Monday, 29 June 2009


Warning: this post contains BAD LANGUAGE!

Our swearing is a barometer of the sensibilities of our culture. Yesterday's blood-curdling oath has become a meaningless comic noise in a children's cartoon. I doubt anyone today would be much offended if I exclaimed "God's blood!" when I hit my thumb with a hammer, although they might be startled. It would have been a different matter in the seventeenth century, and I could easily have found myself with my ears nailed to a post. I suppose in the USA, where the alignment of Christianity and respectability still seems (to European eyes) anachronistically close, taking the Lord's name in vain (not to mention other attributes or body parts) is still quite offensive to some people. Though they've probably got over the ear-mutilating thing by now. 'Snails, I hope so.

Fondness for one's ears led to the evolution of so-called "minced oaths" -- mild swearwords used in place of offensive swearwords. The classics are those musketeerish ejaculations like "Gadzooks!" and "Zounds!", but we're still at it. For obvious reasons, they usually start with the same sound as a "real" oath. For example, all those strange exclamations like "Cripes," "Crikey," and"Crivvens" are clearly substitutes for "Christ!". Not so long ago in Britain "bloody" was a genuinely taboo adjective, though no-one seems sure why -- I have seen various explanations, including the suggestion that "bloody" is itself a minced-oath version of "by Our Lady". Hence the abundant use of adjectives like "blinking", "blooming", or "blasted" in the everyday speech of people averse to full-on vulgarity. By the same token, I suspect the relative paucity of exclamations beginning "sh..." betrays the relatively recent adoption of "Shit!" as an all-purpose expression of dismay. "Sugar!" is the only one that comes to mind (though "Surely not!" was a personal favourite when our kids were small).

Of course, any true puritan finds even a minced oath offensive, because it points pretty directly and transparently at the real thing. But then, the ability to find offence where none is intended is the hallmark of the puritan down the ages, from Cromwell to the Taliban. By contrast, a true innocent will happily use some of the merrier minced oaths, completely unaware of the big sign pointing at the taboo word they have, apparently, narrowly avoiding saying (and which, once upon a more genteel time, they might never actually have known). Oh, fudge and fiddlesticks!

I have never quite understood the contemporary fondness for using "language," especially the claim that it is hypocritical or prissy not to do so or, worse, to find it offensive. But, coming from a respectable working class / lower middle class milieu, I will concede that I am not best placed, instinctively, to understand it. I literally never heard my parents or the parents of any of my friends swear. Not once. It would have been utterly unthinkable, in the 1950s and 60s, for a halfway-respectable adult knowingly to swear in front of children, even if they habitually used "effing and blinding" at work (which, before women entered the workplace, most men did). Similarly, we kids would never have sworn in front of (never mind at) an adult. I did once tell my grandmother, at the prompting of a friend, to "buzz off" (a classic minced version of "bugger off ," I now realise), and she chased me down the street, incandescent with rage. I received a rare smack that evening for my impertinence.

No, the true traditional swearers are all-male communities and the upper classes. Naturally, you expect a barrack-room to swear like troopers; that the likes of Winston Churchill also did and do when at their ease can come as something of a surprise. But, as Terry Eagleton points out in a recent review of Isaiah Berlin's letters, elite establishments like Oxford tend to "mistake a snobbish contempt for the shopkeeping classes for a daring kind of dissidence." What better way to underline your distance from and contempt for the genteel classes than a judicious sprinkling of witty vulgarity? On the positive side, the words "Well, wasn't that a fucking débâcle?" impeccably enunciated after a meeting establishes that -- in the ambassador's view -- everyone left in this room is an honorary equal, and indubitably on the same side.

Having slipped over the years into inadvertent and unnecessary swearing, I decided to wean myself off it once we had children. Other friends had gone down the opposite route, which was to inoculate their kids against a wicked world by freely sprinkling the taboo words (or a PC selection thereof) into the family conversation. Call me old-fashioned, but I wince when I hear an under 10 say, "But I don't want any fucking cornflakes, Mummy!" I guess if you live in London, such precautions may be necessary. Not in my house, though.

In the initial phase, I was substituting the strongest kid-friendly oath I could think of, which did have some odd results. A 40-year old man roaring "Oh dear! I've hit my silly old finger with the silly old hammer!" does make for an amusing spectacle (for the spectators). But I am now largely oathless, and I must admit it feels good. I would never carry myself physically in the sort of swaggering, bullying way that intimidates others*, and I can see no reason to behave differently in my language. If there is one thing the world could do without, it is people who revel in repeatedly rubbing their own strength and inviolability in the face of all comers. A society which is careless of the feelings of the vulnerable or the old is a malformed society, simply. Even the prissily genteel deserve consideration. A little, anyway.

However, one argument against swearing that I can't accept is the assertion that it reduces one's ability to express oneself, by constricting the habitual swearer's vocabulary. Take, for example, these words, which I once heard booming from the pit of a car maintenance garage: "Fucking fuck it! This fucking fucker's fucking fucked!" Meaningless? Inexpressive? A unique example, surely, of a single word's protean power, when used with the proper conviction.

* Sources close to this Blog have pointed out the unlikeliness of this scenario, despite my imposing height of 6' 5" (OK, other way round, 5' 6").


Bronislaus Janulis said...

Well fucking phrased.

Breaking ones self of "vulgarities" is probably as hard as it was for me to wean myself from tobacco. I'm tobacco free, but still put voice to the other.

Mike C. said...

Oh, tobacco... It's been 19 years (and two extra stone in weight)since I gave it up, and I still miss it occasionally. I think that definitely needs to go up on the rack as a future post.

Miguel said...

Another view on the issue, besides social class and age (generational) differences, is how blasphemous us Southern Europeans must seem compared to the English. I always had thought that my family was almost swearword-free (with the notable exception of when driving), but when I once attempted to translate what my sweet grandma used to say when feeding her chickens, everybody realized cultural differences were huge: on strength and variety.

Mike C. said...

Interesting point, Miguel. British swearing is almost entirely sexual now, but in a fairly unimaginative way, and based on about five taboo words -- it lacks any of the scope for personal improvisation or creativity of the sort one associates (perhaps stereotypically) with Southern European languages. Frankly, it's dull and generally witless. Shakespeare would be ashamed.

gmac101 said...

I work for an Italian offshore contractor and when I first went offshore as I stood on the bridge of the vessel most of the communication was in English except when things went wrong when huge streams of what I now know to be very rude Italian invective would pour forth. One I heard as "bocadillo". I was learning Spanish at time and I thought that given the similarity of Latin languages that it also meant sandwich in Italian (I am an engineer and have always struggled with languages). How wrong I was they were saying "porco dio" god is a pig. I have since learned this is very rude and once made an Italian girl pale with the words I learnt offshore. I would also agree with "class" side of swearing, I started my schooling in a Scottish pit village and the use of a mild swear word would result in a harsh punishment, though not the "tawse". It took a move to the middle class paradise that is Wokingham in Royal Berkshire for me to encounter the full range of English profanity. Gavin

Mike C. said...

Thanks for that, Gavin -- isn't it interesting, though, that an expression like "God is a pig" is entirely without any taboo power in English? "God is a fucking pig" would raise an eyebrow in polite company, but take out the adjective and you might as well have said "The Queen is a quantity surveyor".

Kent Wiley said...


Pretty similar experiences here on this end. No swearing from the rents when we were growing up, and none from me as my own child is growing up. I'm totally able to separate work language - which is rough as might be expected from building tradesmen, but far from blasphemous or imaginative - from what is discussed at home in front of my daughter. She'll hear it, I fear not, I don't need to be the bearer of foul language. It gets used on occasion w/ the wife for emphasis and a bit of colloquial color.

As a parenthetical aside, I read somewhere that when actor R. Lee Ermey read for the part of Gunner Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, he let out a stream of cursing that lasted for 15 minutes during which he never repeated himself. Only a bit of it made it to the film.

You raise an interesting question: what are the out-of-bounds topics of derision and invective? Apparently it's "okay" to curse God, but what about the Queen?

Mike C. said...


Thanks for the comments. You write "Apparently it's okay to curse God, but what about the Queen?" You are joking here, aren't you? The Queen is the butt of innumerable jokes, and is satirised in the crudest ways on publicly-funded TV -- we Brits hold very little, if anything, sacred (I blame Henry VIII), hence the limited and crude nature of our swearing. There was something weird and un-British going on with Diana for a while which I never understood, but that's over now.

For example, the whole "mother" thing -- so sensitive in Latin America and Russia -- is incomprehensible here. "OK, but why would you want to have sex with my mother?"

The only thing I can think of that will incite a mob here is child abuse. A mob in Portsmouth burned down a man's house because had been identified as a paediatrician... (Allegedly -- Southampton people will believe anything of their neighbours down the coast...)