A polite warning for those of you who may find such things offensive – this contains “swear words”.
Lots and lots of them.
If the use of such language does offend you then please just move swiftly on for I don’t want to cause you unnecessary offence.
Still reading? Excellent.
So, just what is it about so-called “bad language” that makes it so unacceptable?
There’s no real logic to any of it.
I mean, for example, why is the word “shit” considered a swear word but “poo” isn’t? They both refer to the exact same thing, so why is one word taboo and the other not?
Why, for that matter, is the word which refers to the most beautiful act any two (or, if so inclined, more) people can indulge in considered to be such a shocking and taboo word? I refer, of course, to the word “fuck”. Why is it so awful a word that we can’t allow it to be said on TV or radio or even in newspapers (although increasingly it can be found post-watershed)? Presumably that one stems from our puritanical obsession with not daring to accept that anything remotely enjoyable can be allowed to occur around sex, which is a whole other discussion for another time.
As many have pointed out elsewhere, the word fuck has become very versatile (no pun intended). It is now one of those rare words which can be a verb, a noun, an adjective, an adverb, an exclamation, an interjection, a participle – its flexibility knows no bounds, it would seem! This is neatly illustrated by the example of the soldier who professed surprise, disappointment and annoyance upon discovering that his gun had ceased to operate in the expected manner – “Fuck! Fucking fucker’s fucking fucked!”. Those 5 words, all forms of fuck, succinctly convey the depth, critical nature and subtleties of his situation in a way no other words can.
Then we come to what is considered to be the most taboo, most offensive word in the English language. So offensive and taboo that it is often too much to even use the word, instead we are reduced to referring to it indirectly. The C word.
The mere mention of the word is enough to send some into fits of apoplexy and in others to induce a massive attack of the vapours. But why? The same effect does not occur if one were to use the word vagina, so why do so many people allow themselves to choose to be offended by the word cunt?
Yes, choose to be offended.
For nobody can make another person feel offended, offence it down to the recipient and the recipient alone. If you try to offend me and choose not to be offended, then absolutely nothing you can say will offend me.
So, as a society we decide that we will actively choose to be offended by arbitrary words. Yet nobody can explain why this is so. Why choose to be offended by those (or any other) words? What benefit does it confer upon you as the recipient to choose to be offended? There must be some benefit otherwise you would not choose to take offence.
Perhaps therein lies the real answer – there are some who enjoy being offended.
Not that there is anything wrong with that per se – if you want to choose to be offended by something, then you go right ahead, I am not going to stand in your way!
But do not expect me to sit by while you then use your self-chosen offence as justification to curtain my or others words. That is where you step over the line.
Especially as those who choose to take offence at these arbitrary words are inconsistent in their application of their choice of offence.
After all, if I were to refer to “the F word”, everyone knows I mean fuck. If I were to write F**k, you would all know that ?I mean Fuck. Yet somehow, even though all three things are the same, and everyone knows they are the same, it is considered OK to write “the F word” or even “F**k” on a newspaper headline, but to place the word “Fuck” there would result in a mass outburst of incoherent rage throughout the country. Why? Because those who choose to take offence are highly inconsistent.
The only reason any of these words have the “power” to shock is because we, each and every one of us, choose to give those words that power.
There is nothing inherent in the words themselves – every single one of them has a number of apparently non-offensive synonyms, so it’s not their meaning which is the problem; every single one of them is made up of letters drawn from the same pool as every other word we use, so it’s not their letters which is the cause.
So if one day we all decided that we were going to choose not to choose to be offended by those words, they would immediately lose all the power we as a society have collectively invested in them. But then again, if we did that then the passive-aggressive would not be able to delight in choosing to take needless offence when people utter certain words. And in so doing, completely miss the point.
For it’s not the words which could be harmful, it’s the intent behind the words which is important. Just as it is common in some circles for people to use “derogatory” words as terms of endearment, so it is entirely possible to say extremely nasty things about someone without using any “bad” language whatsoever; a technique bullies have used to devastating effect since pretty much the dawn of language, yet they get away with it because society still judges by the choice of words rather than the intent behind those words.
Which is why so many people choose to be offended by the use of the word cunt. As neatly illustrated earlier this week when a presenter on Radio 4 was attempting to inform listeners that he would be interviewing “Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary” later in the programme; alas an involuntary attack of Spoonerism resulted in many calls and emails of protest to the radio station, declaring that they did not appreciate hearing THAT word on the radio. Clear proof that the people were choosing to be offended by words rather than by the intent; it was obvious to anyone who had heard it that it was an accident (many have observed an accident just waiting to happen), than no offence to the delicate listeners was intended, yet they still chose to be offended by a simple mistake.
Now, just as earlier I noted the extreme flexibility of the word fuck, so it’s time to note a couple of points about the word cunt.
First, it is a wonderful swear word because you can use it whilst smiling and not moving your lips – you can utter it under your breath and nobody will notice! Most therapeutic. (I like to imagine the Queen using it whilst being forced to smile and wave for hours…)
Second, perhaps one reason it is so popular as a swear word is that due to the plosive nature of the start and end of the word, one can inject a lot of force behind it – ideal for those times when one is using a word as a cry of anger, desperation, anguish or just needs to “get it out of the system”. Cock is a pretty good alternative, but it lacks the real expressive forceful power of the “nt” ending. Count and can’t work better in that way, and I know some people who do use those words for that reason – with the added benefit that it annoys those who choose to be offended when it is pointed out that the word uttered was in fact “count” and perhaps they ought to listen more carefully in future.
As with many things, if you ignore swearing, if you rob it of any power over you, then it tends to disappear. If someone uses swearing because they like the effect it has on people, only to discover that nobody notices it, then they’ll quickly give up. Like if a child uses a swear word at the dinner table – ignore it and that’ll be the end of it; make a big scene and all you’ve done is hand them the perfect way to get a rise out of you any time they like – YOU have just given them tremendous power over you!
So let’s forget this nonsensical idea that a group of letters is somehow offensive, let’s own up to the fact that it is only offensive if we choose to take offence, and let’s all just get on with life.
Swearing has a very valid place in life – if you smash your thumb with a hammer then “Ooops” isn’t going to express your feelings at that point! Oh yes, researchers have discovered that those who use swear words in such circumstances actually feel the pain less as a result.