Hagen Engler. Picture: Supplied
Besides my seven-year-old daughter, I don’t know anyone who’s really offended by swearing.
Most people I know, whether that is the reality or not, have this idea of themselves as unpretentious salt-of-the-earth mavericks who swear at will and don’t care whom they offend.
While this is a great, independent attitude to cultivate, further investigation will reveal that none are really like this.
When we say swearing doesn’t offend us, what we are really saying is, “The swearwords that don’t offend me, don’t offend me.”
What my sweary mates are probably saying is that they say “fuck” a lot. They certainly don’t mind the odd “shit”, and they will certainly branch out into c-words and p-words if the occasion calls for it.
This is brilliant. Nice and edgy. But all that is happening here is that social values have moved on, and the words that were offensive a generation ago are now more acceptable.
We now have a chance to utter the naughty words that might have got us a smack from our mom if we said them in the queue at Checkers. This is not really as rebellious, iconoclastic or defiant of social conventions as it might seem.
This is because the other shift that has happened in social mores is that slurs referring to race, class, culture or sexual orientation are now deemed more offensive than ever. This is probably a good thing. But so offensive are these words that we dare not even classify them as swearwords. They’re slurs and epithets! Worthy of a trip to the Human Rights Commission!
Now I’m not for a moment saying we should be able drop k-bombs on each other at will. Merely pointing out a cultural shift.
There was a time, a century or two ago, when religion was sacrosanct. Parts of the body too, as well as bodily fluids. They therefore became the provenance of our most offensive swearwords. But today, my seven-year-old doesn’t even stop her TikTok for a stray “oh my god”. And I’m pretty sure she is the most hardline anti-swearer this side of a seminary.
Today, we’re more secular. But now it is identity that is sacrosanct. To cast a slur upon someone’s identity is to commit the most egregious sin against contemporary mores and values. We can get away with a Jeezes in most place. A poo, too. But an n-word? A slur against gay people? Fuck no!
The excellent writer Peter Singleton addresses many of these issues in his book Filthy English, which I recommend to everyone swearing inclined.
Swearing using the rehabilitated words once so viscerally offensive in the past is cathartic, and it helps language evolve. But you don’t want to be ahead of the curve, using words that are still unacceptable to society at large.
Swearing also carries class markers. It can indicate privilege. Who can get away with swearing, and who cannot? In a service relationship, perhaps the client can swear, but for the supplier to swear might be too familiar. For managers to swear is charming. For workers to do so might be fireable.
All of this we know. We instinctively navigate the swearing landscape, knowing when we can swear and when not. For a paper cut at the office, a quick “fuck” is perfectly acceptable. When taking an unclear brief, not so much.
Swearing limitations are one of the guard rails of language, a reference point, a control mechanism that tells us, “This far, but no further.” The guard rail shifts over time, and we are allowed to use more words, sometimes fewer.
But whatever these words are, swearing knows many things, and it knows this: Words have power.
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