They say it’s not big and it’s not clever, and that it’s recourse for the lazy and unimaginative. They say it’s offensive, puerile and we should hold our tongues lest we bring about the collapse of civilisation.
It’s true that swearing isn’t for everyone. And perhaps we should feel for those whose joie de vivre is punctured by a few frowned-upon and yet ubiquitous words. It must be exhausting to be so sensitive. It was surely one such delicate soul that came up with the new app, Clean Reader, which allows vulgar language to be removed from ebooks, regardless of whether the writer has given permission. “Read books, not profanity” goes the tag line, as if all literature containing ripe language might have been created with the intention of causing offence.
But that is to miss the point of language and its possibilities, of the visceral impact of words and the very human desire to challenge the notion of what is acceptable. Used sparingly and creatively, swearing can be beautiful, poetic, sharp and funny.
Imagine what would be left of the books of James Kelman, Irvine Welsh or John Niven were they stripped of expletives. When used in art and literature, four-letter words are often linked to realism. As Kelman once said, it isn’t about being abusive – a lot of the time it’s just how people talk. In Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman, swearing acts as ideological shorthand. In discussing sexism, she says: “You can tell whether some misogynistic societal pressure is being exerted on women by calmly enquiring, ‘And are the men doing this as well?’ If they aren’t, chances are you’re dealing with what we strident feminists refer to as ‘some total f***ing bull****’.”
Similarly, in TV and film, little can compare to a spot of precision-tooled swearing. Just look at The Thick of It and the verbal grenades launched by the king of the profane put-down, Malcolm Tucker (whoever came up with “f***ety-bye” is a genius). Or Bad Santa, in which the clash of Billy Bob Thornton’s foul-mouthed antihero and the surrounding Christmas cheer reaps infinite comic rewards.
To experience the full majesty of the single, repeated expletive, you may recall the episode of The Wire in which Bunk and McNulty trace the course of a bullet around a crime scene, breaking their silence only to say “f***” 38 times. The scriptwriters might easily have used wordier dialogue (“Golly gosh, McNulty, can you believe the cheek of this fellow?” “By crikey, Bunk, no. It really is beyond the pale”) but it wouldn’t have been so effective.
Of course swearing would be fruitless were there not unspoken rules of decency and acceptability in everyday life. Prudes are a pain but, as the more potty-mouthed among us would do well to remember, less is generally more. Profanity can be powerful so perhaps we should learn to swear cleverly, or not swear at all.