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Swearing? Won't have a bar of it



Youth drives change, and crabb'd age often resents this fact. I belong in the latter category, and admit I am something of a pedant and a prig, tendencies that often beset ageing teachers of English whose early lives were sheltered ones. The people I grew up with, for example, did not swear: my grandfather was always refined, even when watching football matches.

Cartoon by Chris Johnston parodies old Fight Club movie poster, with a depiction of the author holding a bar of pink soap with the word 'like' on it.He would pull at his flat cap and mutter, 'Sausage of a kick. Do better meself.' He had been a nifty little rover in his youth, and so had my father, whose contrasting demeanour as a barracker left quite a lot to be desired. But he did not swear, either, and his invective was often fairly imaginative, thus chiming with the family proclamation that the use of swear words was an indication of an impoverished vocabulary. 'Open ya glass eye, umpy! Make another decision like that and then go out and cut ya throat!'

Those were the days when children could expect to have their mouths washed out with soap and water if they uttered certain words; they didn't even have to be four-letter ones. Fast forward quite a few years: once I got the hang of Greek swear words and realised my children were using them, I rejected the idea of soap and water, but began a system of fines: the pocket nerve is always sensitive, I reasoned. I took the same approach to profanity, while pondering the strange fact that the most outwardly religious cultures are also often the most blasphemous.

But of course social change has meant that words that were once considered deeply shocking are now part of the everyday speech of the young. When I am visiting Australia, I find this trend particularly jarring.

At least I am not alone, for English writer Susan Hill objects to the frequent use of a certain four-letter word. She points out that it simply means excrement, and asks why people use it in unrelated contexts. She wishes they would stop to think, as it is an unpleasant word and contributes to the blurring of meaning. I'm with Hill, and also dislike the fact that most younger people seem to have no idea that older people might find such usage offensive. But I'm pleased to report that my Melbourne-based son still sticks to my rules. So do his brothers.

In the small country towns of my youth, where many people were forced to leave school at 14, there was not too much swearing (shearing sheds excepted), but there was often deep confusion as to correct usage. 'Ain't' was a common construction, as was 'seen' instead of 'saw.' Gs and aitches were dropped very frequently, and the word 'haitch' was common. 'I ain't lyin'. I seen him 'elping 'imself in the milk bar.' Some years later, the present tense of the verbs to go and to say were multi-purpose. And the conversation filler 'like' was putting in its appearance. 'He goes down the street, like, and then he says ...'

General speech now seems to be almost uniformly correct, but 'like', supposedly originating in California, has been singularly persistent throughout the Anglophone world, with Love Island contestants perhaps trying for a record in recently using the word 76 times in under five minutes.


"Of course the five-letter word 'class' always rears its ugly head."


Many Brits, however, have had enough. Copthorne Primary School in Bradford, West Yorkshire, has forbidden the use of 'like', and pupils are supposed to use sentences in their replies to questions rather than other four-letter words such as 'good' and 'nice'.

Of course the five-letter word 'class' always rears its ugly head in Britain, so state school educators rightly fear that pupils at private schools, because of more opportunities to develop speaking skills, have the fluency that helps them achieve places in elite universities and in professions such as banking and the law.

To return to the subject of swearing. The older generation is aware of arguments in favour of: it's honest, it does away with mealy-mouthed hypocrisy, and the plosive nature of the words ensures catharsis. Most of us read Lady Chatterley's Lover, and adjusted, way back then, to seeing certain words in print. But it's hard to do away with one's conditioning, so we still sympathise with Mark Twain, who believed that a person's character 'may be learned from the adjectives which he/she habitually uses in conversation'.



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, swearing



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Existing comments

Nice one, GIllian - I always look forward to your articles - as one known to explete on occasions and knowing some people who would not say "excrement" for sixpence.

John Casey | 02 September 2019  

Mark Twain is correct. Refraining from using certain language sends a powerful message about who we are, and says a lot about respect, dignity, and self-control. Modernity puts out the message that vulgarity is good and badness is cool. The French intellectual Simone Weil saw how this fantasy inverts order: “No deserts are so dreary, monotonous and boring as evil. But with fantasy it is the other way around. Fictional good is boring and flat, while fictional evil is varied, intriguing, attractive and full of charm.” And the concerns of Modernity about “the five-letter word ‘class’” leading to privilege has been proven to be largely baseless by a brave teacher, Katherine Birbalsingh. She lost her teaching job in a London government-run school because she criticized student behaviour. So five years ago she opened up her own school for underprivileged and economically disadvantaged kids. Her school, Michaela, promotes “personal responsibility, respect for authority, and duty towards others”. Her school has just scored four times better than the national average and other schools, including state-funded, private and community schools. https://thefederalist.com/2019/08/28/anti-progressive-british-school-poor-kids-leads-nation-latest-tests/

Ross Howard | 02 September 2019  

"Don't swear, boy. It shows a lack of vocabulary." Alan Bennett from Forty Years On (1969). When a hammer hits our toe, though, an expletive can be forthcoming rather than "strongly unpleasant bodily sensation". Always enjoy your thought processes, Gillian!

Pam | 02 September 2019  

Judged by Mark Twain's criterion and the frequency of their mimed capture on live TV close-ups of missed goals, disputed umpiring decisions, and dropped catches, a good number professional sportsmen and sportswomen must be seriously defective in character. Three cheers for Katherine Birbalsingh's daring to raise the bar of academic and social expectation!

John RD | 02 September 2019  

But then again, with the expressive capacity of the English language through multiple meanings of words and alteration of impact in their vocalisation, some expletives lose their expletive capacity in different contexts. Perhaps the most remarkable of all is the sometimes expletive "bastard" which I recall has some 28 "meanings" or expressive "usages". The vast differences in interpretation are, for example, well illustrated by comparisons between, "You bastard" - "You terrible bastard" - "You old bastard" - "You pathetic old Bastard" - "You poor bastard" - "You funny bastard". Some usage is critical and abrasive, some, empathetic and tender, some swearing and some not.

john frawley | 03 September 2019  

I agree that folk sometimes use “like” instead of “um” or “erm” to give themselves enough time to think of the words they really need. The current child/ young adult reads less and listens inaccurately because they depend upon illustrations to give meaning either in books or on screens. “Could of....” is my particular red flag to trouble ahead! If we provided our youngsters with a varied and expanded vocabulary when they acquiring language and literacy, they might be more inclined to use more descriptive expressions than their usual “crap”.

Julia | 09 September 2019  

I broadly agree with you about the use of profanities but I think you will agree there are some situations when a bad word is a release valve and can be forgiven. I used to be amazed at the linguistic acrobatics of some Edinburgh children I taught who could insert the f word at the beginning, middle and end of words. As to being aware of the original meaning of the words...I think this seldom applies and one should perhaps be made more aware of its being used inappropriately.

Maggie | 09 September 2019  

This piece took me back to my childhood of GenX. With the luxury of hindsight the unwritten rule among our generation - especially in adolescence - was ; Express yourself through swearing or else... Another deeply insightful piece!!

Stathis Tav | 27 October 2019  

Thanks for this article Gillian. I hadn’t seen it before, but better late than never. I entirely agree with you on this. The word ‘stuff’ could also be one to be added to the list. ‘Get your stuff together,’ being a phrase which used to jar me, but sadly I now find that I am occasionally using it myself.

John Whitehead | 11 March 2020  

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