The editor of the new Lonely Planet guide to London has warned visitors to be prepared to have their sensitivities assaulted. We’re all swearing like troopers. We’re dumbstruck without the F-word, she says. And she’s right. Swearing in public is definitely on the increase. There are few people now who, when dropping a frozen chicken on their big toe, could satisfy themselves with my late mother’s restrained, “Oh, blast.” Or George Bush’s preferred, “Aw, heck.”
The nature of swearing has changed over the years. The balance has tipped between the blasphemous and the obscene. I grew up in a household, religious in that typically middle-class, glass-of-sherry, C of E way, where it was almost more acceptable to say “fuck” than “Jesus”. Although the biggest obscenity in my teenage life would have been to call the loo the toilet.
Because the point of swearing, rather lost these days in the flurry of overuse, is to crash taboos and create offence. As religion took a less prominent role in most people’s lives, blasphemy in western Europe became a far less effective tool for bringing a flush of anger to grown-ups’ cheeks. Sex took over and obscenity became the new shocker. Although Muslims, it has to be said, don’t go a bundle on either. And different cultures swear in different ways depending on their hang-ups. Europe is big on the genito-urinary, whereas in Catholic countries they tend to major in mothers, whores and illegitimacy. And, for reasons that might make one nervous of taking a pet to the Balkans, the Slavs use a lot of animals.
What has changed is the way we have taken the private language of frustration and abuse and made it a feature of everyday inarticulacy. In the 80s, I was once at the bottom of a comedy bill that starred Alexei Sayle at the City Varieties in Leeds. The old stage manager hated the swearing on stage. To him it was utterly unacceptable. Yet, as he stood at the side complaining, a cack-handed stage-hand struggled across the rig above us and dropped a screwdriver. Without drawing breath, the old stage manager seamlessly interrupted his rant against Alexei’s swearing by yelling at the kid, “Mind what you’re fucking doing”
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