Friday, February 06, 2009


Excuse me but I won't be asterisking this one. Don't read it if you are offended by strong language.

We haven't talked about this subject for a while. I notice that there has been an attempt to censure Gordon Ramsay because a recent programme included nearly 200 examples of the F-word. It got me thinking. Do 200 fucks in an hour change the status of the word?

I have had a few eureka moments over the years on this subject:

1. Aged about seven I asked my Dad what the writing on the swimming pool cubicle wall meant. 'Daddy, what's a baster?' I could tell from the pause that I had now accessed a really good thing to say when I wanted attention.

2. A plumber, called to my office in about 1980, pronounced a verdict on a radiator valve, 'The fucking fucker's fucking fucked.' We were in no doubt what he meant and wondered if we could spend a whole day communicating only with profanities and an occasional definite or indefinite article.

3. At theological college our football team once had a player sent off for bad language but, in his defence, he'd spent the previous years before ordination undercover with the drug squad.

4. My ordination. I get very peeved when people apologise for swearing in front of me. It is one of the reasons why I find a dog collar changes everything and prefer to avoid it. I take very seriously the charge that we should be slow to take offence so nobody should ever have to apologise for treating me like they treat others.

5. I recall from the early 1990s when Paul Gascoigne was dismissed from a football pitch for using foul and abusive language. He complained about the referee, 'That wasn't swearing at him; it was just swearing.'

6. A mother I overheard, dragging her six year year old round a supermarket about 1997, told him, 'Don't you ever fucking talk to me like that again.'

Enough eurekas. What would Archimedes have shouted today? Well he would, wouldn't he? Almost certainly.

The Bible has a lot to say about not swearing but it almost always refers to oaths - the preferred way of life for the Christian is to let your yes be yes and your no be no. No mantra or occasion should change that.

The bit of the Bible that those of us who aren't that bothered about bad language need to get to grips with is Ephesians 4:29, 'Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths but only what is helpful for building others up...' So even if we feel an occasional expletive isn't the end of the world we need to gauge the audience. The nature of an internet audience is such that I needed to offer the warning at the start of the post as I know it will be read by the offended and unoffended simultaneously. It may not build everyone up. You will find the word pisseth in the Authorised Version. When Paul counts everything rubbish save that of knowing the Gospel it would be as good a translation as any to say he counts it all crap.

It has been an interesting season for language. Carol Thatcher lost her job at the BBC for the use of the word golliwog. Quite right too. We've been educating on this subject for over twenty years now. She should have known better. Prince Charles got away with calling an Asian Sooty, mainly because the guy himself took it in such good spirit. These days I may write fuck but always asterisk ni**er. Race has become the language monitor.

I'd call someone a silly bugger but not a silly c**t. Is a tosser better than a wanker? Can't believe I wrote that but do have a care about what I'm trying to discuss.

I'm playing a parental advisory CD right now. 'Parental advisory' is usually taken to mean we don't play it in front of our parents. My mother's deaf and my father's only one letter different. My mother-in-law is delightfully liberal these days. So I would.

Language changes, moves on, evolves. Teenagers develop their own. We don't get it. That's the point. We can be insulted without knowing. Those of us who say strewth, blimey, flipping, sugar and crikey are all swearing in a way. Try gladioli or Falcon Camps if you really need a substitute.

So back to the top. The more we use the word fuck the more we downgrade it. It loses its power to offend. I think, because of hanging around with users of fairly industrial language most of my life, I am unoffended but shouldn't simply copy. I need to be very careful who I am speaking to. You?


Ali said...

firstly, I would like to congratulate you on your delightfully liberal mother-in-law

secondly I will tell you that last week I was called a dickhead by one of my pupils. I was however hugely more offended when the same pupil went on to call me an ol' bat.

finally, while having a church BBQ at our house last summer, I decided not to uproot the 'bugger the garden, I'm watching the rugby' sign. However, had I still attended my previous church, I wouldn't even have owned the sign!

I think I am maybe proving your point ....

Kathryn said...

A much loved friend, who is also a rather senior priest in my diocese, says I am the only person she knows whose language is as bad as I really do have to work overtime not to use something inappropriate in teh wrong situation.
I can remember the appalled look on the face of a dear lady in the church where I was a Reader, and who was having an "Oh God, why" moment...I said something along the lines of "Sometimes, it's OK to say to God that it's bloody well not fair" and she nearly dropped dead on the spot.
otoh, there are people who've thanked me with tears in their eyes for agreeing that their cr***y situation was just that.
Horses for courses..

Andi said...

i'm a brit in new zealand, stumbled across your blog on a bored afternoon. there is a whole vocabulary here that would be offensive in the UK. Bollocks, balls, shite and bugger - are used by the most respectable of people. I've heard bollocks from the pulpit, I mean the word rather than the contents (though i've also heard bollocks talked from the pulpit too).

The most dramatic of introductions to different standards here was at a church 'kiwi-ana' evening, celebrating all things uniquely NZ. I was in my early days here. The question was about slang.

"What is kiwi slang for an uncooth young man". The British words of Chav or Skally came to mind. An old dear (mid-80's) in my team, leaned forward and said, 'Dickhead, it's dickhead'. I nearly fell off my seat, didn't know whether to laugh or tell her off. 'Yeah,' said another female white haired warrior 'It'll be dickhead, write dickhead down'.

Swearing changes from place to place, culture to culture. (The answer was, Joker by the way).

Mr Gnome said...

When alarmed, shocked or enraged, one occasionally tends to ejaculate: 'Oh, ----!'

The blank-fillers in my case tend to be one of the following: shit, bugger, bollocks.

These are completely spontaneous and my workmates seem remarkably tolerant of my occasional earthiness.

(Even if I had the brainpower, I wouldn't last five mins as a BBC news presenter.)

As for the 'f' word, I avoid it almost completely.

Not out of moral purity, I have to say. Simply out of a wish to have ;something in reserve'.

I'm often in earshot of people whose normal discourse is shot through with the f-word.

I find myself wanting to ask them: 'But how do you express yourself when you are REALLY upset/shocked/outraged...?'

To be truthful, there are aspects of bad language that I like - there's a splendid down-to-earth forthrightness about a dismissive 'Bollocks!' in response to a splurge of sententious, self-regarding twaddle.

Anonymous said...

My husband is Canadian and when his father died only my husband was able to go but the eugoly was sent to me and my sons to read. We were really glad not to have been there when we read that their cousin used to bonk the fishes! We would have collapsed with laughter, maybe not an appropriate place to laugh, as in Canada it mereley means hit!

I agree with Mr Gnome. I will utter, maybe inappropriate, words on occasion but never the f word. Never felt like I've needed to.

Debbie K

RuthJ said...

Resisting the temptation to offer you a virtual embrace and cry 'Blood-brother!', I'd like to suggest that an interesting point is the apparent complete irrelevance of the original meaning of the word. I personally will say 'fuck', but only in the context of a sexual act. I'd still only use it for effect, though, not as my first choice of word for the activity; unlike a professor's family I used to know who would say to their four-year-old, 'Do you want to shit, darling?' Furthermore, I have never understood why 'bugger' is a milder expletive than 'fuck' - surely it's either equal or worse, depending on whether you view buggery as a perversion or not? Why is 'shit' worse than 'crap', when afaik they mean exactly the same thing?

In fact it's all very illogical. Asking myself what 'swear word' I actually feel most comfortable using, I find to my interest that it is 'bloody' - entirely inoffensive in its presenting meaning, and irrelevant to me if you go back to 'by our lady', not a phrase I'd use. But there are moments when one wants to say, 'I mean this and I'm not fooling.' That's when I'd use it.

Mandy said...

Interesting and refreshing!

Kathryn's story about the person being so glad she called a spade a spade reminded me of how spot-on wonderful Bob C's heartfelt 'S**t!' felt to me when I was telling them of my young, strong dear friend John's death after only 8 weeks after a cancer diagnosis. It did make me want to burst into tears, in a freed-up kind of way. Could one argue that it's a godly response to swear sometimes?
(Don't tell my grandma I ever suggested that!)

I was raised in a strictly no-swearing (no-drinking-no-smoking-no-listening-to-rock-music-no-playing-like-its-Saturday-with-your-friends-on-Sunday) way, so I'm having now to learn painfully and gradually (reaching adolescence in one's 40s is so very difficult!) what is simply 'me' and what is prudishness. One thing I have discovered that Really-I (not Prude-I) think is that habitual/frequent/continual swearing is, frankly, simply boring and totally uncreative.

And yes, Mr. Gnome has a good point about how on earth the Habituals can express themselves when they're REALLY upset. (I can confirm that the power of a 'S**t!' or a 'B****cks!' is mighty when one feels incredibly out of control when blurting it-- and the effect on one's colleagues who think one is an Innocent Lamb is fantastic!)