[WARNING: This post may offend. Reader beware…]

Are swear words ever acceptable? Just wondering.

This morning, on my favourite news programme BBC Radio 4’s Today, host Jim Naughtie had to fake a coughing fit after accidentally miss-annoucing an upcoming interview. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt had his surname temporarily miss-appropriated, replaced with a rather ancient name for female genitalia. Poor man. He must have got that quite a lot a school…

Of course, the Twittersphere was alive with consternation, opprobrium and not a little guffawing. Even now, as I write, “Naughtie” and “Jeremy Hunt” are trending. They have been all day. Everyone it seems has something to say on the matter.

I have to say, I find the subject of profanity quite fascinating. It’s part of my general fascination with language and the way we use it. I never cease to be amazed at the way meaning can be contorted within the English language; the way that one word or phrase can easily be transformed to mean something entirely different.

Take the word in question. The infamous ‘C’ word is seen as far more offensive than the ‘F’ word. It remains one of the only words you cannot say on British TV or Radio – it is never, ever acceptable. Which is strange, because Chaucer uses it in his Canterbury Tales. It is, after all, just a word for a part of someone’s anatomy. I find it rather strange that ‘Dick” is a mildly offensive word (more acceptable in conversation than the more accurate ‘penis’), while…

Now here’s the issue. I don’t know whether I can even get away with writing the offending word here. It doesn’t bother me, but it might bother some of my readers. Do I fight against the implicit misogynistic attitude of the ban? Stand up for free speech? Or kowtow to the sensitivities of others; the social mores of our age….?

Nah Fuck it. The word is Cunt. And if you have a problem with that, you are reading the wrong blogpost.

I think it is deeply, deeply misogynist that cunt is considered such an offensive word. But more than that, it is absurd. You might as well have a problem with the word ‘orifice’.

But the fact that the word is considered so offensive is indicative of a wider trend in profanity. So many of our inappropriate, offensive words are about sex. It seems so odd to me: we spend so much of our lives throwing around as insults words and phrases that, at their most literal, represent things we would actually quite like done to us.

[An example: I have a secret desire to respond to the epithet “Well Fuck you then” with the phrase “I wish you would…” I just haven’t found the appropriate context yet]

It’s not that I particularly approve of ‘bad’ language – I’ve never been someone who swears a lot – it just fascinates me. There are times when a good exclamation is perfectly appropriate, and there are even studies that suggest that swearing helps relieve the perception of pain. So a good “Fuck!” when hitting yourself with a hammer will do you some good. I personally fall into profanity when in a bad mood – when I’ve done something stupid, or am angry about a person or situation. In such moments you’ll hear a whole string of blue words emanating from my general direction.

There is a rhythm to profanity that you often miss in real life. You hear folk who throw the ‘F’ word into every sentence, even every other syllable, and there is something poetic as well as demented in it. It creates a dum-te-dum-te-dum meter that normal communication seems to lack.

I love the film “In Bruges“. That really is profanity as poetry. It is the most gloriously inappropriate language you can imagine, told with lyricism and creativity. It is schoolboy humour told with a playwrights skill. I can understand why people dislike it, would be offended by it, but to me that is the point: it separates the sheep from the goats; those who are prepared to look for beauty within and beyond language from those who are simply offended by it.

Yes, language can be violent. Sexually explicit language especially. I abhor violence in all its forms, including people who swear to intimidate and control. But that is the use of the language, not the language itself.

It is never going to be pleasant to be called a cocksucker, but it can be enjoyable having one’s cock sucked. Strange that, isn’t it?

I laughed when I heard Jim Naughtie’s coughing fit this morning. And I smiled wryly as an apology was made. It really isn’t an issue for me. It was a simple psychological slip, and the word itself is one I would love to see redeemed.

Right, just to pile injury onto offence, I’ll leave you with my favourite “In Bruges” exchange. It’s a little blue. You’ve been warned:

Ken: Harry, let’s face it. And I’m not being funny. I mean no disrespect, but you’re a cunt. You’re a cunt now, and you’ve always been a cunt. And the only thing that’s going to change is that you’re going to be an even bigger cunt. Maybe have some more cunt kids.

Harry: [furious] Leave my kids fucking out of it! What have they done? You fucking retract that bit about my cunt fucking kids!

Ken: I retract that bit about your cunt fucking kids.

Harry: Insult my fucking kids? That’s going overboard, mate!

Ken: I retracted it, didn’t I?

5 thoughts on “Profanity

  1. How is it that that word (I can’t bring myself to type it!) has come to have such violently negative connotations??

    It’s about the only swear word I react negatively to [stamping of feet and physical revulsion as I read this post] and I think a large part of that’s due to it relating to a bit of my anatomy that’s definitely not negative.

    Can we blame Chaucer?

  2. Very glad you blogged this, you have blogged too short.

    Taboos are ripe for iconoclasm, yes, especially so arbitrary as these words, however (is this devil’s advocacy? Phil’s case against swearing..) ..

    The case I would want answered would be
    – The power of these words is inescapably a power of shaming, if only by association, distant and historical. If they ceased to be ‘swear words’, and to conjure allusion to more overtly shaming uses of the word in violent actions in the past I believe they would lose the very strength we enjoy in them. So the profanity-but-not-violent is a tricky line to advocate.

    – I guess I would ask, what things are profitably and compassionately left unsaid? Nothing? It is a foolish and unmeasurable question, but what would/does language lose in the absence of these words? Would it be to lose instruments in the orchestra, or to lose an upper octave on the scale, or to lose from memory certain cultural melodies which give to a tune an added expressive?

    – I want to speak of swear words as MSG, bluntly flavouring, (and mildly carcenogenic 😛 ) Flavouring too strongly and too often by eateries without creative vocabulary. This is not a case against swearing per se, but against those advocates who dull the spectrum of language’s pallete by over-using the bass drum.

    – The cocksucker parallel lost me a little without tone of voice i think in typed rather than spoken language: ‘Strange’ or self-evident surely? The more strange would be to consider it a pleasure to suck. What can we say of pleasure as shaming’s opposite and its antidote?
    And what of the simple violence of such naming and the reduction of a person in that way, to name as a cocksucker is to reduce a person to an action, reduced from the complexity of their personhood and reduced to so disempowered and uncreative an action.

    Anyways, I warm to Bruges, it is a beautifully rhythmed exchange, you are converting me. And of swearing, I think I said in Victoria park, there was a therapeutic and entirely necessary ‘fucking’ spoke from in st marys front a few weeks ago which I enjoyed. And, talking of swearing but in no redemptive way at all, I am put in mind of Eminem, from my final year at school, ‘My Dad’s Gone Crazy’ superlatively expresses an anger so vividly precisely because of the language he employs, and possibly for the very rhythm which that profane alternating allows.. But it is violent, inexcusably.

    • Ah Phil, I can always trust you to pull me up for flippancy… I would say (in some minor defence) that we functionalise in almost all our our labels of people, whether that be doctor, thief, woman or cocksucker. Still, I can’t imagine anyone treasuring being referred to as such.

      I still want to hold out a distinction between bad language itself and the way it is used. Think of the boys on the schoolbus in “A Serious Man” (“he’s a fucker… they’re all fuckers”); the exploration of language itself (and critical expression) as a normal part of growing up. Yes, it might be lazy, painting in broad brush-strokes, but it is relatively innocent and creative expression.

      I like the music analogy: profanity as discordant notes – sometimes overpowering and oppressive, but sometimes adding real beauty and interest.

      • Hilarious, you’re just stirring now. What is a woman’s ‘function’ 😛

        Music analogies, I enjoy, (also maritime analogies I use disproportionately frequently for my lack of sailing/musical ability but that’s another blog post..) and dischordant notes is a profitable addition.

  3. AnnaB says:

    But dearest Philippe – as I recall the three of us watched In Bruges half cut on rose wine and were too involved in chatting about life and catching up on news to even particularly follow the plot! It’s no wonder you professed to be unimpressed by the movie… xxx

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