If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

More on swearing

Last night, I wrote a post about the rights and wrongs of swearing, and I have had some interesting and thoughful responses. I ran out of time (and didn't want the post to be over-long), so I kept some things back for a later post. Tonight is quieter, so I'm back on the topic. Two anecdotes, both perfectly true and from my own experience, which amused me greatly at the time and which I hope will provide a small distraction for my readers, although any great further insight into the difficulties of the topic is vanishingly unlikely.

1. Leeds, 1972

I was working in the summer as a hospital porter in St James's Hospital. My first proper, paid job and, curiously, one that I would happily go back to if circumstances decreed it. I was part of a portering team of about ten men, all much older than me and, on average, rough as fuck. I loved it.

One was called Ray, a gentle six-foot Yugoslav with a massive frame and huge, sad, cavernous eyes. He had come to England during the war as a refugee, I think, and on his arrival spoke no English. He immediately got a job in the hospital and learned his English there - amongst the portering team. Bad mistake. He swore like a sailor on shore leave, but there was no logic to it.
Hey, fucking you lend me that trolley, bloody.
I not coming fuck to work tomorrow bastard am I?
I liked the guy and we had many long conversations on the long night shifts, and gradually I worked out what had happened. He had picked up the meaning of most English words and could use them successfully. But he had also picked up that there were some words - perhaps 8 to 10 - which were essential to meaningful speech (at least as far as he heard it) but which appeared to have no semantic content whatsoever. I reckoned he worked on a quota system - shovel them in at random points in the sentence, and if there weren't enough, take a few on the end.

Looked at logically, from a language-learner's point of view, this is completely reasonable. Here we have some words that carry meaning and people understand, and here we have other words that seem to have no actual meaning (OK, what does the 'fucking' in 'fucking hell' actually mean?) but which everyone uses with great regularity. What to do, but put them in with the approximately correct frequency and hope for the best? Oops, I didn't use enough this time, fucking.

2. Hull, 1983

Teaching English in a very rough comprehensive, in the shadow of Hull Prison. Parents' Evenings were a quiet affair, as 90% of them never came within a mile of the school gates. But one night Darren told me that his parents were coming in to see me. Oh good, I thought, perhaps I can have a quiet word about Darren's language. Darren was 13 or so, and swore enough to make a docker blush. Nice lad, rough diamond, etc. His parents come along at the appointed time and were equally pleasant, not quite forelock-tugging, but certainly a little deferential, which was a rare treat.

I told them about his work and what progress he was making, and as they were about to leave I told them there was something else I wanted to mention. His swearing. Now it's OK, not a big problem, boys will be boys and all that, but he does it quite a lot, and at the most inappropriate times. He'll find it a problem when he starts going for jobs and so on. Can you ... er ... have a word?

The response was muted. The mother looked embarrassed, and the father crestfallen. "We know he does it, but we're decent people and we don't know where he gets it from. I mean, if I ever hear him swearing at home I fucking belt the little fucker, but he never seems to learn."

He caught her eye, they both caught mine, and we all laughed for a good five minutes.


  1. Now that was a thought-provoking posting Richard.

    One minor point, isn't "Oops, I didn't use enough this time, bugger." the correct English?

  2. Another great post. Thank you for the anecdotes. They made me chuckle.

  3. Joe: only in the pluperfect subjunctive. Declarative sentences always take fucking.

    Trobairitz: I'm pleased, thanks.


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