The Joy of Swearing
Shit. Fuck. Cunt.
Love them or hate them, they make an impact don’t they? They're the punk rock kids of any language - rebellious anarchists who love to cause a stir.
I discovered the joy of swearing at an early age, despite (or maybe because of) parents who seldom swore and strongly discouraged their three daughters from doing so.
If I had to describe the public face of Dad in one word it would be ‘charming’. But when he’s working on the farm - training horses, drafting sheep, moving cattle, giving instructions to his sheep dogs – his potty mouth swings into full action.
Mum swears even less than Dad. Partially due to their different styles of anger management – Dad is a get it all out sort (as am I), and Mum is a simmer quietly and dangerously sort. And also owing to the fact that she spent most of her working life as a psychiatric nurse.
When she'd hear any of us swear she’d throw a menacing look our way and tell us she’d had patients swearing at her all day and she didn’t need to come home and hear it from her daughters.
So hearing Mum swear was a rare treat.
One of our most often told family stories is of the day Mum took us out for a bush picnic. Mum lit the campfire for lunch and then we all left briefly to find wood. When we returned a mini bus full of psychiatric patients and their carers had taken over our picnic spot; presuming it abandoned I guess. Mum was livid and stomped back to the car, sat down, slammed the door and then yelled “fucking retards”.
The fact Mum so seldom swears, and the extreme un-political correctness of that phrase - especially said by a psych nurse, made it the trifecta of funny.
It surely must have been about as un-politically correct as a psychiatric nurse could get, and we really loved her for that.
And then there was the time Mum and I were horse riding. Mum's horse was nervous and highly strung, so when a kid on a bike came racing down the hill towards us, Mum's horse leapt sideways and she swore her head off at the poor kid, then went racing angrily ahead. As soon as I caught up to her, we took one look at each other and both burst into convulsions of laughed so hard, we almost fell off our horses.
It wasn't until I had children of my own that my regard for swearing changed.
It happened when my first son - Indi was 18 months old. A cute little blonde toddler playing in the sand pit; he reached for his water bottle, and when it toppled over said, "Oh for fuck's sake."
It was incredibly funny, especially with his lisp, which turned 's' into 'th', but mostly it was shocking. All of a sudden I felt quite prudish and censorial about swearing, and made a mental pledge to never, never swear in front of the children again. I guess I'd imagined, just because they didn't know many words, they didn't hear or understand many words either. Of course I now see that was ridiculous. Children are sponges, especially for the things they think their parents don't want them to hear.
So why is swearing so taboo, particularly for children?
Benjamin Bergen, cognitive scientist and author of What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves states that there is no evidence behind the belief that profanity causes harm to children, and that rather than stunting their vocabulary, says that "18-year-olds who swear more have bigger vocabularies on average". He also says, "it's really the social consequences that are the only rational argument for watching your language around children." I.e. It's not swearing itself that's the problem, it's the significance culture attaches to the words.
Let's take a look at the origin of The Big Three:
Shit, while not exactly acceptable is so prevalent that it generally doesn’t batter much of an eyelid. A great expletive, superlative and exclamation, it is simultaneously a noun, a verb and an adjective, and is even great for empathising… As in, “Oh shit, that must have been awful.”
It's one of our oldest swear words, with roots in Germanic and Scandinavian languages, and was originally used in reference to diarrhoea in cattle. It’s also found in some early street names – Schiteburne Lane in London for example literally meant “shit-stream lane,” - an apt description for the living conditions in London a few centuries ago. It’s since been changed to Sherbourn Lane – sounds a bit nicer doesn’t it.
Fuck is a pretty great word I’m sure you’ll agree. It has so many uses and inferred meanings. It too can be used as a noun, a verb and an adjective. It can be used to express amazement, frustration, happiness, surprise, and is extremely cathartic for expressing physical or emotional pain.
Fuck is a bit newer that shit, and may have been introduced to the English language by the Germans or the Dutch in the fifteenth century. Originally it meant “to strike” or hit. But it too appeared in place names – Ric Wyndfuk in Sherwood which featured a kestrel called the Windfucker as its emblem. And also Fockynggroue in Bristol – believed to be a grove where couples would go to get it on.
Ooooh, she's a head turner isn't she! I've always regarded 'cunt' as the last frontier of swear words. The one remaining word that still has the power to shock. The key to its effectiveness is occasional, well chosen timing. Overuse this one and what was a rare diamond becomes little more than a common cubic zirconia.
Cunt, like shit is an old word, harking back to Germanic and Scandinavian origin.
Originally it wasn’t considered a taboo word, but rather a descriptive term for the vagina.
Infact, "Cunt is, etymologically, more feminist than vagina, which is dependent on the penis for its definition, coming from the Latin for sword sheath."*
Isn’t that fascinating? So next time someone calls you a cunt, you can take it as a compliment because it literally means strong, independent woman!
Despite these origins, I'm probably not going to begin condoning swearing for my young children, however I will shift my completely hypocritical position of do as I say, not as I do, to explaining that swear words are great words when used occasionally.
...But not until they're 18! ;)