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.