Get stuffed, sunshine

Theodore Dalrymple on why swearing has become chic among the middle classes
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IN 1936, Robert Graves published a little book called The Future of Swearing and Improper Language. He noted a recent decline in the use of foul language by the English, and predicted that this decline would continue indefinitely, until foul language had all but disappeared from the average man's vocabulary. History has not borne him out, to say the least: indeed, I have known economists make more accurate predictions.

Still, bad language retains its power to upset and shock at least a proportion of the population. Richard Branson, the greatest (indeed the only) hero of the age, found himself constrained to apologise last week for his repeated use over the radio of the verb to "fuck up" in connection with the inability of his railway company to deliver delegates to the Labour Party Conference at Blackpool on time. It's one thing for our rulers' trains to be late, and for ministers to be kept waiting on station platforms, but another for the owner of the trains to swear in public.

At first sight, such resort by so eminent a person to the most vernacular of vernaculars seems almost disarmingly open and honest. On closer inspection, however, it is a clever disguise for saying nothing at all. As a frequent victim myself of the unpunctuality of Mr Branson's trains, I can see little difference in substance between his "we fucked up" and the more polite, but equally empty, excuses generally offered over the platform public address system for the failure of the scheduled train to arrive, such as that the delay is due to operational problems or to its late departure from the previous station. What in him appears like candour is actually nothing of the sort. Mr Branson's remarks were coarse in form but bland in content.

There is no doubt, however, that despite Mr Branson's more or less forced apology, swearing is now more socially acceptable than it was not very long ago. My own language has coarsened considerably; and now, when I drop or lose something, I let loose an expletive upon the world that in my childhood I should have blushed to hear, let alone to use. Indeed, I recall the day at the end of the 1950s when I informed my mother (who still went shopping in gloves) that I had overheard my brother had used the word "fuck". He received a stern talking-to as a result, and I experienced the joys of righteous indignation and doing a bad turn to someone else at the same time. Revenge, however, was swift: my brother informed my mother of my deepest foray hitherto into the world of human wickedness, namely the theft of a penny bar of chocolate from Mrs Marks's corner shop.

Not only is swearing more widespread and acceptable than it was, but it is learnt earlier in life. Astonishing as it may now seem, I remember as a child standing in a football crowd with a friend of my own age and hearing a man upbraided by the people around him for his use of bad language in our presence. Women's ears were also generally regarded as too delicate to withstand coarse expressions, a point of view now regarded as intolerably sexist.

Children now learn to swear so early in life that I sometimes wonder whether four-letter words are among the first they learn. Certainly they are among the first they hear. Recently, a mother brought her young child into my office because there was no one to look after him during her consultation. It was the day following his third birthday, and he grew restive as I talked to his mother. He reached up on to my desk for my pen, and his mother told him he couldn't have it. Then he announced that he wanted to play with my telephone, and his mother told him he couldn't do that either. Narrowing his eyes at her and regarding her with a look of concentrated malignity, he said to her: "Well, fuck you."

Parents sometimes seem to forget that children imitate them or take their cues from them. Some years ago I was consulted by a mother about the misconduct of her eight-year-old boy. "Doctor," she complained, her son by her side, "he won't do what he's told, he never sits down, he smashes things, and you should hear his fucking language!" When I remonstrated with her mildly, and pointed out that children tended to use the expressions they heard around them, she exclaimed angrily, "Now listen here, sunshine, I've had just about enough of your lip," and stormed out.

But middle-class language has also become increasingly larded with expressions that in my childhood were still more or less taboo and used, if at all, only in extremis. Why should there have been this change? After all, the expressive content of bad language is almost nil: indeed, it is inversely proportional to the frequency of its employment. An expletive in the mouth of a man who rarely uses one conveys something about his state of feeling; but an expletive in the mouth of someone who can scarcely utter two words without resort to one conveys nothing at all.

I suspect that there is something subliminally ideological about the increase in middle-class swearing. It establishes the swearer as a man (or woman) of the people, in the same way as the glottal stop has now been adopted by people - Tony Blair, for example - to whom it does not necessarily come naturally. Such swearing does not add meaning to the sentence uttered, and certainly it is not an aid to concision. Instead, its function is to declare the person free of the social prejudices of the middle class. It is a badge of belonging.

I witnessed an example of this in Rome airport, after last year's football match between England and Italy. The middle-class woman in front of me at the check-in counter spoke perfectly politely with the received pronunciation to the check-in clerk; but as soon as she rejoined her male football fan friends she resorted not only to the glottal stop but to the liberal use of foul language. Her employment of such language was designed to establish that she was one of the boys.

Among the middle class, especially among its more intellectually inclined members, impurity of language is taken as a symbol of purity of political and social sentiment. It is democratic to swear, and the more one does it, the more democratic one is. The frequent use of bad language demonstrates that one does not aim to set oneself apart culturally from what is assumed to be the great mass of oppressed and suffering humanity. The use of bad language is thus - by implication - an act of compassion and solidarity.

In literary form, bad language has added symbolic advantages. It establishes that the author is not a sentimentalist but a hardened realist; it also establishes that the author writes from a fund of knowledge about the lower depths. This is important, because it is now believed that no one who is without such knowledge can write anything of moral significance.

The problem is that a kind of literary arms race is set up. If bad language means profundity, then more bad language means even greater profundity. The most profound book ever to be written will thus one day consist of 300 pages of Fuck! printed hundreds of times on every page. What diverse meanings could be read into such a work!

Does the widespread use by the middle class of bad language matter much? If it is to be regretted, it is because it is a symptom not only of a certain dishonesty or bad faith (for however much the middle classes sympathise with the suffering and oppressed, they have no intention in reality of joining them or sacrificing anything for them), but of linguistic laziness. A few well-worn expletives available for use on all occasions inhibit verbal inventiveness, disguise true meaning, and turn language into mere formulae.

It remains to the working class to express themselves with rough vigour, as they always have done. The radiator in my room in the hospital broke down not long ago, and the maintenance man came to repair it. He looked at the defunct apparatus and diagnosed the problem at once.

"The fucking fucker's fucking fucked," he said.

He was absolutely right.

The writer is an inner-city doctor.