I would be a hypocrite if I expressed dismay that an official report has found people nowadays are much more inclined to swear. Nearly half of young people use “strong language” every day, and nearly half of parents use swear words more liberally than they did five years ago. Swearing, in general, has risen by 30pc since 2017. Blimey O’Reilly!
would be a hypocrite to disapprove, since I am well able to swear myself, sprinkling various expletives around vehemently when (a) cooking and (b) driving. In mitigation, most of the time I’m swearing at myself, rather than at others, but the practice is still what older generations might have called “potty-mouthed”.
The study was carried out by the British Board of Film Classification, while researching what is acceptable in the public realm right now. And I’d swear to God, their findings wouldn’t be much different in Ireland – the Irish may be even more liberal with the profanities. What was once known as “bad language” is now pretty universal – there’s been a measurable social change.
I’m old enough to remember when my aunts would feel pained if they heard a blasphemous utterance of “The Holy Name”. When Brendan Behan embarked on his “Jaysus” outburst in a broadcast, there was a flutter of offended sensibilities in the dovecots of Dublin 4.
I’m also old enough to remember when a hush would descend on an oath-spattered pub discourse with the admonition: “There are ladies present!” Nowadays, it’s the ladies doing the effing and blinding.
Seán O’Casey could write about tough Dublin tenement life, catching the cadence of the way working men spoke, without ever having to use a swear-word. Rudyard Kipling evoked the lingo of the rough soldier by euphemising the once-shocking “bloody” to “ruddy”.
But language and its taboos alter, and different generations find different words offensive. The f-word is now widely accepted in everyday speech – but the n-word is not.
That’s why certain sensitivities remain, and the BBFC set out to gauge the current language temperature for performance classification.
A delightful old-movie channel called ‘Talking Pictures’ sometimes issues warnings before the start of a film from the 1940s or 1950s – to the effect that some of the language is from a previous era and may sound objectionable.
This won’t be the f-word, the s-word or the c-word. It will be pertaining to race, gender and sexual orientation. Brendan Behan’s ordinary swearing wouldn’t raise much of an eyebrow now, but I’m not sure if he would be allowed to use “poof” as an insult, which he did do in some of his writings. Dig down into the world of swearing and you still find different values, different sensibilities.
Some academics believe that swearing is good for the swearer. Dr Richard Stephens, senior psychology lecturer at Keele University, claims that swearing can help in coping with pain. If you hit your finger with a hammer instead of the nail on the wall, swear away – it’ll lessen the agony.
At Indiana University in the US, they have a “professor of profanity”, Michael Adams, who studies the use of strong language. He claims that it can help people “fit in”, and even “bond” at the office or workplace (if people ever get back to offices).
Yet some individuals simply dislike profuse swearing, and consider it inarticulate – and they’re entitled to have their space respected too.
I think a lot is to do with context. Even I, an episodic swearer, notice that I vary my tone according to whose company I am in. I was reprimanded by a colleague for using the mild Hibernicised f-word, “feck”. He called it “unbecoming”. I thought him stuffy, but, significantly, I didn’t repeat it again in his presence.
Perhaps we all have double standards when it comes to language. I once reprimanded a group of loutish youths loudly swearing on a train. “Mind your language, gentlemen!” I told them. They were so astonished at being called “gentlemen” that they actually did pipe down. It wasn’t the cursing I objected to – it was the context: they were in an enclosed public space, and imposing on other people.
There are also degrees in swearing. The Americans were traditionally quite puritanical about swear-words – coining the prissy “darn”, to replace “damn”.
Now some of them have embraced the habit of linking motherhood with cussing, as in “sonofabitch”, and the rather ugly “motherf*****”.
Mediterranean societies, perhaps because they extolled the cult of motherhood, also consider the worst thing you can say to another person is to insult their mother. There’s a Serbo-Croat curse which is quite breathtakingly shocking involving an oath against the recipient’s mother and female private parts.
There is plenty of cultural nuance in swearing, and regional differences too. In the North of England, the word “bugger” is neutral: it can even be a Yorkshire endearment, as in “you daft bugger”. But elsewhere it can be offensive.
Yet, when Dominic Cummings reported that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had described his Health Secretary Matt Hancock as “totally f****** hopeless”, there was scant public disapproval of the epithet.
A sign of the times!
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