Anyone else love a good swear?
I grew up in a home where my mother could accidentally smash a whole lasagne onto the kitchen floor, and the worst she’d emit would be a strangled “OH, SUGAR!”
She had been brought up by her working-class parents to believe that swearing was a sign of ‘low-breeding’ and ignorance, and they were keen to elevate themselves above this. By contrast, my dad was an angry swearer, whose expletives would warn me and my sister that we’d be wise to make ourselves scarce.
So I’m not sure where my fascination with “healthy swearing” has come from. Swearing for the pure, unbridled joy of it. Perhaps it was a lack of middle ground in my childhood. More likely it’s my interest in all language, colourful or otherwise, and the nuances of it.
I like to swear for comedy value, for added expression, as a sign of affection, and yes indeed, if my dinner falls out of the oven onto my feet. I try not to swear in front of people who might be offended, or people I don’t know very well. And usually I try not to swear in front of my children.
It’s the whole children thing that has got me thinking a bit deeper about swearing, and why some words are so taboo. And I’m way more uncomfortable with the idea of having taboos for my children than explaining the meaning of shit to them. Each time they have asked me about a particular swear word I have told them what it means, how to spell it (“No Darling, one “t” in shit, not two…“), and crucially the different ways it can be used. It’s all very matter of fact.
I want them to understand the difference between calling a movie shit versus calling another person a shit. And that all swear words are not created equal, so although you might say “bloody” in the playground and get away with it, there are other words that are wholly unacceptable. I’m not afraid to tell them that there are as many ways to refer to a vagina as there are ways to serve potatoes.
With strong language from the start, Peter Silverton takes the deepest dive into dirty linguistics in his book Filthy English. You might wonder how anyone can fill a whole book on a bunch of swear words, but the roots of this part of our language spread wide and deep. It’s fascinating to see how far back many of our swear words go, appearing in classical Greek, Chaucer, Shakespeare and more recently, The Guardian. As with all language, these words have evolved and multiplied, resulting in hundreds of ways to describe what amounts to a handful of sex organs, sex acts and bodily functions.
The book explains how the shock factor of a swear word can change throughout social history, and how a term that was once used as a weapon against a group of people can be reclaimed and powerfully repurposed by those same people. (See the C word and the N word for more info).
I also loved learning that newspapers have style guides for swearing (I guess most of us have these in-built without realising). These detail what is and isn’t acceptable. For The Guardian, title holder of Britain’s Sweariest Newspaper, they draw the line at asterisks. These offensive little stars are considered a cop-out: either print the word or don’t, but for f***’s sake don’t bleep it out. Tabloids tend to avoid offensive language but go mad for a creative euphemism. ‘Love romp’ is one of my favourites, it sounds so cheerful.
Finally, for those of you who never swear, you may be surprised as I was to learn that many everyday words including twit and berk are historically rooted in altogether more shocking language. And calling someone a proper Charlie is not as innocent as it sounds – it’s an abbreviation of the Cockney rhyming slang Charlie Hunt. Gasp! Now go wash your mouth out.