Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Mind Your Language

"By my trowth, thou dost make the millstone seem as a feather what widst thy lard-bloated footfall!"

"Swearing makes up 3 percent of all adult conversation at work and 13 percent of all adult leisure conversation." (How Swearing Works, Tracy Wilson)

If you are free tomorrow lunchtime, why not pop into Church House for an interesting presentation. There will be two short talks - one from a more traditional perspective and another from a different theological approach -  both by Simon Nash on the subject of swear words. And there will be soup, bread rolls, butter, and fruit.

More details can be found on their website  

It notes:

"We are going to look at the subject of swearing from a biblical, cultural, psychological, sociological and theological perspective. There will be two talks on the subject, one from a more traditional perspective and one which might be new to some hearers. We feel we should issue a 'watershed' warning: Please do not come to this CHOW if you do not like to hear "foul language" in your presence, we would rather you did not come, on this occasion, than attend and feel uncomfortable. The CHOW for the week after will resume more conventional standards of taste and decency, and you would be welcome to come back then."

I personally do not like swear words being used much,  but not on religious grounds, as I explain below.

I know that religious objections can be made against the use of profanity, but I've often felt that some of that is more like a rationale for not swearing, a reason being given which often does not address how swearing functions, or the taboo nature of swear words; instead, it often grounds the objection in terms of blasphemy, which can by its nature only apply to a certain subset of swear words; many are non-religious but pertain to the human body, and sexuality, not religion. Alternatively, objections can be grounded in making cultic oaths, which again falls short of how swear words work. I think it is more likely that religious people find certain religious swear words offensive because it is a taboo for them, rather than because of any rational basis.
I think swear words function as a mix of (1) habitual - the person using them may not really be aware of how often they use them (2) shock value - they are verbal signals designed to provoke a reaction (3) a means of coping with pain. Part of their value lies in the fact that they are "taboo speech", words that are found offensive, but for which there may be no rational reason which can easily be stated. (4) humorous effect, where it is a sudden and unexpected and in context can be very funny.

We forget how much the taboo governs how we live our lives. A taboo is a powerful control on behaviour that operates in a non-rational way. Some taboos are very group specific, such as ones about purity (not to be confused with being clean, although there is some overlap), and food. Some are less specific to groups, and swearing and incest both come there. Now there may be good biological reasons for the incest taboo, but like a taboo on profanity, it is something which has not been rationally thought out; it is part of how societies govern themselves.

And one thing we should note here. While swearing is one example of breaking taboos, just because a taboo is often outside the direct scope of rationality, that does not mean that the taboo should be discarded. Incest is a taboo for which very good reasons can be made for retaining, scientific, social and ethical. On the other hand, many people do not have a taboo on eating pork, yet English people do tend to have a taboo on eating horse. Often a taboo results with strong feelings of revulsion and disgust if it is broken.
On (1) - habitual swearing - I think it can shows that the individual is not enough in control of their own speech; it controls them, and there may well be other patterns of behaviour running as well. I find it obscures what they are trying to say, because it is sending out the wrong signals alongside what they really want to say. It's like a Christian punctuating a conversation about the love of God with a phrase like "spawn of Satan" to describe people who are not Christians. The noise drowns out the message. I imagine people who are habitual swearers screen out the invective and can speak to each other easily and wonder what all the fuss is about! I don't like it, because of the way it punctuates conversation with noise. but I am aware that it is not intentional.
On (2) swearing as shock value - this is deliberately trying to provoke and offend, and even cause distress. I think it is offensive because the speaker is trying to upset people for no good reason other than the enjoyment of doing so. It's the "I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here" language, where sadistic impulses come out. It's not perhaps too great a step from here to demonising people by calling them names (cf Nazis, Rwanda in recent times), and that dehumanises speech. This kind of swearing is the sort that I am most uncomfortable with, as it crosses ethical boundaries ("do no harm"), and is set out to obstruct human relationships, and hurt, not heal them.

As Tracy Wilson points out in her study "How Swearing Works", court cases "have examined the use of swearing in the contexts of inciting people to violence, defamation and threats. They have generally ruled that the government does not have the right to prevent blasphemy against a specific religion or to prosecute someone solely for the use of an expletive. On the other hand, they have upheld convictions of people who used profanity to incite riots, harass people or disturb the peace."
On (3) I have a great deal of sympathy, having sworn a lot (mostly "bloody") when I broke my wrist in a fall on some rocks. It certainly seems to be the case that letting off steam, using strong language (if you don't use it habitually) can actually help with coping with pain. There's a study which looked at that:,9171,1913773,00.html

But this kind of swearing can also come out under extreme stress, as well as physical pain. A good example of that is the opening sequence of "Four Weddings and a Funeral", where a frantic drive to a wedding when late is punctuated with swear words. It's not a habitual part of their speech; it's a result of stress.

On (4) swearing as humour, which I am indebted to my son for pointing out, a swear word functions as something left of field. Humour can be of the kind where the joke is something signaled - a lot of the sketches in the Fast Show or Harry Enfield function like this - a character comes on, and the joke lies in knowing what is going to happen, albeit with variations. An example would be the "Odes" given by the son of the Roman family in the TV show "Up Pompei" where there was always a lack of rhyme, but the verse led the viewer to expect a rude word.

But it can also be the unexpected, a banana skin which is unseen by the viewer through misdirection, where a sudden juxtaposition of the expected broken by the unexpected is funny. There's a sequence in the latest Red Dwarf, when the crew have time travelled and find themself in an ancient market square. One of them utters the expletive "Jesus!", only for the bearded individual at the next table to say "Yes?".

Interestingly, while some swear words seem to remain constant, the impact of them varies over time, and some come and go. A swear word can be seen as a kind of offset signal against the language in which it is encountered, and it would be interesting to see if they have gone because of

(1) general lack of use, perhaps as others come to be more used, until they are forgotten. A phrase like "Gordon Bennett" is probably headed that way. "Swive" certainly is no longer common parlance.

(2) change of meanings, so the context of the original is lost. The t-word, which comes from an Old Norse word for cut or slit. Pronounced to rhyme with 'hat', or, in some regions, 'pot', it is now widely used in the UK as a slightly more expressive form of 'twit' or 'idiot'. Likewise,  'pratt' is an old word for 'arse' that has come to lose its meaning over the years. The word 'pratt' is still, however, used to this day to mean a fool.

(3) loss of shock value, so that the word becomes much softer in its meaning, and less offensive. It may pass into more habitual use. An example is given by Ruth Wajnryb in "Language Most Foul"(2004) on the word f*ck: "It started out as a taboo word because of its referential function. Then, over time, as the word became more widely used in other roles, it lost its referential meaning. Now the taboo still lurks, though nowhere nearly as strongly as even twenty years ago. There is barely a sexual glimmer of meaning in the word, as it often means something more like 'go figure'. "

(4) changing cultural mores (such as "political correctness"), ruling out use of particular words. The word "bitch", for example, when used as a swear word, can be seen to be demeaning to women.


Nick Palmer said...
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TonyTheProf said...

I just love your list of intelligent types; and yes I did spot you there!

I'm not sure with Billy Connolly; a lot of his swearing seems to be more habitual in his standup, addressing an audience who expect it.

I can't think of Bill Bailey's standup routines having much in the way of swearing; his surrealist brand of offbeat and off the wall humour doesn't need it; or it is so mild that I don't notice it - the "noise" element I noted in (1).

Alastair Campbell as highly intelligent? I'll pass on that one.

TonyTheProf said...

And yes, Hitler may not have sworn, but why should it be assumed that he did? Are non-habitual swearers better people than habitual swearers? It's unlikely, any more than (for example) Buddhists are better than non-Buddhists.

Nick Palmer said...
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TonyTheProf said...

I once had Bob Bisson sitting next to me on the bus. Remember him - the chap who scrawled in paint verses from the Bible all over his house.

It's best not to swear when someone like that is sitting next to you on the bus.

Nick Palmer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.