On swearing

Examples of social decline, especially in the UK

On swearing

Postby Gavin » 26 Dec 2011, 20:35

It doesn't take someone such as me to tell people that swearing is vulgar: they do already know it. It's just that few care any more.

I contacted Dalrymple regarding this topic last year actually, considering the powerlessness an individual has in a society in which the morality of personal conduct has been quite simply reversed. He courteously replied, agreeing.

I was pointing out the way that in a social establishment in England now, were you to complain about the use of foul language (the F word loudly with abandon, for example), the likelihood is you would be asked to leave (the reason being, presumably, that if the establishment enforced any rules regarding this then they would lose many of their customers).

The television chef Gordon Ramsay is famous for his foul language, of course, with his popular programme actually being called The F Word. While working in media companies last year I experienced several of the staff swearing with utter abandon too, without a thought or care about whether this may be unpleasant for visitors or other staff. Perhaps they assumed, with good reason, that most were likely to have the same values as themselves.

What has happened, it seems to me, is that swearing is not only permitted almost anywhere in society now, but it is actually widely admired, among all 'classes' and age groups, but especially among the young. Where restraint and consideration for others were previously admired, now in our overly liberal culture, a complete lack of restraint or consideration for others is equally as admired. Why is this, we might wonder.

I believe it has to do with a confused notion of confidence. I've seen women go 'doe eyed' in the company of men who tell anecdotes peppered with expletives, as if they were just any other word. If there are strangers nearby who have no choice but to listen, then such men are perceived as all the more 'confident' (and by extension more appealing). As Dalrymple has written, we are atomised now, each expected to have our own personal morality. In this accepted relativism, he who shouts loudest and cares least about others (in particular, cares least about being acceptable to others), is seen by many as being the most valid.

But the moment we cease to find foul language offensive (as so many have now done), cease to flinch at their utterance, we have in my opinion become numb, we have lost something. The very phonetics of swear words match their often aggressive meaning - sharp consonant sounds. They refer to the most intimate human acts and areas of the body in a casual, public, throwaway and dehumanising manner. They are for limited, if any, use, yet they are applied by many British people today in almost every sentence (while more accurate and appropriate words are avoided, if known).

If those who used foul language without any care for others were ostracised, then they would cease such behaviour. But instead, for reasons I have described, they are admired. People who do object are unlikely to challenge speakers, reasoning that if they are prepared to speak without consideration then they are also likely to also act without consideration, and since they have been criticised, and have little to fear from the law, those acts may be violent.

Thus the more vulgar in society hold an economic and physical tyranny over those who would have society otherwise. Only the very brave or the very foolhardy object. We can vote with our feet, but then we have fewer and fewer places we can go. What is the long term answer to this phenomenon?

Curiously, we are led to the same point: a multi-faceted approach to the elimination political correctness from society is the solution, with it being replaced by basic politeness. As some have said, we have a society now where many ideas may not even be discussed, but those that are deemed acceptable may be discussed in any terms at all. That isn't real respect, that's political correctness, and it is corrosive.
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Re: On swearing

Postby Rachel » 27 Dec 2011, 12:48

I wonder exactly when this change in language happened. I was watching archive tv interviews from 1986 and 1989 the other day. It was Gloria Hunniford and Pauline Collins and some other luvvie.
I was taken by how mild and delicate it all was compared to today's average TV interview. It was a gradual change but I think it all started in the 90's and early 2000's, pretty much when my generation came of age (Those born inbetween 1965-1980 - that generation is called generation X I think??? Is that the label given to people who grew up after the 60's with TV but did not have the net in their childhood.???)

Around the time I left the UK in 1995-7 it suddenly started to be normal for pop groups like Oasis putting the F word in nearly every sentance in interviews without the interviewer stopping them. A lot of people about my age group would talk like that in real life sometimes. We were in our late teens - and 20's then, but I don't remember it in the 30-40+ age group as much as now. ...Maybe I'm wrong?
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Re: On swearing

Postby Gavin » 27 Dec 2011, 13:29

That's exactly when I was at university, Rachel, and I remember the change happening as you say. Soon after that, certain children's morning television programmes were axed, the reason being that there were fewer and fewer music videos they could show, or artists they could acceptably interview. Of course, many have been happy to take over where those left off though!
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Re: On swearing

Postby Damo » 27 Dec 2011, 14:35

I used to swear an awful lot when I was younger. However, I rarely swear now and when I do, it's usually only to myself, never in public.

I don't like swearing in public. I find it demeaning. There is also one other thing that I find annoying.... spitting. I cannot believe that we don't have a law against spitting. I think there was a law against spitting in the 50's and 60's because of a TB outbreak. But that law has either been revoked or is not implemented.
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Re: On swearing

Postby Rachel » 27 Dec 2011, 14:57

Gavin wrote:That's exactly when I was at university, Rachel, and I remember the change happening as you say. Soon after that, certain children's morning television programmes were axed, the reason being that there were fewer and fewer music videos they could show...


It's nice that I wasn't imagining it.

Often I hear hard core lefties say that the 80's was the big decade of change, that people became courser because of "Thatcherism" ... But really I think the 90's were a much bigger time for change.

TD's first landmark articles on the underclass - when did they come out ...the 90's? I think they would have been based on events in the very early 90's, or very late 80's (88-89) at the very earliest.

The 90's were when our generation when came of age. The internet, satelite TV and mobiles came along. It changed everything.
It was also when the first generation of mass single teen parenthood came of age.

As for foul language, I recently watched the film "Telstar" which is a autobiographical film about the true life of "Joe Meek" the early 60's record producer who brought out a lot of music of the era.
There was a lot of the bad language in the script. The feel of the film was all wrong for it. People in the early 60's did not swear like that. Then in the extras on the DVD they showed the director shouting "F-ing excellent" at the actors after a take.
What the hell is the matter with these people....I sometimes wonder if it's just me being weird when I watch these things.
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Re: On swearing

Postby Gavin » 27 Dec 2011, 15:16

Hi Rachel. I agree that's when it really started to happen, though of course another "revolutionary" point was the 60s.

Re. swearing, I was watching popular comedian Michael MacIntyre on TV not long ago. One of his routines was actually quite funny and he is very much the family friendly, happy, smiley comedian. He was doing well, really had some laughs without needing to shout especially loudly or swear.

And then, after the joke, he wandered across the stage saying "f**king hell" in reflection. This was completely out of place. I suppose it was done in order to gain credibility, although of course at that moment he lost some in my eyes.

One very droll and funny comedian, by the way, is of course Jack Dee, especially in the highly amusing I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue - recommended to all!

(Damo, I'd like to see them enforce a law on spitting when they can't even enforce one on cycling on the pavement!)
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Re: On swearing

Postby Mike » 28 Dec 2011, 22:04

As with so many things, in my view it's a case of private freedom combined with public restraint. When talking with close friends or with my wife I'm likely to slip in some swearing here and there (although never in front of our daughter), but everyone is capable of exercising restraint in public, and should do so.

Just to pick up something in Gavin's initial post: I don't think it's anything to do with phonetics as such (as a former student of linguistics, one of the few worthwhile subjects I studied at university, I have to slip that in!), but the reference to sex and scatology that makes swearing unacceptable in public.
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Re: On swearing

Postby Gavin » 29 Dec 2011, 07:49

Just to say I agree with you both, Mike and Damo. What concerns me is how (and why) swearing in front of strangers seems to be so acceptable now.

Re. the linguistic element, I studied this too, though I found it extremely PC, preaching the position that precriptivism was evil and we should welcome ebonics and all kinds of slang as enhancements and enrichments of our language. Strangely, however, the lecturers themselves didn't use such language. Presumably the same lecturers have now embraced text message spelling - one only needs to read epitaphs for the daily stabbed Londoners reported by the press to see some shocking examples of this. The problem is that it is the only vocabulary which many can manage, and it is of course deprived of subtley and accuracy.

Regarding your point though, you may well be right. I just note that few expletives have soft sounds. Perhaps it is partly that they are usually uttered with undertones of agression, and not by "playful wits" such as Mr Fry. It probably is as much the indication that the person simply doesn't care about the sensitivities of those nearby, as the word itself, that is offensive.
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Re: On swearing

Postby Mike » 29 Dec 2011, 23:21

Gavin wrote:Re. the linguistic element, I studied this too, though I found it extremely PC, preaching the position that precriptivism was evil and we should welcome ebonics and all kinds of slang as enhancements and enrichments of our language.


Ah...you see I was lucky. In the linguistics department at my Uni there were two "strands", a little bit like Pure vs. Applied Mathematics. The first was the study of the structure of language in isolation, the second was the whole "language in social context" area. In the first year we were given a semester of each, and I had no trouble deciding on the first as a better and more useful option. Partly because the lecturer was superb, and partly because getting my head around the wonders of allophonic spreads, ergative/absolutive case systems (an amazing concept - I still don't fully understand it), agglutinating languages and the like was far more appealing than hearing yet another spiel about "subverting the dominant discourse"...
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Re: On swearing

Postby Elliott » 09 Feb 2012, 09:37

Pop star Adele says that even losing her voice didn't stop her swearing, such was her determination to be coarse.
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Re: On swearing

Postby Michael » 09 Feb 2012, 16:31

Here in Canada casual profanity, much more so than garb and gait, is the surest sign that someone belongs to the under class. It's always accompanied by abominable diction and pronunciation. Interestingly, casual swearing is almost entirely confined to that class. Spitting in public is similarly confined to them. If you look middle class and either spit in the street or swear in public you get very odd, often hostile looks.

I'm sorry to hear that public behaviour in England is so degraded.
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Re: On swearing

Postby Gavin » 07 Apr 2012, 10:52

Dalrymple focuses on this issue here. It was encouraging to see him make the same point I often have: that is only a matter of minutes, or even seconds, before one hears the F word on British pavements. The fact that is usually the word overheard as people pass indicates the extreme frequency with which it is used.

As TD says, it isn't just used for emphasis, but more as a message that "I will behave however I like and I pointedly don't care what you think. In fact I set out to offend you by default, if you are not part of my world, just to show how 'confident' I am".
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Re: On swearing

Postby Elliott » 12 Apr 2012, 15:30

An advert for Newcastle Brown Ale has been banned in Britain because it uses offensive language - the word "bollocks".

Once something like this is proposed, some people inevitably object to it and they get criticised for being "prudish". In my view, it shouldn't be proposed in the first place, then we wouldn't have to object to it.
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Re: On swearing

Postby Elliott » 16 Jun 2012, 12:06

I'd like to know what people think about characters swearing in media. This is of relevance to me because I have been revisiting a novel I started writing 5 years ago, and the dialogue, and even the narrative, have lots of swearing.

Obviously I am wary of toning it down because I don't want the thing to seem unrealistic - people do swear. So I don't know what to do with the dialogue.

As for the narrative, it is written so as to largely reflect the main character's thoughts, as if the author is trying to get the audience inside the character's head - and that is why the swearing is there. It's there because the character is swearing when he thinks about things. But this is not dialogue per se. Should I take a more detached approach? That would get rid of the swearing but the whole thing would change slightly - which seems like puritanism.

I honestly don't know what to do. I know this is a strange post but can anybody offer their thoughts on this dilemma?
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Re: On swearing

Postby Rachel » 16 Jun 2012, 14:01

I think it's lovely that you are writing a novel.

I have a little hobby of writing down some autobiographical stuff in my life, not a novel. The point is I found that when I got stuck on something, it was best to put it away and give it a break.
You mention that you are "revisiting" it but maybe it needs more of a break to make it clearer how much swearing needs to be there or how to improve stuff generally(?).

If you don't want to put it away again then carry on and make sure you have the ending before you go back and think of how to revise it.

I hope this advice isn't too useless but in the end only you will know what to do about the swearing.

It's important not to be too critical otherwise you just give up.

My biggest problem in writing is I waffle too much. You've probably noticed that in the posts here :).
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