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Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Swear it

  Rage Guy

Swearing was invented as a compromise between running away and fighting – Peter Finley Dunne

I’ve never been one for swearing. My parents never swore—okay my dad said ‘bloody’ a couple of times (and by ‘a couple of times’ I literally mean twice, possibly three times, in all the years I knew him)—and none of the adults I knew used bad language, at least not in front of the children. Kids were the first and most of their curses were pretty tame—you’d call someone a wee jobbie or something like that—and if you said ‘fuck’ someone would go and tell your mammy on you: that was a bad word.

When I got older I tried it out but it was an uncomfortable fit. The words just didn’t feel right in my mouth. I felt like I was reading someone else’s lines. So I pretty much stopped. It didn’t really matter whether the words were blasphemous (goddamn), scatological (pisshead), animalistic (bitch) or sexual (dyke); none of them felt mine. Racial slurs weren’t something that sat particularly well with me either; that said I never thought twice about referring to a newsagent’s as a ‘Paki’s’ or suggesting we go for a ‘Chinky’ of a weekend but that was me talking about a building and a kind of meal and not an individual. I never personally knew anyone of any race other than Scottish or English and so there was never anyone around to call a ‘sambo’ but I still chuckled when Love Thy Neighbour was on and Eddie Booth called the guy next door a ‘nig nog’ but then I laughed when Bill called Eddie a ‘white honky’. No way would a show like that get made nowadays and yet it ran for seven seasons back in the seventies (not counting the Australian spin-off). Of course why it worked is that both Eddie and Bill were bigots and on top of being of different ethnicities they were also of different political persuasions; not sure if either of them was religious. Their wives got on just fine.

The bottom line is that I’ve never really understood swearing. I’m a Scot and we probably mince more oaths than most—even the Aussies—and so I’ve been surrounded by people effing and blinding all my life. It doesn’t offend me but I still don’t get it. I get the need at times to vent or insult but what’s so magical about f-u-c-k or c-u-n-t or s-h-i-t-e? It’s a bit like shorthand. I might as well say, “You’re a number two,” because we all know what that’s a euphemism for.

At Graham Chapman’s memorial service John Cleese pointed out that he was “very proud of being the first person to ever say 'shit' on British television” before proceeding to be “the first person ever at a British memorial service to say 'fuck'!”. And that got a big laugh. Why? Because swearing’s lost its power.

Felix Dennis is credited with having been the first person to say the word 'cunt' on live British television; that was on The Frost Programme as far back as 1970 apparently. According to The Guardian in 1965 when Kenneth Tynan said 'fuck' on TV four separate House of Commons motions were tabled in Parliament and the Queen received a letter from the morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse; in 1976 when the Sex Pistols swore on the Today programme they were unofficially banned from TV but in 2004 more than 10 million people watched John Lydon on I'm a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! call the voting audience at home “fucking cunts” for failing to choose him as the night's loser and fewer than 100 members of the public complained. Ten years from now I wonder if anyone’ll bat and eye. This year the OED’s added a whole range of derivatives of the four-letter Middle English swear word ‘cunt’ including ‘cunted’, ‘cunting’, ‘cuntish’ and ‘cunty’; the complete list is here. I wonder what took them so long?

Words only have power if people assign them power. As Lenny Bruce put it on Swear to Tell the Truth: “[If] nigger didn't mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.” That’s a word that’s making a comeback I see. For a long time no one but no one could get away with the n-word. That was a baaaaaad word. But not so much now. The opinions on this webpage run the whole gamut but I’ll highlight this one:

It's Just a Word African Americans use it to call each other the word in a friendly matter, but if a Caucasion [sic] or any other person out of their race called them that they would play the racist card. If they think if it’s such a bad word, then don't use it. Otherwise the word is used in a new slang to "friend" so I don't really see a problem.

I’ve never used the word in my life except… actually I think this may well be the first time. A part of me can’t see what all the fuss is about. I know all about the history of the word and its implications but it wasn’t a part of my world; I was a young man before I met my first black man. He played a guitar in our front room and let me touch his hair; I liked him. Louis C.K. has a few thoughts on the subject:

And it’s not just us white folk. GloZell’s also confused.

So why do we swear? For the most part it seems swearing’s like honking the horn on your car which is something else I’m not sure I’ve even done. I can see why in an emergency one might honk a horn but even then it’s always struck me as an extra thing and much better to keep control of your vehicle. I’ve certainly never honked my horn out of pure frustration which is odd because I’m prone to being frustrated but I guess I mostly internalise it. Also we rarely just say a swearword. I can write, “He said, ‘Oh, fuck!’” but you and I know that effort went into that expression. He exclaimed it. He declaimed it. He cried out, “Oh, fuck!” Or maybe he did just say it but even if he did so much more was implied. It might’ve been a surprised ‘fuck’ or an astounded one, an unbelieving one, a disgruntled one. Basically swearing’s a safety valve. You can swear at a guy or punch him in the face. I must’ve sworn at someone somewhere along the line—even if it was one of the tamer swearwords—but I’ve never punched anyone in the face. Never wanted to. Not my style. So swearing can be a good thing. It lets you let of steam. Unless, like honking your car horn, you overdo it. And then someone gets out of their car and either swears at you or punches you in the face.

One of the world’s great swearers is, unsurprisingly, a Scot: Billy Connolly. In a 2011 review Megan Howden writes:

Connolly swears continuously and does not apologise for it. To him they are words just like any others and he enjoys using them immensely. A fifteen minute routine in the perfect uses for the word ‘cunt’ is one such example from his show. While I cannot count or begin to estimate the number of expletives that passed his lips during the prolific two hour and forty minute show I can truly say that I have not seen a more charming performer. Whether some of the sting wears off through his wonderful Glaswegian accent or his confident, matter of fact usage changes the tone, I do not know but there is not another individual on the planet for which I would gladly fork out money to have my vocabulary desecrated by.

What’s interesting about Connolly is that his swearing does not lose its power through overuse. I could transcribe the fifteen minute routine described above but so much would be lost in the translation. I’m not saying swearing can’t be written down because obviously I’ve been doing precisely that but its true power is in its spoken form. In the article ‘The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words’ Timothy Jay writes:

The taboo lexicon is like a box of tools engineered for a wide range of emotional expression. This is what is meant by their utility: one can achieve a myriad of personal and social goals with them. From an evolutionary standpoint, swearing is a unique human behaviour that developed for a purpose. Taboo words persist because they can intensify emotional communication to a degree that nontaboo words cannot. Fuck you! immediately conveys a level of contempt unparalleled by nontaboo words; there is no way to convey Fuck you! with polite speech. The emotional impact of taboo words produces a unique high level of arousal unlike other nontaboo emotional words

We talk about colourful language—a polite enough euphemism for imprecation—but when you listen to a master-cusser like Connolly the expression makes so much more sense.

I think swearing’s like nudity. Most of us aren’t comfortable walking around in the altogether. Even those with beautiful bodies tend to keep them under wraps. And then you get those blokes… like Billy Connolly now I think about it, whose TV documentaries regularly featured him frolicking around in the nude. (Thankfully in his last one on death he managed to keep it in his pants.) So am I equating swearing with honesty? I think I probably am. Broadly speaking. I’m not saying you can’t swear and lie at the same time—one always has to consider the context—but in day-to-day speech I actually think swearing is used to underline the veracity of what’s being said. Feel free to disagree. I have no evidence to substantiate this claim. It just seems to make sense to me. (Opinions differ: see this debate.)

Of course Connolly’s an uneducated Scot so what would he know? Well here’s an erudite Englishman with a few words to say on the subject:

(Actually Billy has two engineering qualifications; one collected by mistake belonging to a boy named Connell (according to the liner notes of the compilation album Transatlantic Years)).

Much is not understood about swearing. All you have to do is look at the final section of Timothy Jay’s paper to see that a lot of work lies ahead of researchers. In his paper he suggests that “swearing is highly likely from a Type A adult in a stressful social situation” but that doesn’t really fit me; even when I was at my most stressed and working myself into the ground I was more likely to burst into tears than a tirade of expletives.

But what of the future?

Now don’t let us give ourselves a parcel of airs and pretend that the oaths we make free with in this land of liberty of ours are our own; and because we have the spirit to swear them,—imagine that we have had the wit to invent them too. – Tristram Shandy

Puzzles me why ‘Nazi’ hasn’t been adopted by more people. If you really want to offend someone call him a ‘Nazi’. There was a time when the word ‘Nazi’ didn’t exist. Prior to 1920 no one would’ve known what you were talking about. And so with ‘cunt’ from the Latin ‘cunnus’. Prior to about 75 B.C. that one would’ve gone over most people’s head too. Vaginas certainly existed before the Romans: each and every one proceeded from one.

As the old cusswords lose their vigour why aren’t we replacing them with still more vulgar, obscene or blasphemous words? Probably because once you’ve turned the volume up to eleven there’s nowhere else to go. I would suggest that more swearwords have gone out of fashion than new ones have been invented (or maybe designated would be a better verb since a lot of the time the status of a word is simply changed in the minds of its uses, e.g. faggot or spastic). Does anyone ever use those words? What if I said, “I thumb my nose at you”? Kids would just laugh at you nowadays. Or what about ‘bite my thumb’ or ‘cock a snook’? Here’s an article with ten words that used to be frowned upon. And this article shows that the debate over swearing has gone on for a long time.


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 oomph. It's a very interesting novel, the concept of swearing minus what we recognise as coarse language.

Science fiction authors have had a wonderful ol’ time inventing new swear words and it’s a great way to get around the censors. Who, for example, batted an eye when Mork said, “shazbot”? What did it even mean? I bet the question Craig Charles gets asked most at interviews is what ‘smeg’ means? Likewise the use of ‘frell’ and ‘dren’ in Farscape allowed the television series to get away with dialogue that would normally never have made it past broadcasting and network censorship. The same applied to ‘frag’ in Babylon 5 and ‘frak’ in the original series of Battlestar Galactica followed by a host of other shows the latest I’m aware of being Defiance with ‘ganchi’, ‘haigi’, ‘skragi’, ‘jek’, ‘shtek’, ‘gwoke’, ‘chup’ and ‘shtako’ but then there are five alien tongues in the show. Now, of course, ‘frack’ has entered our everyday language as a mining term although in that context it’s actually been around since the 1950’s as an abbreviated form of ‘fracturing’.

I don’t ever see a time when we evolve to a point when, as a species, we no longer feel the need to swear. Remember before swearing meant “to use offensive language, especially as an expression of anger” it meant “to make a solemn statement or promise undertaking to do something or affirming that something is the case.” That is still the dominant meaning: HYFR (Hell Yeah Fucking Right). It raises everything to another level: “Just in case I didn’t make myself clear let me make myself fucking clear.”


Kass said...

I'm a big fan of swearing, perhaps because I grew up Mormon and was not allowed to say, "pee pee," "poo poo," or "caca".....and of course, all the stronger words. Mom was especially offended by the expression, "that sucks (or the vernacular 'sux')." She had to explain to me that it referred to something that was done to the 'male member' and I was shocked, because I found it very accurate of something being so offensive it could clear a room by creating a vacuum of suction.

Your video examples made me chuckle so 'thank you'.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yeah, Kass, my dad did the same me with words like ‘bugger’ and ‘sod’ (there is a difference). I still say ‘sod it’ from time to time—usually three in a row for emphasis—but that’s about it. Yesterday Carrie misheard something on TV and asked me, “What did they say?” Well, they swore and so I had to repeat what they said and it felt uncomfortable—annoyed really—because I didn’t want to swear. My characters swear when appropriate but not much. I even have a few poems with swearing in them.

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