Good language…

I swear, not often, but with feeling, when the occasion arises. The language I use is not especially shocking or wide-ranging. I favour a couple of words that used to be referred to as ‘Anglo-Saxon’. I think of them as earthy, and aim to keep them for private moments of stress, rather than upset anyone.

My words can be heard, on occasion, on the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) – in the past, some people claimed that the presenters were the standard for how the British nation should sound. I will say that four-letter words, as they used to be known, are rarely heard before the nine o’clock watershed on BBC radio.

My mother will tell you that I wasn’t brought up to curse. She believes that there is ‘no need for it’. Swearing, she says, is the sign of a limited vocabulary.

If I want to be mischievous, I can point to scientific tests that have proved fluent swearers tend to have good vocabularies. ‘Swearing,’ I say to mum, ‘has its place in life and in fiction.’

Irvine Welsh embraces expletives. Many of his characters use profanities as adjectives so prolifically that the words are de-valued. They are mostly not conveying a specific shock or emotion, they are about attitude and portraying a particular society.

Between Welsh and the writers who avoid any profanities, are those who use them sparingly. They understand that generally, less is more.

There is, I think, an art to using ‘offensive language’.

A couple of weeks ago we went to see the period drama The Favourite, a film about Queen Anne’s friendships with Lady Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham. I’d seen a few trailers, and knew it would be what mum calls, ‘close to the knuckle’.

I loved it. Whatever the reservations might be about historical accuracy, it was entertaining. What made it comic, in part, were the moments when the characters dropped their guards, and used what I can only describe – in this context – as, ‘dirty’ language.

Did I believe the film? Entirely. I entered a fictional world, and lost my sense of self. I don’t know whether Queen Anne, Sarah Churchill or Abigail Masham would have actually used such language. What I saw was a faction. The film was reflecting history in a manner that an audience of our period would understand and engage with easily. I’m okay with that.

My gran kept a postcard of a rhyming motto on her mantelpiece. I often think of it when considering how our everyday use of language shifts over time. Gran thought of herself as deliciously naughty for promoting a word that had been prohibited when she was growing up.

Never say 'die', say 'damn'. 
It isn't classic, it may be profane;
But we mortals have use of it time and again;
And you'll find you'll recover
From fate's hardest slam
If you never say 'die':
Say 'DAMN!'