Shit, fuck, wank, bollocks. Offended? No? OK, how about: arsehole, prick, motherfucker, cunt? Apparently, I’ve just used what are still considered some of the most offensive words in the English language. Indeed, uttering some of them at the wrong time on television could still have serious career repercussions for broadcasters (just ask Chris Evans). At a time when the use of the word ‘fuck’ seems commonplace, this might seem hard to believe. Nevertheless, for many, these words still have the power not just to offend, but also, in their opinions, corrupt. A couple of quick “wanks” and the odd “bollocks” on children’s TV could result in the moral degradation of a whole generation. Their exposure to such offensiveness would inevitably lead to them rejecting parental discipline, experimenting with drugs and bestiality and murdering clergymen, before masturbating themselves to death. Of course, in the right hands (or mouths) – generally those of the educated middle class elite – such words can become a legitimate part of the language, skilfully deployed to emphasise a philosophical point, or to punctuate an intellectual argument. Clearly, swear words should not be used by the untrained. Which is why I’ve decided to devote this editorial to the noble art of swearing. I believe that it is high time that everyone, not just the privileged and well-educated, should have the opportunity to use swearing creatively and meaningfully. The proper use of expletives is vital to the fabric of British culture. Their excessive or inappropriate use will, eventually, rob them of their value to shock, and they will simply pass into the lexicon of mundane everyday usage. If this happens, we’ll lose a valuable linguistic resource. Without the likes of fuck and shit head, what will do for swear words? The fact is that no other nation on earth can boast of such a rich heritage of offensive terminology. Really, this is something to proud of – the average Frenchman, for instance, is highly limited in the kind of abuse he can spew at you. A properly trained Brit can out-swear just about any other race on this planet. Whilst the Yanks have access to the same vocabulary, their usage of it is often inaccurate and amateurish. So strongly do I feel about this issue, that I’m lobbying the government to have swearing included on the National Curriculum for under-sixteens.
But let’s get to the basics of successful swearing. As I’ve already indicated, the main mistake made by the uninitiated is the over-use of swear words. How many times have you heard some idiot in the pub uttering ‘fuck’ every other word in the course of a conversation, or some youth attempting to impress by deploying ‘fucking’ as if it were an ordinary adjective? This kind of linguistic abusage simply results in making the swearer look immature or worse, inarticulate. Indeed, it is this sort of thing which leads critics to assert that the use of expletives is simply evidence of a lack of vocabulary. Bollocks! (Note here, the sudden use of an expletive for purposes of punctuation, its unexpected appearance clearly signalling a change of tone or direction to the reader). The correct use of such words actually demonstrates mastery of an alternative vocabulary, which can complement everyday language. The fact is that there are no appropriate words in the approved vocabulary which have exactly the same meaning and impact of a subtly deployed ‘fuck’, ‘wank’ or ‘bollocks’. Swear words are most effective when deployed without warning at a key point in a conversation or argument, to emphasise a point. Generally speaking, a single example of the expletive will suffice, repetition having the effect of diluting its impact. Having said that, there are occasions when a multiple use of a particular word can be highly effective, for instance one could reply to a fatuous enquiry as to why your car won’t start with: “The fucking fucker’s fucked!” The alliteration here underlines the stupidity of the original comment. Sometimes the use of what would usually be considered an inappropriate expletive in certain situations can be highly effective. For example, shouting “Tit wank” at motorists who cut you up is more likely to get their attention than the use of “Stupid wanker” or “Fucking cunt”, both of which they’ve probably heard so many times before, they fail even to register them as reprimands.
Of course, it is possible to string together a whole stream of expletives to form a meaningful and highly effective sentence. However, this should only be attempted by advanced swearers. The key here is delivery. Simply spewing out a string of invective will make the speaker sound like a coarse thug. Delivering it with the right tone and rhythm can make them appear the most profound thinker since Wittgenstein. It is worth noting that when US film and TV producers require demonstrations of such swearing technique, that they usually turn to a British actor. Ian McShane in Deadwood, for instance. In his mouth “cunt” and “cocksucker” were nothing less than poetry. No contemporary American actor could have uttered these same words, in such quantities, without seeming like a vulgar gangster. Which isn’t to say that American actors are totally hopeless in this field – possibly the finest ever delivery of a single “motherfucker” I have heard came from Ving Rhames in Pulp Fiction. His delivery and the way he pronounced the syllables, like a drumbeat, were masterful. Perhaps the masters of multiple expletive use were the late Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Whilst their Derek and Clive records may sound like a pair of foul-mouthed alcoholics swearing themselves into oblivion in the saloon bar of the roughest pub you know, a closer listening reveals their impeccable timing and perfect ear for the right swear word at the right time. You’ll never hear one of them utter a “cunt” where an “arsehole” is more appropriate. These are the examples we must follow if we are to prevent our cherished swear words from losing their power. Mind you, some would argue that it is already too late, pointing to the fact that research indicates that most of these old favourites are no longer considered the most offensive words they could hear. That accolade is apparently now reserved for racial epithets, such as the N-word. But surely this is how it should be – terms of racial abuse should be offensive to all decent people. Their use can never be justified. By contrast, there is nothing inherently offensive about regular swear words. Just ask yourself, why should people get so worked up about euphemisms for parts of the female anatomy or sexual acts? There’s nothing offensive about either, surely? That’s the beauty of the art of swearing – what it reveals about the recipients of the expletives from he way in which they react. If we allow our swear words to lose their impact, then we’ll lose this simple pleasure too. So, until the next time sleazehounds, keep it motherfucking sleazy!