A few years ago when I was finding life extremely challenging, I decided to take up some new hobbies. One of the most successful of these was swearing. I incorporated it wholeheartedly into my everyday life and found it very therapeutic.
Then after a while, I started to wonder about it. What are the origins and function of profanity? It’s clearly a useful component of human experience: David Crystal, the linguist, says that nearly everyone swears even if it’s just a polite watering-down of ‘God!’ to ‘Golly Gosh!’ And swearing is found in all known languages. In English, swear words centre around religion, sex and the toilet and are derived from German. They are direct, unapologetic and taboo. The formal, polite versions of these words, on the other hand, tend to have their roots in Latin.
Robert Graves observed poetically that after childhood, tears and wailing are no longer so acceptable. Groaning is discouraged as a sign of weakness and hence swearing fills the gap when silence is impossible—when the nervous system ‘demands a reaction that does not imply submissive acquiescence’. A new word has recently emerged to encapsulate this phenomenon—lalochezia. It’s defined as ‘emotional relief gained by swearing’, and I can vouch for its value.
But observation of its effect does not answer the key questions. Why does swearing carry so much more emotional power than normal language? Why does it release tension? In his award-winning book, Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad, Richard Stephens says this is probably because swearing is not processed by the brain’s usual language centres, but originates instead from an area of the brain that is close to where emotions are handled in the limbic system.
Swearing is undoubtedly helpful in letting off steam. However, I found to my cost, one Saturday morning that there’s a time and a place for this. I went for an early swim at the local pool and was getting dressed in the changing room whilst a number of parents were getting their small children ready for their swimming lesson. The air was filled with social niceties and child-focused chatter but as I went to get my clothes out of the locker I banged my head very hard on the sharp corner of the metal door. It hurt and I swore loudly, rudely and involuntarily. There was a shocked silence and disapproval seeped through the room like a bad smell. I should have smiled and apologised but shame pushed me into a defensive silence. No matter that I’d spent hours of my life crooning lullabies to my own children and soothing their torn knees. That one moment marked me out to the assembled mothers as a thoroughly undesirable individual and I slunk out quickly, avoiding any eye contact.
That wasn’t good, but so long as it’s in the right environment, swearing can facilitate bonding. And it’s contagious. My friend, Dot, has a very kind heart and was keen to help me when I was going through my divorce. Her unique contribution was to become my swearing ally. We exchanged regular texts and followed the general principle that there’s no point in saying, ‘having an awful day’ when a couple of profanities would make it so much more expressive. She also helped by inviting me to join the local Rock Choir and offered to give me a lift to the first session. When she arrived I got into the back of the car as she was taking an elderly lady called Sarah, too. We all chatted politely for a while, and then Dot asked how my week had been. The urge to include a few strong words was irresistible and so we explained to Sarah about being ‘swearing partners’. She was very interested and asked us lots of questions.
The singing was fun. I sat with Dot’s alto group and we started with the Bee Gees classic, ‘How Deep is Your Love’. Then we tackled Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’ which was impressively complex. It was all very good, but my favourite bit of the evening came when Dot dropped me outside my house. Sarah jumped out of the car, flung her arms round my neck and said warmly, “Sodding bugger off”.
Whilst it’s true that swearing is a relatively new hobby for me, I can’t pretend that my lexicon before was entirely pristine. The evidence comes from Molly. Her first words were innocent ones like ‘Mama’ and ‘Dada’ but once she started to combine words into phrases, the rot set in. At that stage life was dominated by our unruly menagerie and the vagaries of her father’s commute to London. Consequently she spent a lot of time muttering to herself about ‘bloody goats’ and ‘bloody trains’.
But even when I’d washed my mouth out and was trying to be an upright member of the community, I fell foul of the cussing problem. When Will, Emma and Henry were young, I was a school governor. It was a charming little Church of England school in a village, and one day I was invited to make a governor’s visit. I sat through assembly and then went to each of the classrooms to see what was going on. When I got home, I wrote up a report feeling rather pleased at having done a good morning’s work. However, the computer refused to accept any mention of my visit to school assembly. Instead of accepting my intentions as community-spirited, the over-zealous filters rejected my foul-mouthed use of the word ‘assembly’. A similar issue has been a thorn in the sides of the residents of Scunthorpe. Back in 1996, many of them were blocked from creating an account with AOL because their address contained an ‘obscene string of letters’. This has led to similar situations being called The Scunthorpe Problem.
Some American anti-obscenity filters automatically replace offensive content with what are deemed to be equivalent words. So instead of being assassinated, Lincoln was rather perplexingly ‘buttbuttinated’.
And if you’re puzzled by my choice of photos to accompany this post, then it’s very difficult to represent swearing without causing offence. So instead, I’ve chosen a selection of things that I’m enthusiastic about. I like macaroons, trumpets, roses, black and white films, long walks, mango and flamingos. As you may have realised by now, I also like swearing.