Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Expletive ʄ#@%ing deleted

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
went down
let down the blind and down
right down
into the old rocker
and rocked
saying to herself
done with that
the rocker
those arms at last
saying to the rocker
rock her off
stop her eyes
fuck life
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 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?


Evie said...

"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 in indicative of, he was actually being affectionate!"

As an Australian, this brought a smile, it's definitely something I can relate to. Australians have the same propensity to use swear words in an affectionate manner. Many Australian refer to their best friends as bastards. Funnily enough when you're using it affectionately, you'll call your best friend a complete bastard but when you're using it seriously (which we also do) it tends to be ridiculously moderated e.g. "That Hitler was a bit of a bastard really".

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Evie. I found your comment fascinating and nice to see another Aussie has found their way to my site.

Gabriel Orgrease said...

I should probably spend my time to respond to you in my blog but I will give it a go here first.

I was not raised in swearing. Actually raised in a fairly tight fundamental religious environment. Though as a young adult, and older adult my career has been close with the working construction trades and with them I learned to swear quite well... and I have no inhibition in doing so other than in public most of the time. I am sharply aware that what I would feel free to say at home or in the bathroom is something that I would not say in public.

In my environment of the vulgar working class I have often encountered quite foul talk that was either racially or sexually offensive and usually from folks who had no sense to think they were being offensive... and rather able to be creative in their use of words which for a word smith can be refreshing... but mainly what I found out was that the best way to shut these folks up was to take what they were saying and exaggerate it back at them 10 times over. From that they would think I was nuts, better than thinking other possible things (like wanting to beat the crap out of me for being a book reading sissy) and the next time they were inclined to sound off they would think to keep an eye on me and likely they would say less. I will not go into examples here.

I also worked for several years for a colorful stonemason who used some fairly original swear words and from that I got a desire not only to expand my foul vocabulary, but a lifelong ambition to improve upon it. When folks in my environment go for swearing... and the F word really does get kind of monotonous real fast (F donuts is the one that always gets me laughing) and I encourage them that I do not mind if they swear one bit as long as they make an effort to be creative and fresh about it.

I rarely use swear words in anger, though as I am in the construction business and in New York the old school of construction was to really tear into the other folks around, constant verbal whipping and as they say to tear everyone a new A-hole. I learned that art quite well and took to it with a hearty vengeance... enough to lose friends over it who did not understand the underlying violence and tension that drives one to build tall buildings. It took me several years (like 20) to get over that and to get enough distance to understand it for the cultural environment that it is.

I have a business associate that I work with closely and every once in a while we start out our phone conversations by calling each other, shouting at each other, as vile a set of sexually and socially unpleasant epithets against each other as we can muster... after a minute or so we end with, "Do you feel better now?" "Yes." Obviously we are laughing the entire time but I fear for those, in this day of the cell phone, who get to overhear our conversations. It does take out a whole lot of tension from our working lives that we have this sharing experience, and it gets us to the point a whole lot quicker than pleasantry over the weather. As my friend shows various symptoms of ADD it also helps to keep him on point.

Lastly, I have a short story about pheasant hunting that I feel is one of the best that I have written that I suspect gets rejected because of the foul language the two brothers use against each other. It is this 'affectionate' vulgarity that is in essence the bond of tension between two brothers. It took me two years to write the story, and it is two years now that it keeps getting rejected. I have looked at it several times to try to figure out if the vulgarity can be removed and each time I come away stronger in the conclusion that the intimacy of the vulgarity, and that it is actually how friends on a pheasant hunt do talk with each other, that is inseparable from the heart of the story. My desire to pheasant hunt, as well as the story, was inspired by Tolstoy. I am not a hunter by any means, but having read Tolstoy's Cossacks as a teenager I have always wanted to go on a pheasant hunt. I have done it several times and eventually I got a nut in my head to write a story about it.

Is this offensive?

"Spunk up an twine on wid your kecs in a minger bum, ya gormless willy!"

Jim Murdoch said...

Entertaining comments as always, Gabriel. I'm actually reading a book at the moment which was recommended to me as a reworking of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich set in a chicken factory – who could resist something like that? – and I can see what the publisher is on about but what I'm find most interesting is that the protagonist and his family are based in Royston in Glasgow. Royston's not the poorest area in the city but it's down there and I've known a few people who live there. They are the most down-to-earth people and their language is down there too and the book renders their speech patterns in an extremely accurate way. I am honestly not sure that anyone who is not Scottish will appreciate this book and I suspect the further the readers are from Glasgow the more difficulty they'll have. The writing isn't quite as dense as Irvine Welsh or James Kelman but it was still a surprise to me when I started on it. That said, I'm enjoying it and not the slightest bit offended by the language; it's actually some of the behaviour that I'm finding hard to cope with but then I've never had much time for vandals.

Gabriel Orgrease said...

That sounds like something I would like to read.

I have a Scot friend a stonemason in Ontario, a big burly sweet hearted guy that plays guitar and sings at event w/ thousands of people and such. He was offended one day when we were having a beer and lunch together I I told him I had got a Scot-English dictionary to better understand him with. We worked that difference out. The damned thing though is like 4" thick.

I am working up my response to you to put on my blog so look for it as it will have stuff added to it... particularly about chickens.

Gabriel Orgrease said...

Oh, by the by, my primary ancestry is Scot-German with the Scot being back somewhere around the Mayflower come over to Amerika. There is also another thread of Scots that came over as stonemasons to work on the Erie Canal.

Dave King said...

It's remarkable how we seem to be in parallel much of the time: I am preparing a post n language - not swearing - and have only within the last twenty minutes or so come upon the information that there is no known language anywhere in the world that does not have its own set of swear words.
I don't know whether that should surprise or not. I do remember as a boy that our fiercest swear word was District Nurse. (Okay, our fiercest TWO swear words!) The f-word has never given the satisfaction that that district nurse gave.

Jim Murdoch said...

Gabe, that book is called Fresh if you want to check out the reviews at Amazon. I'll likely write my own when I'm done but, based on the first 75 pages, I'd recommend it. Incidentally I live here and I have a Scots-English dictionary. I also have an English-American dictionary. Or maybe those are my wife's.

And, Dave, that was interesting. I never thought to check that but it makes total sense. I wonder if there are any swear words in Esperanto. By the way, if you're interested I've got blogs coming up on fan fiction, poetry readings and book burnings if you want to stay clear of those topics.

The Unskilled Poet said...

I completely agree with Evie. I was raised in Australia, and swearing is so commonplace that it's strange to meet someone who doesn't casually swear. I am no stranger to using strong language, nor do I particularly dislike it, but I do try to bite my tongue at work. Unlike my boss.

As Evie mentioned, bastard is common in Australia as an affectionate term, but cunt is also increasing in usage as just a friendly, fun way to refer to your friends - ie. 'Howzit garn, ya cunt?' = 'How are you, my good friend?'. The other funny thing is how 'cunt' has had a very distinct rise to popular usage, making 'fuck' look tame as anything in comparison (as you mentioned, 'fuck' is the new 'bloody', which was the new 'damnation', etc). Language is a curious thing which constantly evolves, and swearing is not static either.

Conda said...

As an American writer of mysteries, I've got another take on swearing. It's a huge taboo, bigger even than sex (which can be cleaned up, somewhat) in the type of mystery I write. And even in a lot of other "mostly-read-by-women" fiction. I don't know why this is so true in American writing, but I find censorship of any kind quite annoying.

However, I also write to market, and know that my s.o.'s mother won't even read my current, being shopped, novel because it has 2-3 "damns" in it and one "bastard" who really is. Which I may remove. The words, not the character.

Deborah said...

Hi Jim! First, thanks for the wonderful comments you've been leaving on my site. They do not go unnoticed!

I honestly can't remember when I started swearing. I remember NOT swearing. I remember trying to replace words, "f-ing, friggin'," and my mother telling us not to say those either because she knew what they meant. Something must have made me start swearing more, but now I make a conscious effort not to swear.

I now work in a martial arts school where children are present often, or where I'm rolling around or being punched at; in these situations one might swear, but I don't anymore. As a matter of fact, the only times I do swear are in the privacy of my home and my fiance and I generally insert expletives to add humor to our discussion (or, in his case, when discussing politics).

Regardless, my grandmother still says "sugar" and "fudge," and I always know what she means ;)

Dick said...

I've loved words from a very early age. I get great pleasure from a finely crafted phrase, both in the giving & the receiving. I abhor cliche & the barren dialogue of most TV & film scripts depresses me.

But - to fall back on cliche - I swear like a navvy. Few phrases have more pungency than a well-timed, 'Fuck off'. When swearing is applied to a situation there's no equivocation, none of that exasperating English delicacy & restraint. All in all, I relish the end-of-the-line directness that swearing provides. Nothing at this late stage in the proceedings is likely to clean up my language. No fucking way...

Jim Murdoch said...

I agree that swearing has evolved over the year, "Unskilled", but what I'm wondering is what next? As you've pointed out words which only a few years ago were taboo are now seeping into books, films and television programmes. Where do we go next?

And, Conda, I have to say I'm a little surprised that you find yourself so restricted. It must make it hard to present anything like a realistic scenario. I'm reading a novel just now set in a Scottish chicken factory and, although it's not great literature, the author has got the lingua franca absolutely spot on; the book simply would die a death if he had tried to clean it up.

Deborah, thanks for the comment and you're welcome. My parents did the same with me, I couldn't say 'gosh' or 'by Jove' or 'sod it' or anything without them explaining what these were euphemisms for. BTW I was looking for you on Gather, it you want to add me to my friends here's my profile.

Dick, yes, swearing can really hammer a point home. In my last job, which I was in for over seven years, I swore only once but people talked about it for years quite simply because it had the intended effect and people talked about it for a long time simple because "Jim never swears." Stomping into the kitchen and – honestly – accidentally smashing a plate did tend to underline the incident.

Conda said...

Well, yes, Jim, it is a bit constricting. And a little annoying to have to consider carefully ever swear word in a manuscript. After I read your comment I got to thinking that I may not be that restricted by the genre this book is in (cozy) but also by the fact that I live in the most conservative state in the United States--where swearing (and I mean the word "damn") is a firing offense in many places of employment here. Now, that's restrictive. When tends to take it out of my vocabulary. Which is a shame, because I believe, used well, swearing is a good tool when writing.

Gabriel Orgrease said...

I guess I do not live in the most restrictive state in the USA... in general in public I consider it bad taste to swear but I would never anticipate getting fired and/or otherwise hurt for it.

As much, Conda as you are sensitive for writing to 'market' (an ability of restraint that I admire) I am likely insensitive to not thinking too awful much about it. Or thinking plenty about it but not understanding the censorship.

As to use of swear words in fiction I feel that there has to be an integral need for it to be there, or not... as we would assume our choice of any words, "Do they need to be there?" I am not into the use of gratuitous swear words.

My wife with her former husband had two children. They are now grown and we have 6 grandchildren. The kids stayed with their father. My wife went through hell with him while with me for nearly 10 years. I was told whenever he called on the phone that I was to be nice. So nice I was.

Then one day I was trying to help HIS son get some paying work and the father was giving me crap on the phone. I had enough and yelled, "Go fuck yourself." I hung up the phone. He called my wife later that day and told her it was the first thing I had ever said that he understood.

Since that time we all get along fine.

As to parallel blogs I think the concept is really neat. Almost the only inducement that I have to add to my blog is when Jim puts something in his blog that gets me going... and now I am getting into the same vibe with Dave King's blog... even though we may address the same topics we have such different takes on them that our separate blogs would never be the same, but they also play off of each other when they are in parallel.

My other inducement is that after I wrote one entry, in response to Jim's blog, my wife, who does not read Jim's blog, told me I should make entries more often. When this week her computer went on a little fritz I complained to her that my blog readership had dropped by 50% and that it made me feel compelled to get her computer running again... that I did.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Gabriel. I have to say I've been surprised and delighted by the amount of response to this topic.

To that end I'm following this up with a book review. The book is based in Glasgow and is full of both swearing and violence. It should be up by end of play today.

Shelly said...

Funny, Jim, but I was writing about a topic related to this about the same time you made this post. I wasn't specifically talking about profanities, but it came up in the comments.

This is a great article considering the topic, and the comments have been a lot of fun to read. It is amazing how our use of language shapes others' perceptions of us (more what I was discussing in my article), and your example of the one use of profanities that you used in your 7 year stint in the office is the kinds of thing that really underscores that idea.

The whole discussion of the use of language in the Glasgow context is largely what I had in mind when I posted the article on my blog (more as an additional resource for my students than anything else). Use of a certain type of language so often draws to mind stereotypes associated with where we are from, where we work, etc., and it can end up really burdening us down with a label. Your discussion got me to thinking about how this can go either way. When profanities colour the whole conversation, for instance, some will see that as "low class" (or whatever). My sister, on the other hand, never uses anything even bordering on profanity, and is extremely offended by such talk. She just finds it insulting. She doesn't even use "shut up" or "stupid" or anything that she feels is belittling or insulting. She is a Christian, but I don't think that is the (only) reason she does not curse. She just doesn't like how it sounds, and didn't want her children speaking rudely to one another nor to others. Oh, and did I mention that she homeschools her children... you can imagine the stereotypes associated with her, huh? But in reality, her own decisions, whether to homeschool or to refrain from profanity, are motivated by things very different from what the stereotypes might indicate.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Shelly. I have to say I've been quite delighted by the number of people who've had something to say about this post. It's been fascinating reading them all. What is interesting in Glasgow is the variety of accents even in the city and the extent to which swearing differs from place to place. I wonder if the same can be said about a city like New York. You might find my poem Bloody Foreigners which I posted as a challenge of interest; it comes with a translation.

Shelly said...

Jim, I've had the opportunity to think about this post again several times recently. We are still celebrating Chinese New Year here at the moment, and one of the traditions associated with this holiday is that there are certain words one cannot say during New Year. Basically, only "good" words are "allowed," and anything unpleasant is just not spoken. So, any words associated with death are very much off limits. That seems like it wouldn't be hard, but actually "to death" is a common way of adding emphasis in Chinese (as in "I love you to death," but you can say things like "hot [tired, hungry, full, etc.] until I want to die"). It has been funny, all of us avoiding those "taboo" expressions during the season, even though they are so common in everyday speech.

The idea of what becomes offensive and why is always rather fascinating, I think.

Jim Murdoch said...

That reminds me of the actor's refusal to say Macbeth opting for "the Scottish play" instead. It's less a matter of causing offence as bring down bad luck on you and I know the Chinese are a very superstitious bunch. The bottom line, irrespective of their reasoning just underlines the power people attribute to words.

Gabriel Orgrease said...

I'm never too sure what religion has to do with swearing.

I work at a lot of different Christian churches and a friend of mine, an older gentleman works as an Owner's rep for a whole bunch of Episcopal Churches in the NY area. He is actually a member of the Reformed Church (I think German and not Dutch) and he spends a lot of time reading about early Christian history. When I first met him i was very cautious to not say anything colorful until one day he let off with a string of F words, in a church. Now, I don't even do that myself.

What got me though was that our Jewish friend in common, the architect, seems to have a disease of the mouth that every three words are the F word. My Christian friend remarked to me after talking on the phone with our Jewish friend that he could not believe his ears how badly our Jewish friend was talking... and that he was going to avoid calling the guy in future as a result. I've asked my Jewish friend on several occasions to tone it down a bit... he even gets the Presbyterians riled up.

Talking about language and New York... I know how to say something in Spanish that the Puerto Ricans taught me that I've been warned I had better be careful when I say it... it is something one would say to a really hot broad on the street. I have probably been sworn at in Urdu a few times, though I would not exactly notice.

I have a lot of Polish friends and I was hosting an exhibit of annihilated synagogue architecture at a trade show in Boston when I met a non-Polish friend of mine. He was telling me how he likes working with the Polish and that they had taught him a universal phrase that he said meant,"Your work looks f=very good." He said it always got a smile out of the Polish workers. I asked him to teach me the phrase.

I then went back to our booth and told the Polish nephew of my friend and his friend there with him that I had just learned a Polish phrase.

They asked me what it was. I repeated it. My brain is like a sieve. I have to repeat these phrases over several times to remember them at all. I can't even remember how to say beer in Polish, though I got wodka down pretty good. They looked at me and laughed. I asked them what was so funny. They said I had just said, "I don't give a F." Now, the Poles are pretty serious about their Catholic stuff.

I've been asked why Americans have so many scatological jokes when in Poland it is more proper to have crude jokes about sex. In America we don't mind talking about manure as much as we are inhibited to a degree to make sexual jokes that may offend either gender. A joke is a whole other area of taboo.

My Polish friend also asked me why Americans make Polish jokes. His comment that in Poland they make jokes about the invaders, either the Russians or the Germans. Poland never invaded America.

But in Kentucky I know they make a lot of jokes about the dumb Ohioans who go camping in the Daniel Boone National forest then at night get up to take a leak and fall off of a cliff.

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