Monday, September 21, 2009

Them Bleedin' Cuss Words

[This post is rather long, and contains a lot of swear words, albeit used in a context of analysis (if you wish to call it that) rather than for shock value or any other reason. However, if these words offend you greatly, please avoid. None of the following is particularly original either, but the opinions are ones that I've been casually musing about for some time now. All comments, whether yea or nay, are welcome.]
I was in work recently and half-listening to two people nearby chatting about this and that, when I started to notice that one of them, a middle-aged guy, was swearing continuously. But not in a dramatic or emphatic fashion - he wasn't discussing a stirring event in his life - but used simply as pointless adjectives. "So I went down to the f****n shop to buy a f****n paper, right, and I met this f****n guy I knew..." and so on and so on. I found that it began to bother me, because it coloured his entire discourse with an ugliness which was both unpleasant to listen to and wholly extraneous. Of course, if I had said this, he probably would have retorted "What are you talking about?" (or, more likely, "What the f*** are you talking about?"). The following is my response (a rather excessive example of l'esprit d'escalier, methinks!).
I've been thinking a lot recently about language, and swearing in particular. Or whatever you want to call it: cursing, vulgar/foul/bad/coarse/obscene language, four-letter words, expletives, profanity, et cetera. Essentially, I mean words derived from bodily parts or functions that are unlikely to be used on children's TV or in a church sermon. Such words are commonplace in our society these days, and tend to proliferate in certain circles of the Irish bloggoverse like nettles. Some people dislike them, while others seem to feel that liberally peppering the stew of your speech with cuss words is part of what makes us Irish so wonderfully irreverent and cheeky. It's also tied up in class consciousness; the perception is, it can be argued, that swearing is associated with the working classes because they are coarse, badly educated, and vulgar (but also down-to-earth and unpretentious); while the middle and upper classes traditionally avoid swearing because they're prissy, snooty and repressed, and have Hyacinth Bouquet-style delusions of respectability. It seems to tie into this peculiar horror that so many Irish people have of being seen to be "above" yourself, and that being impolite, brusque and oafish (the Michael O'Leary School of Etiquette) means that you're somehow in touch with the common man and feel no need to put on "airs and graces". I once had an argument with an English English teacher (as in a woman from England who taught English) that the reason that a lot of Irish people swear so much (and we do!) is because they subconsciously wish to deform the language of their oppressors. I do swear myself on occasion, and used to quite frequently when I worked in catering, but then everyone did - it was a way of getting through the evening in a very pressurized and crowded environment. I try not to now, for reasons that I will go through anon.
Obviously, there are times when swearing is entirely understandable. For example, you are out in your dusty garden shed reaching for the shovel when you accidentally fall against the rickety leg of a overladen set of shelves, and the entire structure collapses, bombarding you with paint tins, bottles, boxes of nails, and other sundry junk before a two-litre drum of creosote you hadn't sealed properly bursts open and pours all over you like a tarry, glutinous shampoo. You stumble to your feet like an extra from Dawn of the Dead and lurch out the door of the shed, trip over the aforementioned shovel, and fall headlong on to your future mother-in-law's Pekinese, which has just trotted into your yard to alert you of the arrival of your fiancee's parents, who've held you in contempt ever since you fell in their door blind drunk one night and threw up on their expensive imported carpet. Glued to you by the creosote, the Pekinese begins to howl like the damned as you try to yank it off your person, and when you do finally dislodge the horrid brute it is with such violence that it hits your mother-in-law's gleamingly white and very expensive trouser-suit like a sticky and wailing cannonball. At this point, it is perfectly acceptable to exclaim: "Oh, bollocks!" However, I dislike excessive (or what you might call wallpaper) swearing for a number of reasons, and it especially bugs me when people write it down.
Let us first put to bed that curious notion, espoused by people who support excessive swearing as being wonderful in every way, that they're only words. This shows a fundamental (and self-serving) misunderstanding of language: words are never "just" words. Words represent real things, and can possess enormous power. If you doubt this, fly over to London and take the tube to Brixton, walk up to the nearest black guy in the street and ask directions to Coldharbour Lane, ending your request with the N-word. You will very quickly discover, as a large and angry mob forms around you, that words can get you injured or even killed. Or, for those not adept at outrunning an enraged mob, call your wife/girlfriend/partner a "c**t" or "b***h" casually, in conversation, and see if she minds (perhaps I'm out of touch with the kids of today, but it's my experience that a lot of women have a problem with these particular epithets if directed at them). Or, on a more highbrow level, I remember reading once that the poet and concentration-camp survivor Paul Celan never once used the German word for "race" (as in ethnicity rather than athletics) in any of his poetry, due to its associations with Nazi ideology. Words can be very powerful indeed, which is all the more reason to treat them with respect...
Part 3
Why do I have a problem with swearing? Firstly, swearing is essentially coarse; these words, derived from bodily functions, are designed to be rough and unpleasant to the ear. I never use the word "f***" in the sense of its proper meaning; I would always say "slept with" or just "was with". But in general I feel that both sex and the toilet, from which all swear words originate, are fundamentally private things that should only be discussed with your nearest and dearest (or a doctor if needs be). I'm definitely not a prude as regards bodily functions, which neither bother me nor interest me, but I certainly do not wish to have my attention drawn to those of others. Why should I? They are messy, noisome, and best kept out of sight (especially if you're one of these overfed oafs who boast about the size and effort involved in your bowel movements, as if it's an defining part of your masculinity). My partner was at Electric Picnic last year and was both surprised and disgusted by the amount of Irish guys who'd whip out the chap and urinate in public, often right in front of her. Her point was that it's unhygienic, thoughtless and ignorant. I believe this view is shared by a lot of people, especially women (who tend to be more circumspect in these matters for obvious reasons), so surely common courtesy (seemingly a foreign concept in this brutish land) should dictate that you try to avoid offending people's sensibilities needlessly. Of course, in the privacy of their own homes (or on their blogs) people can roar on all day and all night about what comes out of them, urinate in their kitchen floors, and frame their turds on the mantelpiece if they wish, but in public such behaviour (or discussion of it) is entirely unnecessary.
Secondly, it's more often than not entirely extraneous. I would also say that, for a lot of people, prefixing words with "f*****" has become a habit, in the same way that teenage girls use "like" ("I was so, like, annoyed with this guy, like..." (or whatever)). Most swear words that you hear in public are not being used to describe what they were intended to describe; when they are not being used abusively, they are used as a pointless substitute for other words, or as an entirely irrelevant form of garnish. "I was going down the f****** shops and I passed by this f****** s***hole of a f****** pub. The guy who owns it is a right c***" and so forth. What do these words add to this sentence? Nothing: they don't make it more colourful or exciting or dramatic, but they do make it uglier. And isn't the world ugly and brutish enough? Listen, if you will, to the following video.

I get very tired of Connolly's continuous use of the word "f***", primarily because his material is so weak that it comes across as a desperate attempt by a self-impressed but uninspired comedian to make himself sound edgy and outrageous. It comes across as forced, but once you notice how ugly it sounds, it becomes unbearable, primarily because it’s so unnecessary. The sense of his discourse would not change one iota if you simply tweezed all the swearing out. But swearing, in this instance, is also a way of showing how unconcerned you are with social mores; like smoking, getting wrecked on cider and drugs, and listening to the music of [fill in the blank] it's thumbing your nose at respectability, and demonstrating how much of a rebel you are. You're just another celeb now, Billy, so stop pretending you're an angry young man! "I might be rich and famous, and a pillar of the Establishment I once professed to despise, but deep down I'm still an anarchist at heart! Listen to how f***** irreverent I am!" But, crucially, in addition to being extraneous, it also adds a strong sense of aggression to his performance, one of the other things I dislike about swearing. If I can once again test your patience, watch the following Connolly video (back when he was a lot funnier):

I remember that at one stage I had a temperamental video player, which would most often act up when I'd fallen in from work in the middle of the night and wanted nothing more than to watch something I'd taped earlier to chill out. I'd pop the cassette into the machine, and it'd spit it out. I'd pop the cassette into the machine, and it'd spit it out. I'd pop the cassette into the machine, and it'd spit it out. I'd pop the cassette into the machine, and it'd spit it out. This could happen up to thirty times before it'd accept the tape. By this stage I was gibbering and screaming like a psychotic on steroids, shrieking foul-mouthed abuse at this infuriating piece of equipment. It was therapeutic, though, and better than breaking the bloody thing. However, as said before, it points to a key feature of swearing: it is often an accompaniment to heightened passions, especially aggression. If you watch a film like GoodFellas or Glengarry Glen Ross (the scene with Alec Baldwin in particular) it's clear how the non-stop swearing is a major factor in increasing the film's underlying sense of threat and anger, the way it is used as a non-physical form of violence. Watch the following, and see how the swearing increases the temperature of this rather odd scene:

But a problem arises when swearing is used continually, especially in writing. Not all swearing is meant aggressively, but without facial or other cues it can come across as unnecessarily belligerent and confrontational. This may be your intent - you may be a belligerent and confrontational person, whose idea of debate is shouting your opponent down with insults rather than dealing with the substance of their argument - but I certainly find it wearing. Too often "belligerent and confrontational" can mean "bullying and abusive"! I hate confrontation, dislike raising my voice, and view argument as a way of pleasantly discussing ideas rather than competitively scoring points off the other person. But swearing also has the effect of diminishing the power of anything serious that a person writes, by reducing the impression that they are in control of their emotions and transforming their argument into a rant. And I am so tired of reading rants! Some bloggers obviously believe that it makes them sound uncompromising and hard-hitting, that it adds to the force and immediacy of their writing, but I would argue that it does the opposite. A quiet, calm, controlled voice always carries more gravitas in an argument than the swearing ranter! Of course, as said earlier, the occasional swear word, judiciously inserted, can pack quite a punch, but an unremitting barrage just becomes tiresome. Brian Aldiss once compared horror to salt: wonderful as a seasoning, but indigestible as a banquet. The same applies to swearing, in my opinion. Unless you're the sort of person who believes that statements like "Brian Cowen is a fat c***" are the height of political satire, this kind of abusive, foul-mouthed "commentary as entertainment" (a phrase I heard on the radio recently) comes across as diatribes pandering to an immature audience rather than being the challenging, daring analysis their creators imagine them to be. And, as I said before, isn't the world ugly enough, that we should try and avoid making it uglier with our language?

At this stage one one may hear the phrase "freedom of speech" come looming into view. "Why shouldn't I be free to say whatever I want?" shouts the inveterate swearer. Well, bearing in mind that you're not free to say whatever you want - make a slur on a public figure without facts to back it up and m'learned friends will give you an expensive demonstration of this - there is also the question, as I said earlier, of simple courtesy. I'm not saying that people should be prohibited from swearing by law, but that in a public place the hoary old concept of respect for others should be exercised. In the same way that a person shouldn't play their stereo too loud in an apartment, because those living downstairs have a right to peace and quiet, so a thoughtful person shouldn't swear in public, because people who dislike swearing should not have to listen to it. Seeing as swearing is, as pointed out above, usually extraneous to conversation in any case, this shouldn't be too hard. In my case, I would never swear in front of strangers or children, and try to avoid using such language altogether unless the person I'm with approves of it. It's not prissy, or prudish, or repressed, nor am I embued with a "superstitious" fear of certain words. I just believe in good manners, in trying to use language properly, and I'm sorry to say that this is a concept upon which a lot of my countrymen (and women) seem to place no value.


jams o donnell said...

I find excessive swearing off putting. On the other hand the sound my octogenarian Corkonian father swearing in a sing song accent that has barely dimmed despite not living in his home city since 1941.. it is almost poetical, but then that's the Cork accent for you I suppose!

A Doubtful Egg said...

Sorry for not replying before now, but I've been a bit under the weather. The above was just something I needed to get off my chest...

Claudia said...

The only 'Cuss Word' I adopted from my Irish-British Ex (who had an extremely rich vocabulary in that area) is bloody. And I can't, for the love of God, get rid of the bloody word. It comes out at the most inappropriate time, when I'm in good society and should behave accordingly.

I strongly agree with you that swearing is totally distasteful. When I first heard those words, I knew very little English. And, when looking in the dictionary for their meaning, I would be aghast at what they would imply. Not that the French are sinless, of course. But somehow merde sounds far more aristocratic than shit.

I've been very blessed that my two sons, having been exposed to their father's language from infancy to teenaged years, have seldom used any of those expressions. They always had a great dislike to the F...word. It could be a copy of my own reaction when it was thrown at me, on many occasions.

I have problems appreciating movies and books where the word is excessively used, even if it's done for authenticity.

Good manners is not only to smell good and wear decent clothes when in public. It's also not to pollute the atmosphere with dirt-related words.

A good post. As always.

A Doubtful Egg said...

Thanks Claudia. And I must admit a great fondness for 'bloody' myself (usually "what's that bloody dog done now?!" in our house!) I also like 'damn and blast!' and 'curses!' (although I must admit that I can swear a blue streak if provoked (again, often by the above-mentioned dog) but I genuinely try not to.) As I said, if people want to swear like pirates in their own homes, more power to them, but I'd prefer if public spaces were free of it...

Claudia said...

Dear Egg,
May I tell you (with laughter) that I wish I could hear you swear a blue streak, at least once. I live in a building for Seniors. It's very nice but it can be quite boring, and starchy at times. And if you were to ask me do I ever miss my children's father, I would say, "Just sometimes his language." He was an ex-British Navy man. And he certainly added colour to life. As you say so well, it's only in public (and also for me, in Art) that continuous swearing becomes irritating and off putting.

A Doubtful Egg said...

Claudia, if you're ever in Ireland, pop down to Chez Doubtful on a day when the dog has torn asunder one of my drawings (as he did once) and my language would make your ears sizzle. Otherwise, my innate politeness (especially toward those older than me) would restrain my tongue!