I don't swear, not real swearing, although I am partial to the occasional minced oath. I have sworn. I can swear. I don't have some sort of physical or mental impediment that prevents me from swearing nor do I support any ideology that either frowns on or outright prohibits blasphemy, profanity or obscenity. I don't have a chip in my brain that causes me excruciating pain if I try to swear. I just don't do it. The question I have to ask, and I'm asking it publicly here (something I've not even really considered privately), is: do I have anything particularly against swearing? The answer has to be, no, but I was never brought up in an environment where swearing was common. I can only remember my father cursing once in a fit of temper and I burst out laughing because he never said "bloody", he pronounced it "bluedy" – not a good thing to do when you're just about to get a hammering.
I have no idea the first time I swore myself but I know it was a conscious decision as was the day "Daddy" became "Dad". I owe that step to The Beano. Neither Dennis the Menace nor Roger the Dodger referred to their fathers as "Daddy" so I opted not to either. I know it felt strange in my mouth – "Dad" – and my father took note of the modification of my form of address but no comment was ever made. It was the same with swearing. I decided one day I would give it a go to see how it felt. It felt odd, these words coming out of my mouth; they weren't my words.
I tried over the years but it never sat well with me. A few times when I was angry I gave way; it felt good to have words held in reserve to express the degree of my feelings. The last time I used the f-word (no, not "faggot") was about six years ago and smashing a plate afterwards was a powerful exclamation mark, not that one was really needed (I just put the plate down too hard – honest) but everyone sat up and took note.
The first time I was actually shocked by swearing I would have been about seventeen. I was waiting for a bus outside Hairmyres Hospital in East Kilbride, where George Orwell was treated for tuberculosis in 1947, when two women, who in my memory were in their fifties and a pair of cleaners, passed me by "effing and blinding" as my dad would have put it. It wasn't the colourful language as such that bothered me, it was who was doing it; either of these could have been my mother.
One of my favourite science fiction novels is A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg. In it all the people speak in the third person, in fact, it is regarded as swearing to use the first person pronoun. I read it first as a teenager and went to some trouble a few years ago to locate a copy; it had lost none of its power. It's a very interesting novel, the concept of swearing minus what we recognise as coarse language.
When my brother used to work for ICI he used to curse constantly: blasphemies, obscenities, profanities – you name it, it came out of his mouth. When asked, he told me, "Jimmy, if I don't swear every second sentence no one at work knows what I'm talking about." Living in Glasgow you can't avoid hearing coarse language; it's practically its lingua franca. The thing is, although these people sound as if they're angry, they're anything but. I had a fellow come up to me once, actually he came up behind me, and all I heard was, "Howrya doin yolcunt?" He wasn't being aggressive, something that some argue the use of swear words is indicative of, he was actually being affectionate!
I sometimes have my characters swear. Here are a few lines from Jill talking (well, thinking actually) about Jack in my short story, 'Just Thinking' which will be appearing in The Ranfurly Review in March:
Whit wus that? Did you hear somethin? Whit the hell if you did? Right, let’s go an chase the wee prick out of bed an be done wi it. Well, whit do you know? He’s scarpered. Thank fuck. That must’ve been him when you were in the loo. Wee shite, at least he could’ve made me you cup of tea an left it beside the bed. Aw well, lass. It’s the game we play, even if they make up the fuckin rules as it goes on.
I can assure you Jack's language is no cleaner but it is totally appropriate. That is how this couple would converse. I hear them on the bus all the time and they don't exactly talk in whispers either. The story could work without all the four-letter words but it would have had the Glasgow ripped out of it too.
I've heard is said that people swear because they have a poor vocabulary and, although people with poor vocabularies often swear more than those who are well educated, I don't believe there is a direct correlation between a poor education and a propensity to curse. Samuel Beckett, who had one of the finest grasps of language of any writer, could curse like the proverbial trooper and he wasn't averse to include very vulgar language in his works, but what you have to remember with Beckett is that every word is used for a reason. And sometime that reason is to offend or, at the very least, to make you sit up and take notice.
At the end of Rockaby, a play where an old woman rocks herself to death, Beckett inserts a single swear word into the monologue to powerful effect:
so in the end
close of a long day
let down the blind and down
into the old rocker
saying to herself
done with that
those arms at last
saying to the rocker
rock her off
stop her eyes
stop her eyes
rock her off
rock her off
(Together: echo of 'rock her off', coming to rest of rock, slow fade out.)
Swearing has lost its power without a doubt. "Bloody" is hardly considered a swear word anymore and "fuck" is so commonplace that I half-expect it to crop up in one of the Queen's speeches one of these days; the royals "bloody" away all the time off camera anyway. I remember once when I was a boy walking by a couple of weans playing in the mud, they can't have been any older than three, and this is pretty much how their conversation went:
1st boy: Bloody bloody
2nd boy: Bloody bleedin
1st boy: Bleedin bloody bloody
2nd boy: Bloody bleedin bleedin bloody
1st boy: Bleedin bloody bloody bleedin
And so on and so forth.
We're fast running out of powerful swear words. And I don't see many new ones being invented either. Since every conceivable bodily orifice, function and excretion has already been referenced and since hardly anyone believes in deities anymore enough to worry about offending them, I suspect that technology might provide the next generation with a few alternatives. Kai at propeller.com has a go at six new swear words and all credit to him. That is just what the world needs, half-a-dozen new swear words. Right? You also might want to check out some examples of politically correct swear words used by Q & A and some of his friends.
What I did run into was a wonderful list of fictional cuss words at Dragon Writing Prompts including "smeg" (Red Dwarf), "frak" (Battlestar Gallactica), "gorram" (Firefly) and "dren" (Farscape) – I'm surprised that more of these haven't been incorporated into the language. Or maybe they have. What the farg would I know?