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

- George Washington

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Public profanity

This post contains swear words. Be warned.

I'm very ambivalent about swearing. On the one hand, I do it all the time: the amount and the severity depends on whom I am with, from merely the thumb/hammer thing when in extremis, right up to potty-mouthery with certain characters at work, who wouldn't understand a word I said without regular interjections of oaths and curses. On the other hand, I was brought up not to do it, and I feel slightly cheapened whenever I find myself cursing. I suppose that's the point: swearing is intentionally transgressive, but in a harmless way, so from letting off steam to emphasising one's point in an argument it's a handy tool in the linguistic locker. I try to limit swearing on this blog to times when nothing else will do, as I simply don't know who might be reading it, and I have no desire to offend anyone unintentionally. But I don't buy the old headmaster's line that swearing is evidence of a poor vocabulary. A heartfelt utterance, laced with some ripe profanities, can be very expressive and also extremely funny.

I have no problem with swearing when it's done amongst people one knows will not be offended, although the degree will change with the audience. But I have to say that I find swearing as it is practised in 2011 - i.e. mouthing off like a docker no matter who is within earshot - pretty uncomfortable. The other day I walked by a car in a supermarket car-park, which had a sticker in the rear window saying (in a very jocular script) "Shit Happens". My first reaction was one of despair - it's such a banal thing to say, and I imagine is what passes for philosophy in the minds of some people. And the child seat in the back of the car made me depressed too. And then I wondered how I would have felt if my late mother has been with me. She wasn't a prude by any means, but she was a decent person and seeing that would have made her day that little bit worse. That's quite a mild example. I saw a youngish man the other day in town with a t-shirt that said, baldly, "Fuck You". I wouldn't be likely to approach him to ask the time, that's for sure. And perhaps that was his point.

Maybe he was a nice guy, and he wore the shirt as a joke. But that, in a way, is even more depressing. If I spoke to him and said that I found his t-shirt hostile and unpleasant, it's likely he wouldn't have a clue what I was on about. I should lighten up, learn to take a joke, perhaps even learn to let people 'express themselves'. I'm glad that we are a freer and less uptight society than we were in the 1950s, but people shouldn't confuse civility with deference, or good manners with emotional frigidity.

I was prompted to write this by an article in the BBC online magazine, entitled "Should swearing be against the law?" It's quite a good one, and delighted me because one of the commenters used the word 'phatic', which was an unexpected treat.

The problem with swearing is that it is highly dependent on context. What is said by a friend while chewing the fat over a pint can become very hostile, even threatening, when said by a stranger. And people don't like to feel threatened by strangers. It spoils your day.

It seems that people no longer realise, or even care, how their actions affect those around them. This issue of public swearing is only one example.


  1. Richard,

    I've got basically the same theory on naughty mouths as you do. I don't feel it degrades my character, really, I'm a passionate individual, after all, and all that hot blood comes out through my mouth. BUT, I do make a special point not to curse or use rude words around children or people whom it will offend. (I taught preschool for five years, you can imagine the difficulty.) In fact, I can only remember swearing once during the course of my teaching (in earshot of the kids, anyway) and it was when one little girl stopped in the middle of the road when a car was coming. It was a literal "Oh shit!" moment, followed by a Hollywood scoop-up.

    Behind Bars - Motorcycles and Life

  2. Richard - A well rounded post, very good.

    I tried to write about the same BBC article but had to give it up.

    On the one hand I was making the case for swearing not being an arrestable offence because people don't have the right not to be offended, particularly coppers, and the fuzz can easily use section 5 to arrest whomever they please.

    On the other hand I was saying that uncontrolled swearing shows a terrible lack of respect and needs to be delt with.

    In the end I just fell all over myself and gave it up as a bad job.

    Your article kind of sums up my feelings, having also been brought up not to swear, but doing so frequently when in context or a humerous situation.

    I try not to swear to badly on the blog simply because I know my mum reads it.

  3. I really,really dislike the attitude of: 'I will do as I want, when I want, where I want until and unless you can hit/shoot/stab/scare me into stopping. And by the way the police and the courts scare me less and less; any boundaries on my behaviour infringe my rights.'

    Judges determining that swearing in public is so common that it should not be regarded as unlawful doesn't help. Presumably petty theft next.

  4. "...from merely the thumb/hammer thing when in extremis..."

    Given the way profanity appears to be just another verb liberally sprinkled throughout the conversation of everyone from street yobs to schoolchildren, I do have to wonder what they say when they hit their thumbs!

  5. Great post. I agree with your post and the comments left thus far.

    I try to limit my swearing. Some days I have more success than others. I work in a law office and we do a lot of criminal law. Swearing is part of everyday life in the office, but I really try to limit it when out in public or at a venue that I don't think it would be appropriate.

    I was at Saturday morning coffee several weeks ago with our motorcycle group and one of the younger ladies was dropping the F-bomb loudly in the small cafe, and she said it repeatedly. I thought to myself how inappropriate it was. It made me conscious of what it sounds like in the wrong place and I strive not to swear where I think it might offend.

  6. To me, profanities are 'just' words.

    Voiced frequently, when alone or in known-to-be-tolerant company. Carefully avoided in young, or, unknown company.

    A vent for frustration, or to stress a point.

    Would a Britisher, no matter how sensitive, be offended if 'sworn' at in an unknown foreign language?

    I suppose that's a bit like the philosophical:- "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

  7. Interesting topic, and a difficult one to tackle.

    I might argue that, under the principles of freedom of speech, it isn't particularly relevant whether you as a listener or observer are offended by any particular words unless and until they are directed specifically at you; whereupon it becomes not simply an issue of content but more of intent. Proscribing language is a lazy solution and an altogether slippery and undesirable slope - as witnessed by the sheer awkwardness of using words that have any connotations of colour/creed/sexuality (etc) in these enlightened times.

    Indeed, you make a number of good points as to why swearing is, in fact, nothing more than a subset of standard vocabulary with several pertinent and acceptable uses. It's therefore rather difficult to object either to the words themselves, or to their usage, just because one personally feels it is in an inappropriate context. Dislike or disapproval at that is a legitimate opinion: taking active offense is not. Language evolves: "damn" and "bloody" have become casual, meaningless epithets; to many, "fucking" has already gone the same way as a superfluous conversational adjective.

    If the intention is to cause deliberate discourtesy or threat, that's a slightly different matter. But it isn't really the words that're at fault, and it isn't made a great deal better or worse whether swearing is the tool of choice to express it. The prevalence of greater lack of consideration for others is a much deeper malaise than the language it is couched in.

  8. What nice, considerate bunch we are!

    First point: freedom of expression must be an absolute right, and I would not like to see certain words made 'illegal' - Orwell wrote about the potential consequences of that. But calling someone a 'fucking twat' in a pub among mates is one thing - shouting it viciously at a stranger (policeman or not) is an act of aggression and causes harm, and that's a no-no. I suppose what we are saying is that it is never the words or the sounds (your great-granny swears, technically, every time she uses the word 'country'), but the manner and the intention behind them. That's very hard to police.

    Second point: not wishing to offend people does not imply a right for people not to be offended. I try not to offend anyone unnecessarily in my daily life, but that's just me. I don't believe people should go to prison for hurting someone's feelings or insulting them.

    I think, of the two, I'd go with the freedom argument, even if this involves a coarsening of social discourse. Better that than having judges dictate the words we can use in our everyday lives. That would be a nightmare.

    Thanks for your illuminating comments.


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