Month: March 2018

Clucking bell: why do we swear?


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?


Clucking bell: a brief history of swearing

Ransome-swearing-squareNeedless warning: post contains offensive words

Since last year I’ve followed the development of a video game, Thimbleweed Park (created by Monkey Island veterans Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick). Recently, Terrible Toybox released downloadable content that uncensors foul-mouthed Ransome the Clown, turning his beeping into swearing. In the context of the game I found it pretty hilarious.

But it got me thinking about swearing in general – where does it come from, and why do we do it?

Definition and etymology of ‘swear’

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to ‘swear’ means to ‘use offensive language, especially as an expression of anger’. (Delightfully, one of the example sentences they give is ‘Kate spilled wine on her jeans and swore’.) Other variations include curse, cuss, eff and blind and (perhaps more loosely these days) blaspheme.

Its origin is a bit less clear. The word ‘swear’ comes from the Old English swerian, from the Proto-Germanic swarjana and various other European derivations, all meaning ‘to take an oath’, or more generally, ‘to speak’ (like in ‘answer’). At some point it took on a second meaning of ‘using bad language’ – sources such as the Online Etymology Dictionary suggest that this originated from the idea of invoking sacred names, particularly in response to small or meaningless things, which is probably where blasphemy and the connection with speaking inappropriately comes from. I guess the two meaning are a bit blurred these days – when someone says ‘I swear to God’, are they making a promise or expressing annoyance?

Common swear words and their origins

I decided to take three common swear words and look at their history. Interestingly, they’re all Germanic in origin (it seems most swear words are).

bloody – mid 17th century. The early phrase ‘bloody drunk’ is thought to come from the ‘bloods’, those of aristocratic blood, through the phrase ‘as drunk as a blood’ (meaning very drunk). Somewhere around the 18th century it was deemed offensive – some think this is because it was mistakenly seen as a blasphemous reference to the blood of Christ, or a variation of ‘by Our Lady’.

shit – late 16th century. This one has maintained much of its original use, from words meaning dung (scite), diarrhoea (scitte) and to defecate or poo (scitan). It’s taken on a few extra uses now, though – such as a derogatory name for a dislikable person (‘little shit’), false information (‘a crock of shit’) and a general word for things or stuff (‘I need to move my shit’).

fuck – early 16th century. Possibly originating from Indo-European words meaning ‘strike’ and ‘fist’, which perhaps explains why it’s considered a harsh word and used quite aggressively (especially when put together with its sexual meaning). ‘Fuck’ is one of the most versatile swear words, being used as a noun (‘a good fuck’), verb (‘I’m fucked’), adjective (‘fucking idiot’), directive (‘fuck off’) and even an affix (‘abso-fucking-lutely!’)

It’s interesting how these words have changed over time. I find people tend to avoid using ‘bloody’ in its original sense of ‘containing lots of blood’, because the current use is mostly for swearing. If I told a friend with a nosebleed to ‘throw that bloody tissue away’, she’d probably take it the wrong way. Likewise, a passing comment about an unlicensed plumber in your bathroom could mean he’s either ‘full of shit’, or the toilet is. (Both are usually true.)

Swear words have lots of scope for confusion and comedy.

I’m going to split this into two posts before it gets too long. Consider this the high-brow, historical discussion of swearing, while my next instalment will be an opinion piece about why we swear – in other words my unbridled train of thought (you have been warned).

Why do we swear?

References and further reading, should you feel the urge:

Does anyone care about good English?

One of the reasons I wanted to write this blog is because I’m sad about the decline of written English language. People used to care about good grammar and spelling. ALL people. Kids would be told off if they got something wrong, and at the other end of the scale businesses would be distrusted and discredited. Reputations would be marred and employees would be fired. It was at the core of school education, taught regularly and drilled in by rote and by stick. People would leave school knowing the basic principles of language structure, when to use plural or possessive, and the difference between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’. Not everyone would grasp it, but they’d bloody well try.

Nowadays you’re lucky if most people can string a simple sentence together. Ask some kids what an adjective is and they’ll tell you it’s a type of biscuit. Granted, English is a difficult language, with its broadly inconsistent vocabulary and inexplicable range of exceptions to the ‘rules’ – but it’s people’s attitudes that have changed. No one cares anymore. Grammar, spelling and punctuation have been demoted in favour of more ‘creative’, extra-curricular learning. The core has crumbled.

It’s difficult to point a finger at one defining reason for this, but certain aspects of modern society haven’t helped. Such as social media. The internet has been great for education, but with it came a new breed of informal language that has leaked into our writing. The problem with emails and social platforms like Facebook and Twitter is that they’ve introduced a new middle ground – they’ve made it acceptable to write in the same way that someone would speak. And this is slowly filtering through to all mediums of writing.

Social media isn’t solely to blame, but it’s an example of how society is taking a more relaxed approach to written communication. In the last year or so I’ve seen countless errors in important written correspondence (such as a doctor’s letter, mortgage paperwork and insurance policies) that I’m confident would never have occurred 30, 20 or even 10 years ago.

I’m not saying we all need to know the advanced principles of grammar (unless heading for a career in linguistics), but basic spelling and sentence structure is important – in the same way that we don’t all need to understand complex algebra, but should know how to add up.

I really feel that big companies in the public eye have a responsibility here, too. If you’re going to blitz the world with your brand and promotion, remember that our younger generations will be seeing it and taking it in (whether they want to or not). We all know how powerful advertising can be, so think about the consequences if you get something wrong – you’re teaching them that, too. It amazes me what gets through the proofing stages these days.

As if to prove my point, ASOS was in the news recently for this blunder. How many people did those plastic bags go through for no one to notice ‘online’ was spelled ‘onilne’? The fact that BBC News referred to ASOS as a ‘victim of a branding spelling mistake’ (as if an elf put it there!) seems only to confirm this detachment and lack of responsibility when it comes to expressing things correctly.