Wednesday, 11 April 2012
How Polite Britain Became Addicted to Foul Language
THE singer and chat show host, Des O’Connor, now 80, started in show business more than a half century ago.
He recalls wistfully that in those days the use of the mildest expletive in public, on stage or screen, would have resulted in instant sacking.
Nowadays, if an entertainer is not foul-mouthed he is suspected of being too posh by half, a snob and a prude, and liable to sacking for that very reason.
The history of the extension of the use of swearing in public entertainment is interesting and instructive. It did not come about through any popular demand from the general public, but rather by the action of pioneering intellectuals.
In 1914, for instance, Eliza Doolittle, in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, caused a sensation, and nearly a riot, when she answered: “Not bloody likely” to the question of whether she was going to walk home. The word had not been heard on the stage before.
Just over 50 years later the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, first used the word “f***” on television, creating an uproar. But those who protested and thought it would lead to a coarsening not only of language but of culture itself were soon relegated to the ranks of the fuddy-duddies, whose views could be ignored like those of the Flat Earth Society.
The public use of swear words was regarded by intellectuals as a welcome liberation from the restraints of an increasingly false gentility.
At last people could be represented on stage and screen as they actually were. Public swearing was a breath of fresh air and showed that we had grown up at last and were now fully adult.
But two things were forgotten or overlooked in the rejoicing over the supposed liberation. The first was that the impact of swearing is inversely proportional to the frequency of its use: a swear word used too frequently would come to mean no more than “er” or “um” and the word “bloody” could create a sensation only once.
Thus if a footballer swears in public no one is surprised or takes any notice of it, unless he appends a racist epithet to it; but if the Queen were to swear in public it would make world news. The second thing that was forgotten or overlooked was the force of example.
The use of bad language on the stage or screen gave permission for it to be used off it as well. We live in a democratic age and if toffs could swear in public – and toffs didn’t come any toffier than Kenneth Tynan, irrespective of his rackety life – so could everyone. And use, if repeated, becomes habit.
It didn’t take long for swearing to become so common that many seemed unable to speak without doing so. Every second word was a swear word and if you now walk down any crowded shopping street you will not go more than a few yards without hearing a part of speech of a well-known verb, probably many times.
The words used do not express a specific meaning; at most, they are used for a certain slight emphasis. More importantly, they are meant to convey the message that the speaker is militantly vulgar and is not going to be deflected from his vulgarity by anyone.
Object if you dare! Though used by habit, the words are not used involuntarily, as a tic is involuntary. They are under conscious control.
When I worked in prison as a doctor, my patients’ description of their symptoms was often considerably lengthened, though not made more accurate, by the parts of speech of the previously mentioned verb. I would ask them not to use that verb or its parts.
“But that’s how I talk,” they would reply. “Yes, I know,” I would say. “That’s what I’m complaining of.” And they would stop, as Tommy Cooper would have put it, “just like that”.
No one had ever asked them before and it was certainly easier for them than giving up cigarettes. Some of them asked why I wanted them to give up swearing, at least while speaking to me. I would hand them the prescription and say: “Take one of these f…..s every four f…… hours until your f…… headache’s gone and if they don’t f…… work, come straight f…… back.”
They were a little taken aback and then they laughed; they got the point and never swore in my presence again. Although swearing now means very little in each individual instance, its widespread employment does not mean that it has no effect at all.
In the first place, it makes it more difficult to say something to cause another person to sit up and take notice.
Paradoxically, the more we swear the smaller, not the larger, our verbal repertoire and our capacity to shock. We therefore have to resort more frequently to extreme actions to startle people.
Second, though they mean nothing much, the words retain their vulgar connotation so that the more they are used the coarser our culture becomes.
And no one should be under any illusion about it: we are known throughout Europe (in my view rightly) as the coarsest people in Europe.
In the part of France to which I go regularly, even Frenchmen who speak no English recognise one word by the frequency with which the English they have overheard employ it: and there are no prizes for guessing which it is.
Clearly there is place for swearing and I would not want to have to wash my mouth out with soap and water for every time I have sworn.
But in essence those who protested against Kenneth Tynan all those years ago were right, at least if we prefer refinement to coarseness.
First published in the Daily Express.
Posted on 04/11/2012 8:34 AM by Theodore Dalrymple
12 Apr 2012
I can't believe that other countries in Europe with their large peasant sectors don't swear at least as much as us. It may be true that the middle classes in those countries and the official culture don't swear as much, but I can't believe that the hard men of toil don't have equivalent words to ours. Leon Trotsky wrote an essay about 'bad language' among the Russian peasantry, arging that it was a sign of degradation and they should move away from their use of such language. What I have often wondered is whether other cultures use the same sexual insults as us, and whether profanities/religious swearing is as widespread. It is not easy to ask other language speakers about this, especially if you don't know them very well. I do know that their are some choice insults in Italian that are similar to ours.