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The pleasures of swearing

Debbi Evans
An ode to swearing, complete with scientific research on why it's good for you and some choice insults

The only excuse for watching professional TV conflict catalyser Jeremy Kyle is to sate a hankering for a good, mouth-filling oath. Bollocks and cocking are two personal favourites, and particularly effective when combined: a staccato punch for the person on the receiving end of this satisfying epithet. (Try it – it’s very effective.) My landlord, however, does not approve; he refers to me only as “the swearing lady”.

But as far as I’m concerned, if you ain’t swearing’, you ain’t livin’ – and don’t just take my dirty words for it. That reliable liberal go-to, Stephen Fry, has referred to the practice as one of life’s great pleasures, and even Queen Elizabeth I was a fan – a fact that led one contemporary to describe her as “more than a man and sometimes less than a woman”.

In his brilliantly researched book on the subject, Geoffrey Hughes deems swearing an act worthy of a noblewoman, and the sheer creativity required – which spawned such choice requests as “kiss the cunt of a cow” in the Elizabethan era – does indeed command respect. In Victorian England, linguists would tour working-class areas to gather examples of “lower register” language, ostensibly for moral purposes.

Although the resulting tomes proved curiously popular in high-society circles. In an oft-repeated anecdote, Samuel Johnson, a great swearer in private, responded thus to two women who’d praised the lack of obscenities in the dictionary: “What, madam, then you have been looking for them?!”

In defence of offence

There are no rules to swearing – it’s not taught in schools (well, not officially) so isn’t subject to the same rigid structures and conditions of grammar and prose. Instead, it is wordplay of the most exquisitely imaginative kind. Peter Capaldi, the actor and creator of everyone’s favourite foul-mouthed grump, The Thick Of It‘s Malcolm Tucker, has a swearing script consultant. It would seem that few besides Shakespeare could pull off that kind of language unassisted.

Apparently, the real reason swearing continues to offend, according to neuroscientist Steven Pinker, is that it’s impossible to hear a curse without visualising the accompanying imagery: “It’s the act of forcing a disagreeable thought on someone.”

And why would you want to do this? Well, there comes a time when timid euphemisms will no longer suffice. Swearing is the heat-seeking missive to life’s platitude-filled letter of condolence. The point is… it’s fucking effective.

In 2009, Scientific American reported that swearing might even alleviate pain. A group of students at Keele University were made to sit with their hands in a bowl of iced water. Those swearing for the duration were able to withstand it for considerably longer than those who weren’t. So the next time you scream “BASTARD SHITTING SPUNKMONKEY!” when an ambling tourist’s wheelie bag does you an injury, you can feel medically justified in doing so.

The only downside, of course, is that frequent swearing will lessen the words’ effectiveness – a bit like the overuse of analgesics. Even Germaine Greer, who in the 1960s told women to reclaim the word “cunt” from the mouths of the patriarchy, has now decided it’s “a word of immense power, to be used sparingly.”

So, don’t be a dick – save some swearing for special occasions.


Queen Elizabeth I was a fan - a fact that led one contemporary to describe her as "more than a man and sometimes less than a woman"



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