Wednesday, September 18, 2013

How Very Interesting. You're a True Vulgarian, Aren't You?


Melissa Mohr comes right out with it on the title page of her history of swearing, though the dust-jacket chastely presents the book as Holy Sh*t. Her argument is straightforward. It is that there are two main sources of bad language. One is the holy, which encompasses making oaths in the name of God or parts of his body, such as ‘by God’s wounds’, which later became ‘zounds’, and which George Farquhar in 1699 describes being comically gentrified into ‘zauns’. The other is the shit, which encompasses taboo bodily activities from buggery and beyond to the child’s favourite ‘poo’. In different periods, she argues, either the holy or the shit is the prime source of obscenity.

...She also speculates that future swear words will probably come from some of the milder taboo areas in modern life, such as death and disability. Should we be quite so cheery about swearing or its future? Swear words and oaths often gain their expletive force from the circumstances in which they are uttered. The badness of saying ‘whore’ or ‘God’s wounds’ or ‘bastard’ depends on who you say it to and why – as Queen Elizabeth I’s lord deputy in Ireland Sir John Perrot discovered when his secretary told on him for saying ‘God’s wounds, this it is to serve a base bastard pissing kitchen woman.’ Oaths can carry their potential to hurt or shock into normal conversation, which is why they can be used simply as intensifiers. Maybe we should just say ‘what the hell’ (or the expletive of our choice) and let this happen, because it does happen and will happen. But it isn’t simply prudish to reflect on the dangers of being foul. Many of us now liberally sprinkle our language with words that show we have a liberal attitude to sex and to bodily functions. But words grounded in racial difference (‘pikey’, ‘yid’, ‘paki’) are generally regarded as toxic. The offensive force of those words crucially depends on who says them to whom. Terms of racial and sexual abuse can and do work their way out of their nasty little corners despite the efforts of the law and social propriety to contain them. They are the most likely sources of future bad language.