I recently read 3 blog posts on the same subject but looking at it from different viewpoints: Metal Mummy wrote about trying to avoid swearing in front of your children, while Motherventing & MyCuntryManor questioned why ‘swear’ words – 1 in particular; the clue is in the name! – are considered so offensive & proposed redefining & reclaiming.
And you know what? I think I agree with all of them.
Do I need to point out here that those posts, & this one, “may contain language which some may find offensive” (thank you, BBC)? OK, I just did.
This post was meant to be finished last night. But it’s become 1 of those posts where my viewpoint altered slightly as I wrote & as I gave more thought to the subject, so it changed & I’ve ended up rewriting a lot of it. I also had to stop due to a horribly irrational & irritating need for sleep.
What’s in a name?
But hold on: what is ‘swearing’? The word comes from the Old English ‘swerian': ‘to take an oath’. Even today Court witnesses “swear on the Bible” before giving evidence. I doubt that this means standing on a Bible & telling the Judge to f*** off. Even if he deserved it… (Look, I paid my dues & it’ll never happen again, OK? Now leave it!). The US President is ‘sworn in’ & takes the ‘Oath of Office‘. The Bible itself is full of references to it: “by His name you shall swear” (Deut. 10:20), also Shakespeare. We still use phrases like “I swear on my Mother’s grave!” when we want to convince someone that we are telling the truth.
So the word’s literal & historical meaning is to do with making a promise & doing it so sincerely & seriously that you reinforce it by calling on the name of something sacred or personally precious & meaningful.
A nose by any other name would break as sweet
At some point though swearing to tell the truth or be good must have branched into promising something negative, like aggression or revenge: “By Odin’s Beard I shall smite thee!”. So we have the development of the ‘curse’, & ‘curse’ words, a promise to do harm.
And yet when we ‘swear’ or ‘curse’ today it’s just as likely that we use words that are associated with sex, genitalia or bodily functions as ones to do with a deity or something sacred to us.
So go on then: I give you full rein to be ‘naughty’! Think of as many swear words as you can: you can even make a list! How many of them are to do with: sex, genitalia, bodily functions, or religion? Most of them? All of them? I struggle to think of many that aren’t in some way.
Yes, I probably read too many comic books
So how did “In the name of all that is holy I shall have my revenge!” become “Piss off, dickhead!”?
Is it perhaps that, according to the Bible’s New Testament, by the time Jesus came along God there had decided that swearing was actually bad after all (“Do not swear at all, either by heaven…or by the earth” Matt. 5:34-35)? Did this then make it taboo, resulting in people increasingly swearing by things – sex, genitals, excretia – that were seen as such?
I think there may be something in that, that this evolved out of rebellion. Many English swear-words are thought to be Anglo-Saxon (either Old or Middle English) in origin. In Norman England (after 1066 & all that) this was the language of the ordinary people, while the language of the ruling elite was Anglo-Norman French, & by Medieval times Latin.
I can see therefore “I swear by the the Almighty, the Lord our God!” becoming “By fuck, I hate those dickheads!”.
In short, while the well-dressed nobles & priests in their gentile studies & cathedrals were mumbling “amo, amas, amant…” the farmer in his muddy field who dropped a hammer on his toe found it much more satisfying to shout “Fuck!“.
It was perhaps an affirmation of his cultural identity as an ordinary working man as well as cocking a snook at the nobs looking down on him while busily telling him that he mustn’t use such vulgarities. Probably in Latin.
Nothing, a rude word
So we’ve gone from making promises by God to shouting “Arsehole!” at someone who cuts us up on the motorway.
Then along come Motherventing & MyCuntryManor muddying these ‘obviously clear waters’ by saying things like (to paraphrase): “well hang on: why is a part of a woman’s anatomy the ultimate term of abuse?”, & suggesting reclaiming words like ‘cunt’, in much the same way as the Gay community did with ‘queer’. “What’s so scary and bad about lady-bits? <or man-bits?> NOTHING. Lady bits are fab. Celebrate the lady bits.” I remember when someone called me a “cunt” on twitter. I replied: “Well personally I like cunt, so thanks for the compliment”. Annoyed the crap out of them. Then I blocked the bastard! I was reminded also of Madonna’s infamous ‘fuck’ rant in 1 of her huge live gigs: “‘Fuck’ is good! Without ‘fuck’ none of us would be here!” (paraphrased).
Life is a four letter word
So where does that leave me? A bit conflicted actually! I commented on MyCuntryManor’s post: “I don’t like using the word as a form of abuse, & I’ve stopped for exactly the reasons you articulate. Our use of curse words seems to reflect our, mostly negative, preoccupations – almost always about sex or god(s). I agree with you but to be fair we boys get it as well: “knob” “dickhead” etc. I think it all reflects our historical Judeo-Christian obsessions & repressions, including that of suppressing anything female of course”. I can see now that’s it’s not quite so simple.
Personally speaking, I generally don’t ‘swear’ around people I’m not familiar with or who I know have a problem with it. But I do pretty freely around friends & family who I know are of like mind. I also don’t like to with my children around as they’re guaranteed to copy me, & I don’t want them swearing as it can cause offense, and embarassment. Now I don’t mind causing offence, & I often do. But the importance of the issue in question has to be greater than the consequences of the offence caused, not least in terms of respect for another’s feelings & opinions. In this case, personally, I don’t believe it is. Yet.
So, in summary: ‘swearing’ as an expression of cultural identity, as an outlet for frustration & feeling powerless against an oppressive elite? Like calling the PM a “wanker” as he cuts another benefit? Maybe. On the other hand, should we be using words that ultimately represent reproduction, the continuation of Life, like ‘fuck’, ‘cock’, ‘cunt’ etc., as negatives, as terms of abuse? I think No. Should we use them in a positive way, reclaiming & rephrasing them? Yes. Probably. Just not in front of my children?
Gimme a kiss!
“Bloody hell”! And I didn’t even get on to my nice story about Ellie, “bugger” & the Nursery playgroup. Maybe another time…
If you’ve read this far I may have to come over to your house & give you a big wet sloppy kiss. Or a firm handshake, if you prefer.
And if you have, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
I had a shower yesterday. I think too much in the shower. I think I should stop having showers. Excuse me, I need to go away & have little lie-down…
- How can I control my swearing in the workplace? (career-advice.monster.co.uk)
- Damn It He Says Damn It!!! (mycrackedpot.wordpress.com)
- Simon Cowell in swear word spat with ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ auditionee (digitalspy.co.uk)
- Let’s Talk About Swear Words (callumjameshackett.wordpress.com)