I love to swear. At least, I thought I did but I have recently realised that all I really do is use a limited number of brisk, age-appropriate adjectives.
Wikipedia defines a swear word as one that “is generally considered in society to be strongly impolite, rude, or offensive.” Clearly, this is not an absolute but will depend upon prevailing mores and attitudes.
I can remember the first time I mentally used the word “fuck”. I was fourteen years old (I’m a convent girl. Some things we do sooner, some things we do later). At the time, the mere thought made me blush and it was to be another good few years before I said the word out loud. Now, of course, I use it to punctuate. I’m far from alone. “Fuck” has become the new “flip”. My Saturday newspaper is peppered with it, most weeks.
I have a bit more trouble with the word “cunt” but even that is fast losing its bite, even if it’s not yet exactly socially acceptable. “Cunt” is also reclaiming its original anatomical meaning. That’s probably a good thing although there are misogyny issues here that I don’t have room to explore in this article.
Religious epithets are interesting. As an atheist in a mainly secular society, there is no reason at all why I should find their use bothersome. And yet, I do – but only sometimes. For me, I think it’s more a matter of aesthetics. Religious swearing can sound wholly appropriate but, often, it sounds just vulgar, in a way that “proper” swearing somehow doesn’t. I don’t mind being a little brisk but I hate to be vulgar.
So I was always inclined to regard as over-sensitive those gentle souls who are unable to vent their feelings via a pithy, well-chosen clause or two.
But earlier this year, Jeremy Clarkson dropped the n-bomb. My world immediately divided into two. Most people thought that his use of the word was obviously provocative and definitely abhorrent. A few couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I spent a memorable half hour explaining to my seventy seven year old father that Clarkson may not have been actively discriminating against anyone, but in today’s society, the word “nigger”, in and of itself, has become “strongly impolite, rude or offensive” except under very specific circumstances that are beyond my cultural reach.
It made me think. I cannot say the word “nigger”. Can’t actually utter it at any price. I’m acutely uncomfortable now, just typing it once or twice. While I was checking the Clarkson story, I found that respectable websites won’t even print it, they use “n*****”. Who, today, would bother to astericise “fuck”? So, for me (and it seems for many others), “nigger” is now a swear word whereas “fuck”, perhaps, is not. Not any more.
So it turns out, I don’t love to swear at all. Bugger! What do I do now?