Anyone else love a good swear?
I treat it like a form of verbal exercise, part of a rounded, healthy linguistic lifestyle. It feels invigorating, bold, like jumping into icy mountain rapids. (I’ve done that too, and let me tell you, it made me swear). I swear for the pure, unbridled joy of it.
But why? Perhaps it was a lack of middle ground in my childhood.
My mum’s language has always been squeaky clean. I remember the time a whole lasagne slipped from her hands as she was getting it out of the oven. It smashed onto the kitchen floor, and we all stared wide-eyed at the pile of death-mince laced with shards of ceramic. All she said was ‘SUGAR!’.
She had been brought up by her working-class parents to believe that swearing was a sign of low-breeding and ignorance, so has always disapproved of colourful language. Therefore my dad kept his swearing to a minimum – angry expletives only – which meant we missed out on all the fun stuff.
Now 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.
I’m way more uncomfortable with the idea of having taboos for my children than explaining the meaning of shit to them.
Handling my unruly vocabulary around children 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. When ever my children show the slightest curiosity in a profanity I jump on the chance to tell 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.
Like all language, swearing is rich and nuanced. I want my boys to understand the difference between calling a movie shit versus calling another person a shit. I need them to know that all swear words are not created equal, so although you might say bloody hell 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 colloquial ways to refer to a vagina as there are ways to serve potatoes (possibly more).
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.
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 this in-built without realising). These profanity prescriptions define what is and isn’t acceptable on the pages of the paper, and presumably in the minds of the readers. 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. Tabloid papers tend to avoid outright swearing, preferring to beat around the bush with creative euphemisms.
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. Proper filthy.