Like many working class people I swear quite a lot. A linguist might say that it has become part of my idiolect. The same could be said of my family and friends (or some of them at least). I don’t believe this demeans them or myself in any way and do not believe anyone else has the right to judge this. In fact, I have always felt that swearing is a perfectly legitimate response to much of what goes on in the world. Injustice and hypocrisy tend to make me swear – and these days I find myself swearing a lot.
Many people would criticise our swearing as betraying a poor intellect but that has never really held water. People I count among my friends who swear as a part of their everyday communications include teachers, linguists and academics as well as postal and telecoms workers – none of whom I would consider to have a “poor intellect” (a term that I would contest anyway – if a bad workman blames his tools then a poor education system blames its students).
Linguists argue that swearing is universal, that every language or dialect ever studied has a group of taboo words. They argue that taboo language tends to reflect a culture’s fears or obsessions. So some cultures might have swear words referring to sex and bodily functions where others might focus on religion. Patriarchal societies might focus on the “purity” or “honour” of women or their genitalia.
Historically the concept of a swear word or an oath comes from the importance that ancient cultures placed on swearing by the name of a god or gods. People believed that swearing falsely in a god’s name would bring their wrath down upon them. Of course one of the ten commandments was not to take the Lord’s name in vain and even today witnesses in court swear on the Bible that they are telling the truth. However, throughout history, many people have sought to educate or force people to stop swearing. The Bible (Leviticus 24:13-16) reports that God instructed Moses to, “Take the blasphemer outside the camp. All those who heard him are to lay their hands on his head, and the entire assembly is to stone him. Say to the Israelites: ‘If anyone curses his God, he will be held responsible; anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord must be put to death. The entire assembly must stone him.” For centuries blasphemy was dealt with under Canon Law but during the 16th and 17th Century it was increasingly dealt with under common law. The jurist, Sir Mathew Hale said, “wicked blasphemous words were not only an offence to God and religion, but a crime against the laws, State and Government, and therefore to reproach the Christian religion is to speak in subversion of the law.” The last person hanged for blasphemy in Great Britain was Thomas Aikenhead in 1697 but those advocating wealth redistribution were often found themselves accused of blasphemy such as James Naylor, a quaker and opponent of enclosure and slavery who found himself convicted of blasphemy by the Second Protectorate Parliament, whipped and pilloried, branded with the letter B on his forehead, had his tongue pierced with a hot iron and convicted to two years hard labor.
During the 17th and 18th centuries the use of ‘civilised’ language became an important signifier of one’s social position. As the wealthy were more able to eschew communal living for privacy the notion of bodily functions being obscene became more commonplace – especially as a way for the middle classes to differentiate themselves the working class. As part of their gentrification the middle classes sought to become the moral guardians of the working classes. Religious and moral societies such as the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and the Society for the Reformation of Manners (SRM) campaigned for their versions of moral decency to be enforced by law. By the 19th Century this had reached such extreme proportions as to slip into self-parody with even trousers being referred to as “inexpressibles”. Attempts to police language came from both sides of the political spectrum. Trotsky took the Russian workers to task for their culture of swearing and argued that, “Abusive language and swearing are a legacy of slavery, humiliation, and disrespect for human dignity, one’s own and that of other people.” As Mary Whitehouse saw it, “Bad language coarsens the whole quality of our life. It normalises harsh, often indecent language, which despoils our communication.” Whitehouse saw this as part of a wider crusade against sex and violence – although interestingly she criticised news coverage of war as “an ally of pacifism.” Art too has often been a battleground over taboos. From Shelly to the Surrealists, to Lenny Bruce to the Sex Pistols to NWA, artists, poets, musicians and comedians have been targeted as short-hand for a wider moral decline. This has continued throughout the 19th and 20th Century into the 21st. Recently in clampdowns against “antisocial behaviour” council’s have sought to ban swearing in public, even threatening tenants with eviction if found guilty.
The fact that this attempted censorship has continued over hundreds of years is clear evidence that all of them have failed – as self-appointed arbiters of culture are bound to do. This much was predicted in 1746 by A. Gentleman in the pamphlet A Short And Modest Vindication Of The Common Practice Of Cursing And Swearing,
“It is well known to all who are conversant with the history and manners of the English nation, that swearing and cursing hath been constantly and uninterruptedly practised by this People, from time immemorial: and it is equally notorious how tenacious they are of their customs and privileges.”
Or in other words, “Who the fuck are you to tell us how to speak?!”
Euphemisms for swearing such as “Industrial language” or “Anglo-saxon”, although pejorative generalisations, also identify swearing as deeply embedded in class and culture. Researchers suggest, in addition to being a term of abuse or signifier of aggression it is also used to convey additional emphasis, to convey disapproval and to signify otherness from the dominant social group who have the power to define acceptability. You could argue that this is at the heart of much working class swearing. Subsequently swearing can also convey acceptance; people no longer treating you as a stranger but instead adopting the looser more informal language of friendship. The point about friendship is important because the point of friendship is that you open up a bit, sharing more of ourselves. It involves more relaxed forms of speech – which in my case means swearing. It is a sign of acceptance – although if I know someone doesn’t like swearing I try to avoid swearing as a courtesy to them. I don’t find it difficult to stop swearing. I do however find it an unwarranted and judgemental restriction on my free expression so I have no urge to give in to the censorship of others.
As one of the great victims of censorship, Lenny Bruce said, “If you take away the right to say Fuck, you take away the right to say Fuck the Government.” It is true that censorship of language has always gone hand in hand with the censorship of ideas. At the most fundamental level the drive to censor language, to prevent swearing, is one group of people assuming sovereignty over your tongue, over the words you say – and ultimately over the ideas you express. This censorship is infinitely more aggressive than the swearing itself. Likewise swearing is nowhere near as corrupting of children as the commercialisation and gender stereotyping of childhood which we are faced with everyday. In fact I think it would be far preferable for a little girl to tell Next or Gap or whoever where to stick their fucking Playboy shit!
Prohibitions on swearing are about power. The power to define what is and isn’t acceptable. Church, State and Mary Whitehouse – even good old Trotsky will claim they are doing it for your own good – and in doing so inflict their violence on you. So for many people swearing becomes about reclaiming for yourself what you find acceptable or not.