Written by Kathy Salaman

Lifestyle

Swearing: more a blessing than a curse

Language and grammar expert Kathy Salaman’s got a great vocabulary. Here she explains that, despite that, sometime only a ‘fuck’ will do.

swearing baby lllustration

Illustration by Laura Swaddle.

Swearing saves lives. There are several people wandering around today who would have received a good twatting had I not muttered “wanker” under my breath instead.

I apologise now to those of you who disapprove of swearing or who see it as a sign of limited vocabulary. For me, it’s stress relief as well as something that adds comedy to a story, joke or situation. Some of my favourite TV comedies would not be as amusing without expletives thrown in: Father Ted, Monty Python, South Park – so many shows are much funnier because of carefully timed cursing.

I would like to point out here that I don’t think swearing in front of children is acceptable, and as a teacher I have heard children utter things that can only be a direct result of what they hear at home.

“I was proud of the fact that I could swear any trooper under the table and I truly believed that this awesome talent was doing no end for my street cred. Then I had kids.”

Having said that, my siblings and I grew up hearing our Irish, working-class dad swear, yet we seemed to know instinctively that “feck off” was not something we should say when the teacher asked us to stop talking. Likewise, we knew it wasn’t OK to shout, “Ah, yeh greedy, fat bollix” when Father Murphy ate the last Jaffa Cake at the first communion tea. (When did children lose the ability to make that distinction?)

I first became aware that swearing was ‘cool’ during my school days and this stayed with me into adulthood. No word was taboo. No joke was too filthy. I like to think I was the life and soul of every gathering, but it’s more likely that I was a monumental pain in the arse. Still, I was proud of the fact that I could swear any trooper under the table and I truly believed that this awesome talent was doing no end for my street cred.

Then I had kids.

Have you noticed how some children are a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to verbal communication? Trying to decipher the strange babblings of my friends’ sprogs, I was reassured that any real, intelligible sounds were unlikely before the age of two. It was a surprise, therefore, to find that my firstborn could make herself perfectly understood before she could walk.

Said daughter was sitting, like Little Miss Prissy Knickers, in her car seat and my mum was sitting beside me – within slapping distance – when it happened. I was negotiating a rather tricky roundabout in Northampton when a motorcyclist cut me up and I had to brake suddenly. Unwilling to risk a motherly slap, I bit my tongue, sighed and prepared to continue on my way: then, a prim little voice from behind me piped up clearly, “That was a wanker, wasn’t it, mummy?”

Yes, dear. Yes it was… And so began the oh-so-long and boring years of motoring when I had to call every arsehole (and there are many in Northampton) who pissed me off a “bonehead”. Not at all satisfying.

A few months after the motorcyclist incident, the health visitor came round to weigh and measure my newborn son. As soon as she’d removed his nappy, he decided to treat her to a golden shower: his favourite trick at the time. Right on cue, two-year-old big sis bent over him, placed her hands on her knees, shook her head and cooed, “You’re a little bugger, aren’t you?”

So, I spent the next few years trying to behave like Mary Poppins, but every so often I needed to let it all out. Work colleagues were treated to my pent-up frustrations to the point where one accused me of suffering from Tourette’s syndrome, and my husband once asked me not to speak when we were sitting near his boss at a Christmas dinner.

Which is a bit rich, when I think about it. Whether he’s hit his thumb with a hammer, can’t find his keys, or is watching Man U beat Chelsea, my husband’s expletive of choice is a very loud “Shitfuckcuntwankbollocksarseholes!” After almost 29 years of marriage, it’s kind of lost its amusement value.

“What is it about swearing that makes it so appealing for some of us? Is it the fact that it’s taboo and that by muttering ‘twat’ and sniggering like Finbarr Saunders from Viz we think we’re maverick?”

What does still amuse me, though, is hearing ‘posh’ people swear. A few years ago, there was a talk at my college (I’ll spare the Cambridge college the indignity of being associated with me here) in which the word ‘cunt’ was bandied about freely. After the first few uncomfortable minutes of stunned silence, followed by a few nervous giggles, the word began to lose its potency and we were able to focus on the main point of the talk (which was about the extent to which terms for women’s genitalia are considered taboo). By the end of the evening, men and women with cut-glass accents could be heard at the bar whooping, “What would you like to drink, you cunt?” Oh, how we guffawed.

All this fond reminiscing has me wondering: what is it about swearing that makes it so appealing for some of us? Is it the fact that it’s taboo and that by muttering “twat” and sniggering like Finbarr Saunders from Viz we think we’re maverick? Or is it just the fact that it’s so juvenile: a bit like my tendency to laugh if someone farts in church? (Or assembly – which isn’t good when you’re the teacher.) There must be more to swearing, and scientific evidence appears to suggest that it really does serve a useful purpose.

Stephen Fry fans may remember his series, Fry’s Planet Word, where one week he and Brian Blessed discussed swearing. In this episode, Richard Stephens of Keele University conducted an experiment to help with his research into how swearing can relieve stress. Fry and Blessed had to keep their hands in freezing water, first whilst shouting neutral words, such as “table”, then by yelling their swear word of choice. Both were able to keep their hands in the ice longer whilst shouting swear words.

More appealing to my juvenile sense of humour, however, was Blessed’s account of the neighbour who had threatened to tell his mum she’d heard him say “bugger”. You can listen here – but be warned: it’s strong stuff. And if you’re offended by it – tough shit!

READ MORE: Sadie Hasler takes on the C word: http://standardissuemagazine.com/voices/the-four-letter-c-word/

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Written by Kathy Salaman

Kathy Salaman is a former teacher who would like to see a fairer state education system, fewer wrinkles and world peace. She loves teaching English and maths, telling naughty jokes and reading geeky stuff.