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!'

26 thoughts on “Good language…

  1. Great post. I’ve just read Kerry Hudson’s debut and the first sentence (with asterisks is!): ‘Get out you c***ing, sh***ing, little f***ing f***er!’ Get past that and her use of swearing (like Welsh, she is Scottish) is entirely fitting. Wonderful book! That’s not to say I like it when the school-kids go by effing and blinding as their natural language.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hudson’s book sounds interesting. I do think that maybe we can cope with the effing and blinding better in good fiction than in real life. Like you, I’m not so comfortable when it’s used by school-kids.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I was raised by a cowboy so I will when warranted, shout out SOB in full etc. In North America, it is not considered bad taste to swear but is considered being real. Gratuitous swearing gets on my nerves, however. I write for children so obviously don’t include profanity in my books. I use OMG, as the kids do, and have had a couple of parents tell me it is offensive. (???) You just can’t please them all.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks, Neil. Do you know I hadn’t noticed the curse-words in your posts. I guess they’re part of your written ‘voice’ as well as your speaking voice. Hope your weekend is great, too.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. What a fascinating subject. Well into her fifties, my mother had never heard the F*** word and had no idea what it meant. She had led a very sheltered life.I swear frequently and fluently in English and have learned some juicy French morsels too. But I reckon the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings would have us all beat. Their swear words particularly when combined with the traditional insulting competition in the mead hall were the juciest of the juicy. Sadly the pronunciation and to some extent the meaning is beyond me but the intention is clear. Lovely interesting post Cath.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Sheila. It’s a subject that I find fascinating. I wish I could adopt a few French swear words, the ones I’ve heard when watching Spiral have a degree of elegance that my British selection lack – though maybe that’s a misconception only possible because I’ve such a poor grasp of French.

      I suppose with practice ‘m****’ might spring readily to the tongue at moments of high stress. Is there a layer of French society that finds it shocking, I wonder? It’s difficult to tell from a tv series.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. We’ve come a long way since the use of ‘The big D’ in HMS Pinafore, ‘bloody’ in Shawn’s Pygmalion and even ‘piss off’ in a Harry Potter film. Kids hear worse in playgrounds, of course! Swear words can be used offensively, expressively, unthinkingly, but it’s all a question of appropriateness, isn’t it?

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  5. Thank heaven for women like your gran! Being church folk, we couldn’t cuss or swear, either; now, well, Bo will tell you I cuss a LOT. Blondie wanted to use my phone to send a text message to her grandma, my mom. Fine, right? Well she’s a bit slow in her typing because I’m one of those evil parents who *doesn’t* let her kids play on her phone for ages on end. Blondie’s taking her time tapping the letters. Meanwhile, the phone’s giving her commonly used words to help her along. When Blondie types an “F,” the phone offers her–you guessed it–F**K. Blondie looks at me. “What’s that?”



    So I’ve been trying to cut back on the bad words….a little, anyway. x

    Liked by 3 people

    • Oops. But well done on limiting your children’s access to their phones, and to bad language. I’m sure, that like you, they’ll quickly pick up the habit when they get a bit older.

      I think the test of our linguistic abilities comes when we demonstrate that we can moderate our ‘language’ according to our surroundings and audience, which I suspect is how the scientists came to the conclusion that swears often have wide vocabularies. I have a selection of graded phrases and words I try to apply appropriately. Luckily, ‘damn’ has been significantly down-graded (or do I mean up?) since my gran’s days.

      Liked by 3 people

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