Canada's broadcast standards regulator has ruled that a swear word that's off-limits on English-language broadcasts is acceptable in French programming.
The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council ruled that a Quebec music radio station did not violate any rules by airing two clips of celebrities using the F-word as part of public speeches.
A listener of CKOI-FM filed a complaint after hearing the profane clips from Madonna and Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong played two months apart on afternoon programming.
The council ruled that CKOI-FM did not violate broadcast standards by playing the uncensored clips.
It says the F-word does not have the same "vulgar connotation" in French that it does in English and notes that the term was not used as an insult directed at a specific target.
The latest ruling is consistent with a similar decision handed down last year regarding a French-language television broadcast.
CKOI referred to that past decision that excused television network MusiquePlus' use of the F-word in a broadcast, emphasizing that the word is construed differently in Canada's two official languages.
The broadcast standards regulator referenced that decision again in its latest ruling, noting that language is evolutionary and reflects current society.
"The panel prefers to impress upon broadcasters the need for appropriate viewer advisories and correct classification of programs rather than to target the occasional usage of vernacular language," the latest decision said.
Chantal Bouchard, a sociolinguist with McGill University, said the English obscenity is fairly commonly used by French speakers in informal conversation.
Unlike French swear words, which Bouchard said have their origins in religious references, the English terms have less power to shock a listener, she said.
"I think it doesn't have as much of a vulgar connotation as it does in English precisely because it's not a French word," Bouchard said in an email. "Traditionally, Quebecers had a rich repertoire of swear words, more often taken from religion, but since younger generations haven't experienced the period in which the Catholic church had great authority, these swears have lost a lot of their impact."
The clips at the heart of the council decision both involved celebrities whose music is played on CKOI making speeches in public settings, the council noted.
The first instance came shortly before 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 23, when afternoon hosts were discussing Madonna's address to the recent Women's March on Washington. The hosts aired and discussed a clip in which the pop star concluded her remarks with a profanity aimed at those who opposed the march.
Two months later, at 2:15 p.m. on March 25, a different afternoon host began discussing the rock group Green Day with a caller who had dialled in to request a song. When talk turned to a recent F-word-laden outburst from lead singer Armstrong, the host played an excerpt in which a variation of the word was heard three times.
The council ruled that neither instance breached Canada's broadcast codes.
"First, the primary language of the program must be French," the council wrote when laying out its criteria for use of the term. "Second, the use of the word must be infrequent; and third, the word cannot be used to insult or attack an individual or group. If a broadcast meets these three criteria, it is probable that the CBSC will not find a violation."
Marcel Danesi, whose research for the University of Toronto's department of anthropology includes popular and youth culture, said the last point is likely most relevant.
He disagreed that infrequent use of the obscenity would mitigate the potential offensiveness of the term, saying the rarity of hearing it on the air could potentially add to its impact on a listener.
But he said the contexts laid out by the council make it clear that the term was not used as a form of attack, making it fairly harmless overall.
"It didn't offend any group, any particular ideology, any particular cultural segment," he said. "It just is part of discourse."