The Joy of Swearing

My mother always said, only people with a limited vocabulary swear. I tend to disagree.

The words “Fuck you” spray painted in red on a pedestrian zebra crossing

Bad language is exactly that — a language — although, for me, not inherently “bad”; rather it is its usage and the intent that is key. Any word said with venom can appear aggressive and any phrase presented as a whisper, with a raised eyebrow or a rubbing of the thighs, can be deemed lewd. And I cannot forgive bad usage of bad language — the means to shock, to offend, to harm, to slur or just for a cheap laugh.

For me, profanity is a delightfully nuanced form of self-expression and fundamental to communication. From the sublime “fuckwit” to the ridiculous “pissflaps”; the hilarious “titwitch” to the crude “cumwipe”; the affectionate “wanker” to the cathartic “bint!”; the tame “tit” to the extreme “cunt”, swearing yields real power, and there’s skill and artistry involved in getting those swears just right.

Plus, it’s fucking funny.

Except, however, when attending Brighton Fringe Festival last year, where a red-wine-quaffing Canadian gentleman greeted the expectant crowd (he’d been heralded as the headline act) with “Brighton, fuuuuuuuuck” and then proceeded to eff and jeff his way through his entire set, which frankly wasn’t fucking funny and instead saddening — such total disregard for swear craft. Twat.

Rant over, now time for a disclaimer. No, not a parental advisory trigger warning that this piece contains swearing (no shit Sherlock!), rather to highlight that this is not a linguistical or historical study of obscenity, nor an exploration of the science or psychology of bad language — others have already done so and much better than I ever could — this piece is very much an indulgence of the mad ramblings of a woman who likes to say fuck a lot (sorry mum!).

And let’s start with fuck. Surely, it’s the master of all swears. Its usage is plentiful. Whether as an expletive infixation “abso-fucking-lutely”, tmesis “too-fucking-right”, an act of deviance “fuck that”, exasperation “fuck this”, impulsiveness “oh fuck it”, astonishment “fuck me”, gratitude “fuck you very much”, anger “go fuck yourself”, expression of empathy “fuuuuck” or of wonderment “fuuuuck”, a cry of pain or surprise “FUCK”, a farewell “fuck off”, or a realisation you’ve made a monumental fuck up “oh fuckibollocks”.

Even the feel of fuck in my mouth is delicious. The vibrating exhalation through the lips of the “fff”, the opening into the “u” and the climactic kicking “ck” noise dislodged from the back of the throat — you may even be able to bring forth some ejaculatory spittle to punctuate. Kinda sexy, right? No wonder it means what is means…

Fun fact: Fuck is also the only word in the English language that can be used for all five distinct parts of speech — that is, interjection, noun, verb, adjective, adverb — as I was once gleefully told by my university lecturer while quoting Anthony Burgess’ A Mouthful of Air:I once heard an army motor mechanic complain…‘Fuck it, the fucking fucker’s fucking fucked.’”

This experience was a revelatory moment for me; I had been enlightened to the true power of profanity (I thank you Bob Ecclestone). Not only had I formed an appreciation for swearing’s linguistical prowess, but also its ability to build bridges and to bond. There is real joy to be had from a university lecturer saying the F-word in class, or meek and mild Julie from accounts letting out a frustrated “bugger”, even my six-year-old nephew (dare I infer children swear?) trying his luck with an “arse!”. Why? Because it makes them human. And relax…

While I delight in swearing, however, I understand that not everyone shares my fondness for being foul-mouthed.

I’m sure I’m not alone in having witnessed the flinch of another when one let’s slip or rip mid-conversation. It’s as though they’ve taken a bullet — you can see the ricochet — or a punch in the face, they physically recoil from such a verbal assault.

And we’ve all been the one to pull the pin on a F or S or even C bomb during Sunday Lunch (usually out of sheer frustration, perhaps to dispel the ever-growing familial tension or frankly just for shits and giggles) and witness the explosion of shock behind the eyes of horrified family members — “not in front of grandma!”.

Sometimes the reaction can be more subtle; an involuntary clutch of the hand to the chest, a twitch of the eye, an erk of the lip. Either way, they’re offended or more heartbreakingly, disappointed. They didn’t expect such foulness from you.

Aside from family occasions, the workplace can prove particularly tumultuous when it comes to bad language. I once had to endure a four-hour human resources workshop dedicated to educating managers how to “behave in a professional manner”, which largely comprised pleading with the assembly not to swear in the playground, sorry…er… I mean workplace, and to pick colleagues up on their use of expletives. To which, I now rapturously recall, the head of department I was sat next to turning to me afterwards and saying, “well, that was a fucking load of shit”. I could have kissed him.

This naturally led me to wonder if my response would have been so joyous if this colleague had been female. For me, yes. She too would have been deserving of a celebratory smacker. But, for others not so. For the most part, in the workplace, as in life, women swearing seems to be unpalatable.

Indeed, how many of you, dear readers, are wincing at this piece? I don’t doubt the detailed exploration of the F-word got some of you shifting in your seats. And I can imagine my mother would be hyperventilating by now.

A woman, swearing? A woman writing about swearing? Stone the crows! Have her committed, she does not know what she says!

Sadly, still to this day, a woman who swears is somehow seen as unwomanly. I find myself met with the age-old adage that it’s not ladylike to swear, after all you wouldn’t want to be seen as “that sort of girl” — whatever the shitting hell that means.

A woman with a penchant for profanity is seen as loose-lipped and therefore evidently loose-knickered, unrefined and therefore unprofessional, unfeminine and therefore uncontrolled — or dare I say, uncontrollable. She’s certainly a creature to be feared. Quick! Make her fear herself, make her feel guilt, make her censor.

So, here we have it, what “sort of girl” are you viewing me as dear reader?

Whether you believe I’m worthy of a jolly good handshake and slap on the back for writing such a piece or teetering on the edge of insanity, a provocateur, a potty mouth, a trollop or have simply produced a load of ol’ facetious twaddle, when all is sworn and done, I have to think to myself, who really gives a fuck?

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