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Why we swear


It is instructional to consider those people who refuse to swear in court on a Bible because, they say, swearing on the Bible is forbidden in the Gospel of Matthew. Presumably anyone who firmly follows everything in Matthew is not about to commit perjury anyway. Refusing to swear for sound scriptural and legal reasons is a right, I would imagine. But this is not the same kind of swearing that is rousing the attention of lawyers, activists and others in recent days. Fuck no.

Victorians are facing the prospect of receiving on-the-spot fines for swearing in public. It's hard to believe that this is happening in the same city that has the world's biggest comedy festival.

Why do people swear? 'Buggered if I know' is a normal response. For some it is an outlet, a safety valve for frustration or annoyance. A swear word can emphasise a point in discussion, but is a poor instrument in rhetoric. In the hands of a skilled orator though it can clinch the argument. Observe Billy Connolly on a good day. The rest of us are not Billy Connolly, but still he demonstrates that timing is crucial.

Australian comedy has always thrived on the swear word, be it for cheap laughs or satirical demolition. As any joker will tell you, if laughter is your market you will try every sales strategy.

I sometimes catch the train known affectionately by its customers in Melbourne as 'the effing Epping' and there is nothing more tiresome than overhearing late-night conversation on that train where every third word is one of the Big Three: B, F, or S. This is not conversation, but a certain state of mind. It shows not so much a paucity of vocabulary — the talkers are every day exposed to the riches of English — as a combination of low expectations and sheer verbal laziness. The gift of language has been traded for a mess of pottage.

Not that we want to judge their talk. Such speakers seem to have forgotten they are even using swear words. They are, in fact, the first and easiest targets of language police with the power to inflict on-the-spot fines.

The problems escalate once we meet a main cause for swearing: anger. Swearing warns that we are nearing the short fuse, the ballistic broadcast, the imminent four-act play in five minutes. Saint Paul, among others, entreats us to be slow to anger, but even Saint Paul must have had his moments.

It is when swearing signals aggression that we have to worry. Abusive language only begins to be funny if we are not its focus. The worst part of repeated and vicious swearing is when its intention is clearly to close down further conversation. It is probably the fear of that extreme which prompts some people to find a way of killing it by the opposite action: threat by fine.

I am fascinated to know what constitutes swearing. Where does it start and end? In Australian life, the workplace is not real until the odd 'bloody' has been muttered during a heated exchange or in response to some minor incident.

Indeed, 'bloody' is one of those curious proofs of democratic life. It is a sign that we are all human after all. 'Bloody' is the spontaneous response any of us may use, whether in parliament or in the woodshed. It is the automatic disyllabic utterance when we hit our finger instead of the nail, or watch a Collingwood ruckman shirtfront our favourite idol. It is hard to imagine police issuing fines in such situations.

Another use of swearing is to make light of, or break, taboos. One of my favourite Italian poets is Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, who wrote thousands of sonnets in Romanesco, the local dialect of the Eternal City. Among the many vulgar and outrageous poems in his output, Belli wrote two sonnets consisting entirely of slang words for the male and female members: ciscio, nerbo, tortore, pennarolo. Translations have come up with English equivalents (percy, peter, poker, wonder-whammer) yet when considering that this is only one dialect within Italian we are reminded of the complaint that modern English does not have as many good swear words as other languages (a fair complaint when you consider its vast vocabulary).

Of swearing there is no end and banning it only makes people more inventive than ever with terms for essential parts of the human anatomy. If I were to quote all the swear words used at the Melbourne Comedy Festival it would exceed the word limit of this article. But imagine how many inventive new words will be added to the English language once we are forced to stop using the ones we have already.

Language is untameable. Fining people for swearing is, on the face of it, silly. We can no more control what people say than we can hold the wind, or even a very large fart.

Speaking of which, who decides where the correct words end and the rude ones start? Is a government department head going to issue police with a list of which synonyms for breezy bottom are swear words, and which are not? Which ones raise a stink? Which ones should be silent but deadly? No doubt our department head, the one who uses 'bloody' in a democratic manner, is not losing sleep over this issue.

Because the intended law is not about controlling language, but who uses the language. It is not likely to be enforced on users of the democratic 'bloody', sports fans on a Saturday afternoon, or teenagers who shout out expletives for the fun of it. It is much more likely to be used either as threat or reality on those who can least afford the fine and cannot fight back: poor students at public demonstrations, individuals unjustly accused in a melee, drunken Aborigines on the last train home to effing Epping. 

Philip HarveyPhilip Harvey is Eureka Street's poetry editor and head of the Carmelite Library of Spirituality in Middle Park, Victoria. 

Topic tags: Philip Harvey, swearing fines, Melbourne, Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli



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Existing comments

'k'n oath, Philip. I'm intrigued by the 'definition of swearing' angle. Some years back, my ma-in-law, a non-swearer by any definition, referred to someone as 'a dickhead', and her younger family members were a bit stunned, but only because of it was her saying it. I seem to remember some resulting conversation about the way language is ever-changing. I'd hate to be ayoung police officer handing out the fines. Imagine what somebody like John Clarke might make of this material?

ian c smith | 06 June 2011  

Yes, Philip, it's a frightening step backwards to the days when, in NSW anyway, the police were able to arrest just about anyone who posed any sort of a threat or annoyance to them. It didn't much matter whether someone was guilty of a real offence; if they 'swore' in the course of responding to police intervention there was always this 'offence' that gave the police power to arrest - often, it seemed, unjustly.

Joe Castley | 06 June 2011  

"We must first clarify what is meant by “bad language.” For some people, bad language includes everything from taking the Lord’s name in vain, to cursing, to blasphemy or to just plain old profanity.

In general, the Second Commandment governs this area: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” (Ex 20:7; Dt 5:11). Specifically, a person must have respect for God’s name. Throughout Sacred Scripture, God’s name is held sacred. He reveals His name to those who believe, and through this revelation, invites them to an intimate and personal relationship.

For example, in the story of the call of Moses, he asked God, “...If they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what am I to tell them? God replied, ‘I am who am.’ Then He added, ‘This is what you shall tell the Israelites, ‘I AM sent me to you.’ God spoke further to Moses, ‘Thus shall you say to the Israelites: ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever; this is my title for all generations’” (Cf Ex 3).

Therefore, we rightfully use God’s name in prayer or in other ways to bless, praise, and glorify Him. The respect for God’s name reflects the respect a person owes to God Himself (See Catechism, No. 4142ff.).

Given this foundation, certain forms of abusive language are sinful. First, to abuse God’s name, whether the word God, Jesus, or in some other form, is objectively mortally sinful. The same rule applies to abusing the name of the Blessed Mother or the saints. One has to ask oneself, “Why would someone use the name Jesus as an expletive when angry or impatient? Would not such an action show an arrogant and disrespectful attitude toward God, whom we should love above all things?”

Second, blasphemy is also a sin. Blasphemy is contempt for God, expressed in thought, word or action. To use words either vocally or mentally against God which show hatred, reproach, disrespect or defiance is sinful. This prohibition also applies to the Blessed Mother and the saints as well as sacred things or Church related practices. Moreover, blasphemy includes invoking God’s name to legitimize crimes or harmful actions against others. The Catechism notes that blasphemy is a grave sin.

Third, cursing is to call down evil from God, and usually involves specifically invoking God’s name, not just His power. For instance, all of us have heard someone say, “God damn it,” or even “God damn you”. Here a person is commanding God, who is all powerful, all good, and all just, to damn someone (or something) in Hell for all eternity. Who are we to ask God to damn anyone or to bestow some evil upon them? Objectively, this act is a mortal sin.

Finally, profanity itself is wrong, even though such words may not specifically involve the name of God. God gave mankind the gift of language which should be used positively. Language should build good relationships with other individuals, and enable people to share their lives intimately with each other. Sadly, more and more, we hear in normal conversation profanity — especially those four letter words and words pertaining to bodily functions whether in a sewer content or a sexual content or both. We also hear people speak profanely about good and holy topics; for example, they profane human sexuality or the act of marital love. Such language is not only negative, vulgar, impolite and offensive, but also debases the dignity of each human being. Moreover, this language reveals not only a person’s bad attitude and lack of respect for others, but also his own immaturity and insecurity in dealing with others. In using these words, the person builds barriers rather than bridges with another person.

Take for instance the word Hell. First of all, no one should make light of Hell, that place of eternal damnation. Yet, people use the word is so many ways today: in anger, “Go to Hell!”; in surprise, “What the Hell!”; in greeting, “How the hell are you?”; or in inquiry, “What the hell are you doing here? Or, “What the hell are you doing?” No only are these various usages demonstrative of poor English, they show a lack of respect for what Hell is. Perhaps if a person really believed he could end up in Hell, he would not be so casual in using the term.

Each of us needs to be careful in our use of language. Objectively, using God’s name in vain, cursing and blasphemy are mortally sinful. Profanity too can be mortally sinful when done with great anger or viciousness against another person. Each of us needs to control our tongues, and prevent a bad language habit from becoming part of our person. St. James wisely admonished, “Every form of life, four-footed or winged, crawling or swimming, can be tamed, and has been tamed, by mankind; the tongue no man can tame. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. We use it to say, ‘Praised be the Lord and Father’; then we use it to curse men, though they are made in the likeness of God. Blessing and curse come out of the same mouth. This ought not to be, my brothers!” (Jas 3:7-10)."

Trent | 06 June 2011  

I find profane language to be very offensive. Just recently, my wife and daughter were picked up by a kindly bus driver with a bus nearly full of young men and wpmen of university age, after our car broke down in the country. My wife and daughter were subjecyed to the foulest language and several acts of sexual activity were performed in front of them.. They sat up at the front of the bus and asked the bus driver how they were allowed to carry on like this. He said that he was no longer able to correct their behaviour or put people of the bus in case the bus company was sued. He said he was home-schooling his children as he didn;t want them to grow up like the foul mouthed and foul minded young men and women that he carried from the city to the country and back again each college and university day.None of my family or friends use profane language and we shouldn't have to put up with in any public place, tv, radio, movies and modern books. We are supposed to follow in Jesus Christ's footsteps and never offend God by our actions or words. There will be Hell to pay for those who don't. It is a mortal sin against charity if you swear at someone with the intention of seriously offending them.

Trent | 06 June 2011  

Thanks Trent. You may have noticed that in my article I never once mention blasphemy. There is a reason for that and it is part of my implication in the opening paragraph. Although it may not be apparent in my words, I agree that offensive language is just that. As a firm believer in the power of the word to communicate, I am not about to start arguing for language that does the opposite. It is true that offensive language can be used as a sign of disrespect toward others; such behaviour is often unwarranted and shows a lack of basic fellow feeling for the other. It is not the only way people show disrespect. For example, some people like to shout a hundred rules at others, as though that’s going to make a difference, or lay heavy fines on them for swearing, as though that’s going to stop them or change them. It might, but largely and sadly it won’t. Often the motive behind shouting rules and laying down fines is not charity but oppression and control. A curious thing about God is that God made us this way, which is an absolute gift, if you ask me. If I understand Pentateuch correctly, we reverence God as holy and his creation therefore as holy, the whole catastrophe. We all have different ways of expressing that sense of wonder. We all have different ways of dealing with the catastrophe and wording it.

PHILIP HARVEY | 06 June 2011  

Look, I dont mind swearing, well, except the "c" word makes me cringe. It is blasphemy however that I do not like. I t is really offensive in my opinion. I do not allow it under my roof. A nasty habit people pick up. Highly unlikely there will be any law against that though.

LouW | 11 June 2011  

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