Warning: contains coarse offensive language!
These days we aren’t as shocked as we once were when someone drops the F-bomb. I think we’ve just got used to what we usually refer to as bad language.
I’m in danger of lapsing into one of those scenes so typical of the older generation: You know them. The sort of thing that starts with an old bat saying, ‘When I was young…’ But there’s no denying it was a different world. Do you remember how the newspaper used to headline such things as ‘The Filth and The Fury’? That was when the Daily Mirror blasted the Sex Pistols for their language in 1977? Or what about the infamous December 1976 Bill Grundy interview where the interviewer goaded Johnny Rotten into using the F-word on TV ‘for only the third time in the history of British Television’. You could hear pearls being clutched for miles around. There was public outrage. Or so we are told. Middle-aged people all over the country shook their heads over the decline of social morals and called for national service to come back. I privately thought, so what? But I then was a teenager, and I think most teens probably thought the same. Does anyone remember Mary Whitehouse and her campaign to clean up Britain? She wanted to rid the country of filth. She said references to sex were ‘dirty’, and bad language was disgusting. (She was perfectly lampooned in an episode of the detective TV series, Endeavour.)
And yes, I know that naughty words are as old as the Ark. No doubt some of them sprang from that time. Can you imagine trying to herd a bunch of animals into a boat and getting poo on your foot or a slobbery tongue in your face and NOT swearing? I know I would have had a few choice words to say. Probably, ‘Stop mucking about you idiots, and get on the f-ing boat, I’m getting wet here.’
Chaucer and Shakespeare used their own versions of our modern insults and foul words, and paved the way for colourful terms to enter everyday English. These greatly enriched our approach to incidents, frustrations, injuries, and annoyances that require relief through a vigorous use of very expressive language. Because apparently, studies have shown that swearing relieves stress and enables us to cope in stressful situations. I know it helps me.
I should just add, in Britain we call it swearing. That is using bad language. Not making an oath in a court. That’s a whole different kind of swearing. No, I’m talking here about what in America, is often called cursing. But you could call it blaspheming (possibly), using expletives, foul language, or as we say in Britain ‘Effing and Blinding’, (a euphemism for saying Fuck and Bloody), the term for this is using a ‘minced oath’ or ‘minced words’ – to take a profanity and adapt it to render it less offensive. We use this in everyday speech when we say of someone ‘They don’t mince their words’, which basically means, they are extremely forthright in what they say, usually offensively so. Some examples of minced oaths: Feck, Blooming/Flipping Heck, Oh Shoot, Darn it, etc.
While we’re discussing the differences between the US and the UK, let me just say this: Bloody was not traditionally a mild swear-word. I’ve seen blog posts and social media stuff where they ‘define’ certain English words and they always say ‘Bloody’ in England is the same as ‘Damn’ in America. That’s just not true. It used to be the third worst word you could say when I was a kid, and its use would certainly bring a very stiff penalty in terms of punishment both at home and at school. It’s not mild. Or rather, it’s only mild in comparison with the F-bomb and C-word. It used to be fairly normal to have one’s mouth washed out with soap if using these words. It would make you vomit – obviously – and was definitely a very unpleasant experience designed to make you think twice about using bad language again. Usually the threat of it was enough to make you reconsider your choice of
Now in my contemporary trilogy, the Friendship Can Be Murder books, there’s a fair bit of this kind of bad language. We see it in society, it’s used all around us. And it’s used as much by the well-to-do, like my ‘heroine’, Cressida Barker-Powell, as by people from other walks of life. So my contemporary books had to reflect the world they are set in, for me at least, to make the characters seem more real, more natural and believable.
But when it came to writing my 1930s murder mysteries, the Dottie Manderson mysteries, that was a whole different bag of fish. Or is that a different kettle of cats??? Because the Dottie Manderson books are far more polite, more traditional, almost qualifying for the ‘clean’ subgenre of the mystery or romance categories.
Now I know—I guess we all know—that the kind of language we hear today all around us, was not all that different back then in the 1930s. But there were several provisos: it was not ‘ladylike’ to use bad language; there was still the strong paternalistic, protective culture of ‘Ladies’ present’, which meant, guys, mind your language; and then there was a much stronger emphasis on politeness, being conventional, being acceptable and so on. Bad language in public in particular was far less common and just not socially acceptable.
So in my Dottie books, I stick with tried and trusted old favourites such as ‘blast’, ‘bother’, (my mother’s favourite; Oh botheration!’), ‘Good Lord’: you couldn’t say Good God except in cases of sincere anxiety or shock as it was believed to be, ‘taking the name of the Lord in vain’. Or there are always My Goodness, and What on Earth… to fall back on. I love some of the very mild exclamations of that era, such as ‘Well I’ll eat my hat’ or ‘Well I’ll go to the foot of our stairs’ – completely meaningless and bizarre words! Only very occasionally do I permit a gentleman to say Bloody in a moment of anger. Even then, he’ll usually apologise. There is virtually no use of the now almost universal OMG, or the long form Oh My God. These days we have a relatively new popular phrase ‘Shut the front door’, which is a minced version of the surprised, often disbelieving retort, ‘Shut the fuck up’.
With the recent translations of Night and Day into French and German, there had to be some discussion about the ‘levels’ or severity of naughty words. It was quite difficult to explain some of the euphemisms we use, or to find an acceptable and era-appropriate equivalent. I also had to apologise for our use of ‘Pardon my French’ which is a term we use to apologise for using bad language. Sorry, sorry, sorry, to French-speaking people everywhere.
As always, to observe our language (bad) from the outside, was absolutely fascinating for me.