Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Big and clever, but not insulting

Swearing is bad, right? We're always told it's not big or clever to swear,  but I can't be the only person to find a well-chosen swearword hilariously funny.

Swearing has had a long and rich history in English, partly because of the changing social attitudes we've had to certain taboo terms and the ways in which swear words often reflect a changing world. Mark Lawson in today's Guardian* offers a look at this in the light of recent media worries over Strictly Come Dancing and the X Factor, but he raises other points about the history of swearing too.

Many words have, he points out with the help of Language God, David Crystal, changed from perfectly innocent usage to taboo terms over time (the c-word - the one that isn't Cameron - being a good example of this) but others have gone the other way and lessened in their impact (sod and bugger, for instance).

And it's changing social attitudes that are of interest to the High Court judge, Mister Justice Bean who has rules that police officers being told to "f**k off" are hardly likely to be insulted because they're so used to it, it's water of a f**k's back, sorry, duck's back.

This doesn't appeal to Janet Daley in the Daily Telegraph who sees swearing as a form of abuse and disrespect that our public servants shouldn't be subjected to. For her it's the tip of the iceberg: today swearing  tomorrow anarchy. And it's an argument that Mark Lawson alludes to in his piece as well. If swearing is so widespread that it's no longer insulting, or so ubiquitous that we don't even know we're doing it, what value does it actually have?

We've covered swearing on this blog many times previously, so just click on the label to see all the relevant posts about it.

* thanks to Jon D for the link

edited on  24.11.11 to add: 
My legal adviser (the Mrs) tells me that the issue over Mister Justice Bean's pronouncement is not really that new and is less connected to "insult" than it is to the "alarm, harassment and distress" in the wording of public order charges. 

She tells me that there is a big difference between swearing and swearing at someone in the eyes of the law, so if a suspect were to say "I've never seen that f**king flatscreen!", that would not generally considered to be something that would cause distress to an arresting officer (or imaginary bystander), while "F**k off you idiot; I've never seen that flatscreen before" might be perceived as causing distress as it is directed towards the officer.

This makes an interesting distinction between swearing in general and swearing at someone.

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