!)

    This confirms my suspicion that the word “language”, not “mild”, is the one that’s acquiring a specialized meaning: just as “explicit” usually implies “sexually explicit” when someone is criticizing the media, so “language” is becoming a shorthand for “obscene/unacceptable language.” Words like “damn” qualify as mild language because they are mildly unacceptable.

  7. […] Berson puzzled over pervasive language, but noted that the phrase seemed to go back to about 1994 in movie reviews on Google Books. Neal Whitman immediately nailed the expression’s natural habitat, in the U.S. at least: in movie ratings, where language is used to mean ‘offensive, obscene, bad language’ (either by semantic narrowing or by truncation of the longer expression); see Whitman’s posting on mild language ‘mildly offensive language’ with respect to movies rated PG, here. […]

  8. gnewsreader said

    Very funny and insightful – not often that an article on grammar makes me laugh 🙂

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