WHEN I’m alone, the air is occasionally apt to turn blue. But like most of us, I manage to refrain from swearing in public. Until recent times, this was nothing to write home about. Swearing threatened your membership of polite society. Therefore you willingly submitted to one of the few healthy forms of self-censorship.
Home was a profanity-free zone. I remember the mild shock of overhearing my father, not unreasonably, mutter the s-word to himself when hammer connected with thumb. As far as I know, it was a one-off.
These days, however, evading the f-bomb is an increasingly elusive endeavour. I refer not to the blunt cadences of building site or football pitch, which we can easily avoid, but the inescapable chatter of bus, train, street, café and shop.
Last week, hoping to enjoy a lazy afternoon on the beach, I was forced to up sticks three times owing to the bad language of people nearby. Worse, I was obliged to change seat at a county cricket match for the same reason. (An added harrumph: it was a first-class fixture.) The steward I alerted looked at me quizzically.
Having experienced the barrack-room and numerous sports dressing-rooms, I’m scarcely Disgusted-from-Tunbridge-Wells. Context matters, and Anglo-Saxon words undeniably have their now-you-know-where-I-stand place. They’ve always been with us (swearing first appeared in writing in the 15th century) and always will be.
Royals have sworn in public. A dithering official photographer received some colourful ‘encouragement’ from Prince Philip a few years ago, and the late Queen matter-of-factly used the f-word in a conversation with Brian Blessed. In private, of course, many paragons of virtue have sworn like troopers.
But to the extent that foul language has a coarsening effect on daily life, its growing prevalence is surely regrettable. Hence perhaps it’s time to posit a few tentative theories for this trend. In my case, the grouchiness of advancing years is one immediate possibility. Yet younger friends and family have observed the same phenomenon. The f-word, once the fleeting companion of strong emotion, now peppers the dullest dialogue. As the digital age curtails attention spans and linguistic skills, swearing acts as a spice-adding shortcut. Why bother finessing an attention-grabbing sentence (if you can) when lobbing in a few profanities achieves the same outcome?
The usual malign influences are doubtless at work here: post- and even pre-watershed television; modern mainstream comedy; the dead hand of our race-to-the-bottom state education system. Then there’s the ethnic dimension: rap music brimming with vulgarity, steadily seeping across racial boundaries.
Yet here’s the thing. The ubiquitous ‘WTF’ and its equally boorish derivatives are invariably delivered – with studied nonchalance – by well-educated folk with middle-class accents. For them, swearing advertises their exemption from staid decorum. Besides, they’re often fashionably embarrassed by their country, so why not bring down its native tongue a peg or two?
Political orientation certainly seems to be a factor. A study by academics at Queen Mary University of London found that left-wingers’ penchant for industrial language stems from their heavier emphasis on feelings and ‘expressive’ language generally. The conservative-minded, on the other hand, swear less frequently since they’re more averse to rule-breaking.
For well-heeled lefties, swearing amongst friends is also a form of levelling down, a sort of encoded socialism feigning solidarity with the Great Unwashed. This collusive reverse snobbery says: ‘We’re obviously from privileged backgrounds, so let’s camouflage it a bit.’ Women are equal partners in this. Needless to say, in the age of female ‘empowerment’, cleaving to the ‘patriarchal’ notion that ladies don’t swear invites ridicule (at best).
Ultimately, swearing’s new sway fits into a broader picture: the postmodern war on beauty waged within culture, especially art, literature and architecture. As Samuel Burgess puts it, paraphrasing Edmund Burke: ‘If we want our country to be loved then it ought to be lovely. If we hope to inspire the lofty ideals of duty and patriotism that create social cohesion, we must create a country worthy of those ideals.’
By nurturing the cheapening of our beautiful spoken word, left-wingers have made the values Burke championed less recoverable. But beauty cannot be suppressed for ever because, as the ancients observed, it is inextricably linked to goodness, truth and justice.
Cleansing Britain’s Augean stables is by definition a Herculean task. A manageable first step might be for its hordes of champagne swearers to wash their mouths out.