A wonky look at the concept of swearwords
A wonky look at the concept of swearwords, and how we cover them up. OR: Fun with bleeps; I read the Naughty News; and I look a little closer at the word 'cuck'.
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I love the idea of there being words that we don’t say. Bad words. I’m not talking about racial slurs, or offensive terms for groups of people, because those are words that are born out of oppression and fuckery and things like that.
I mean swearwords. Like, fuck, for example. I love it. It’s one of my favourite words. But even so, I don’t say it in front of my mum, because it’s a bad word, and I don’t want a clip across the ear. I remember once a place I was working asked me to stop swearing in the office, in case there were clients listening, and it offended them.
Why? I said, Do they not know those words?
Yeah, they do, but you shouldn’t use them in the office. It’s not professional behaviour.
Ah ha! I said, seeing the flaw in his logic, Everything I do is professional behaviour, for I am a professional, and it is me what is doing it.
To which he replied, not any more, you’re not. Get your stuff and fuck off.
Not the worst firing I’ve had, to be honest. And I consoled myself in the knowledge that on the way out, I’d grabbed a box of sharpies and three packs of post-it notes. Victory was mine. Ish.
I remember the first bad word I used. It was at my brother, because of course it was. He’d probably annoyed me by doing something childish. Which was normal, to be honest, since we were both children.
I could feel all this frustration building up inside me, and there was no way I could express it at him without calling him the worst word I knew. The feeling of relief and shock as it left my mouth was immense, and quite exciting.
Of course, then his eyes got really big and he did that gleeful younger brother thing of shouting “MUUUUUUUM! Scott just called me a pig!” and I got shouted at and sent to my room.
We were a very polite family, rude words weren’t really allowed. At least, not when I was younger.
As my brother grew up, my parents were a lot less strict with him. It’s the kind of mindset that parents get when they realise that, despite their best efforts, their first child is, to be honest, a bit of a dick and if strict rules didn’t work on him, there’s no much point bothering to enforce them on the next one.
But anyway. Upsetting my mum aside, we don’t say words like fuck because they’re impolite, somehow, as if fucking is worse than shagging, or boning. But they all mean the same thing.
A phrase like ‘go forth and multiply’ is acceptable, weirdly, in polite conversation, but saying ‘fuck off’ would not be, despite both meaning the same thing.
“Yerronour, the defendant then advised that my client should attempt to forcibly insert the contract into his rectum.”
“No yerronor, I said he could stick it up his arse.”
There’s no difference in the sentiment in either case, but somehow the idea that polite people could only use the gentler language is quite sweet.
I can just see some genteel old lady gasping and needing a nostril full of smelling salts after hearing words like ‘flipping heck!’.
And what counts as a swear, or at least indelicate language, changes over time, too. In one of the Sherlock Holmes stories, a policeman apologises to the Gentleman Detective for using the phrase ‘running like stink’. As if a true gentleman’s sensibilities would be so offended at the idea of something happening at the speed of stink…
On TV and radio, there’s big fines for swearing before a watershed, or not bleeping it out. Which is stupid, because then your brain just puts the word back in, so it doesn’t matter that you didn’t hear it. Like this:
The other night, I was sat having a drink with my friends Adam and Steve. We’d been at it for an hour or so, and I was just about to go for another round when Steve spilled his beer all over us. It went everywhere. The three of us were dripping, it was up the walls… I think Adam even got some in the eye. It took us ages to mop it up, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that sofa smells funny for a quite a while.
And y’know, the fact that I said we were having a drink and Steve spilled his beer doesn’t matter, because it sounds a lot dirtier because your brain thinks “ah, that must be a naughty word!” and tries to fill in from context. Anyway, we all laughed about it, and then fucked like rabbits.
It’s the same in print - ‘respectable’ publications would always write f-star-star-k or sh-t rather than the full word, but since we all already know what the word is, it doesn’t make any difference.
And the argument that they don’t want to offend a more sensitive reader doesn’t make sense -if seeing the whole word written down would make someone clutch at their pearls, why doesn’t three quarters of the word do the same thing, especially as we all fill in the missing letters like a sweary crossword, anyway.
And the opposite is true, too - when something without swearing takes on an additional layer because our brains like to add things:
The Yorkshire County Fair today was interrupted by a streaker. The man vaulted the barrier and ran naked through the show. He was persued by a policeman who very nearly grabbed him by the sprouts. He was eventually apprehended when a nearby farmer kicked him in the cabbage patch.
I grew up watching the Two Ronnies so stuff like this always tickles me.
I’m not saying we should swear more, just that the dancing around them amuses me. Personally, I’d much prefer to see more colourful euphemisms for things, anyway. The more oblique the better
“Well, he’s been growing stripy parsnips since the eighties.” or, one of my nan’s favourites, “She’s no better than she ought to be”.
Which you’d think would mean that she’s pretty good, but apparently this was an insult, so who knows.
It was weird growing up in the late nineties in a small town in mining country - attitudes towards being gay were slowly changing, but still people at school didn’t use the real words, instead just muttering allusions. “Well, y’know, he’s… Y’know… He’s on t’other bus” was one of my favourites, along with, honestly, “You want to watch that one - He’s a bit of an uphill gardener”.
Absolutely no idea where that one came from. It’s a great image, though.
I remember once a girl in sixth form asking me about being gay, saying “Errr, you don’t want to get your back gate kicked in, do you? That’s gross!”
Which was rich, coming from her, as we all knew she didn’t so much have a back gate as a revolving door.
My favourite example of a bad word at the moment is ‘cuck’, which is used by the far-right alpha-male tiny-dick brigade to mean a weak man, I think.
It comes from the old word ‘cuckold’ which means, loosely, that a man’s wife is getting her sexytimes elsewhere. To be honest I don’t see the issue there.
There’s times when I just can’t be arsed to have a wank, let alone satisfy someone else sexually. If I were in a relationship, the idea of outsourcing the odd sexytime, of saying to my loved one “Off you pop. Let me know when you’re done and I’ll put the kettle on. Go on, shoo!” is quite appealing.
I’d be all for it. And, y’know, it wouldn’t have to be every time. Sometimes I’d want to join in a bit.
Or at least hold the camera.