As a little kid, swearing had a definitive ‘cool’ factor. Anyone who dared say ‘shit’ or ‘fuck’ (gasp!) in the playground was instantly elevated to a higher status among their peers. It was a guilty pleasure, a way of feeling so powerful just by uttering a single word or phrase, and unlike many naughty activities was one that (provided you were careful) left no evidence behind.
As an adult, swearing lets us feel equally powerful, even when there’s no one there to witness it. Consider for a moment the relief you feel when you stub your toe on the furniture and retaliate with a bellowing ‘FUCK YOU, TABLE!’
For children and adults alike, swearing is cathartic. It lets us express ourselves and process emotion that would perhaps otherwise be backed up and left simmering without an outlet. It helps us to cope with the pain of a bruised toe without being reducing to a crumpled, crying mess.
Swearing at other people can be just as satisfying, but isn’t nice. When it’s done in a really serious, aggressive way, I hate it. It’s the classic precursor to a fight, or the nasty, dismissive end to a negotiation that has failed to reach an agreement. Being witness to a gruffly murmured c-word practically gives me palpitations because I’ve seen what can come after that. No good can come from swearing at one another, and it’s just not necessary. Talk it through, come back to it, or just be done with it.
Whispered, cautious swearing as a child is one thing, but swearing in front of children is quite another. This is a real no-no for me. Kids are at an impressionable age and don’t need to hear you spewing offensive words all over the place. Assess your surroundings and censor your language appropriately – it’s not difficult. There’s no need to swear audibly in public, especially when you don’t know your audience.
This brings me to another type of swearing that I’m not particularly fond of – casual swearing. I’m sure everyone has different ideas about what this is, and different levels of tolerance, but I’m talking about when every other word is a swear word, for no reason, like it’s just part of someone’s vocabulary. Maybe I’m too sensitive, but when I tune into it (for example on a bus) I flinch at every ‘fucking’, ‘wanker’ and goodness knows what else comes out. It grates on me. But I’m easily irritated, so perhaps I’m overreacting. As for why people do it, is it a cultural thing? A group mentality thing? Sometimes it sounds so second-nature that I don’t think people even know they’re doing it.
So far we’ve covered the following uses:
- the cool factor / power
- personal relief
- aggressiveness towards others
- casual/cultural swearing
I think it’s fair to say that the drive behind swearing is that it’s taboo – we’re not supposed to do it. It’s too explicit for children; it’s censored or age-rated in TV and films; most are offended by it at some degree. But if swearing suddenly became acceptable and everyday, most of the uses above would be redundant. It wouldn’t be cool if it were allowed; the words wouldn’t seem strong enough for relief; cursing would have less impact as a form of aggression; and casual swearing wouldn’t be a ‘thing’ because we’d all be doing it. The Thick of It would be like Neighbours.
So, talk to me. Do you swear like a trooper? How do you feel when others do it? Is it a big deal to you or are you frowning at my post wondering when I became Mary Poppins?