Monday, June 30, 2014

Contains Strong Language

Years ago, I was in a cafe listening to a conversation between a group of builders on their break. One man was telling a story about how his family had travelled to Greece to see his cousin ordained within the Greek Orthodox Church.

“My fucking cousin,” the man declared, “a fucking priest!”

As I learnt from my eaves-dropping, being ordained is a “big fucking deal” in Greece or at least it was in this particular family, who treated the occasion much like a wedding, with “a fucking banquet” and “fucking speeches”.  But towards the end of festivities, a crisis struck:

“We couldn't find my fucking cousin – the fucking priest! We look everywhere but he’s gone fucking missing in the middle of all this. And at the same time, we realise my fucking sister’s nowhere to be seen either. We look all over this fucking hotel we’re staying at. Then finally, in this big fucking dining room where the whole family is, someone thinks to pull back the curtain. And there, behind the fucking curtain is my fucking cousin – the fucking priest – and my fucking sister, and they’re, you know, doing it.”

One of the oddities of living in two households is the effect it has on my language. My in-laws don’t swear, ever. They don’t blaspheme. They don’t make rude jokes. I’m making them sound square, but there’s a lot of laughter in the house, and very little of it is ever at the expense of other people. I don't swear around them. In fact, I barely swear in their house out of earshot. Worse, I struggle to swear in writing when I'm there. 

My parents do swear, though not very strongly - mostly the B words; bloody, bollocks, bugger, bullshit. They were more careful when we were children and even these days, Mum often tries to stop herself – she reaches for Fiddlesticks! or Gordon Bennett!, but it comes out “Fiddlebugger!” and “Gordon Bollocks!”

I swear at my parents' house. I tell rude jokes. But I can't say I feel a lot more at home or more myself. I think I tell better jokes at my in-laws' where I can't always reach for the obvious. 

I once told the story of the builder, his sister and his cousin the Greek Orthodox priest in the pub. A friend then told of a man whose car broke down outside her flat. She knew cars, so she came outside to ask if there was anything she could do. Exasperated, the man pointed in the approximate direction of the engine and exclaimed, "The fucking fucker's fucked!"

Common problem with cars that age.

One day, I was in the kitchen at my in-laws' house when a bird flew in through the window at great speed. It bounces off my head, flew in a circle than crashed against the glass of the patio door as it attempted to leave. This all happened in a few seconds and it was a shock. I spoke. I said, “Goodness!”  Not even a “Damn!” or “Crap!”

(The bird was probably okay. It was alive, though stunned and it hadn't broken its neck. We put it under a bush and it did disappear - we hope it flew away.)

The other night, here at my parents’ house, a box of chisels fell on my toe – not just any toe, but the big toe whose nail has only just recovered after an eighteen month saga of infection, threatened removal, an in-growing crisis and and recovery. I said, “Fuck.” I said it a few times. But I know, had the same thing had happened at my in-laws, I still wouldn’t have sworn.

(My toe is probably okay. The next day, it was the next toe along which was bruised.)

I almost feel like it shouldn't be possible for spontaneous reactions, exclamations of shock or pain, to vary according to social context. When people live somewhere where they must speak a second language, I wonder how often they swear or curse in their mother tongue?  What does the context have to be?

When I had post traumatic stress disorder, swearing was a major trigger. My first husband used to call me shithead, shit for brains, I talked shit, my stuff was shit, I was a bitch, sometimes a cunt, I needed to fuck off, shut the fuck up or go fuck myself, and so on and so forth. If I complained about the swearing, I was being pathetic; it was just the way he spoke. He would have never used the phrase tone argument but that was the gist. But of course, tone matters. Tone is context.

“How are you doing, shithead?” said with a smile and in a friendly tone, preferably to someone who likes to be called that and is permitted to call the speaker something equally ridiculous is quite different from, “Shut up, shithead!” said in anger, even if it happens every day. And the shit is emphatic – it’s there for a reason, shithead is not the same as airhead, let along sleepyhead. It's no coincidence that someone who used this language was physically violent. 

Even my PTSD symptoms differentiated between different types of swearing. I had to adjust my reading and cull my Twitter feed of very sweary people, even people I liked and respected in other ways. But it wasn't just about the words, but the way they were used.

If I read “Bloody hell, why doesn’t [Named Politician] go fuck himself?”  

I might think it unnecessary and maybe irritating, but it wouldn't upset me. Big difference if I read

“Bloody hell, [Named Politician], why don’t you go fuck yourself?” 

This isn't just about trauma. I've been around the usage of "Fuck off!" as a warm, friendly "Give over!" almost like "Stop tickling me!" or the wide-eyed "Shut. Up." of adolescent disbelief. But unless you grew up with that, swearing in the second person can still feel like an attack. Especially in writing where there's no voice to reassure us.

Stephen was one of these poor kids who suffered that great indulgence-neglect of a TV in his room from an early age. He's also a massive film buff and you can’t really be that if you can’t tolerate the full range of the spoken word in English. He spent his teenage years travelling by taxi to hospital school, exposing him to both typical South East taxi-driver parlance, as well as the language of those classmates who were there for behavioural reasons or in one case, because they had impaled themselves while evading the fuzz. Thus, while his parents never swear, Stephen was in no way sheltered from foul language as a child. 

Yet Stephen almost never swears. He swears perhaps once a year. And when it happens, it's an earth-shaking swear.

I have pointed out that as a non-swearer, swearing would offer a little pain relief, at least in the immediate aftermath of injury. But it’s not in him. I have suggested he invents words that sound like curses for this purpose, but he is against it in principle. He doesn't even use the substitute swearwords available to him; no sugar, darnblast or curses.

I'm not convinced this is entirely healthy. Not the not swearing, but the not even cursing, even mildly, when things hurt or go wrong. 

My swearing varies massively according to pain and stress. On a bad pain day, I can be oblivious to the amount I’m swearing, so much so that it’s disturbing to have it pointed out to me. Yet, although I'm less likely to spend time with other people on such a day, I know I still won't swear in front of anyone who might be offended. 

When I am stressed out, I become painfully aware of how much I swear. In recent weeks, our housing situation is looking to get sorted, but with no certainties and many causes of minor panic along the way. Plus there's been - there is - a family crisis afoot. I've been swearing like a trooper, I've been swearing in unhelpful ways about other people, I've been swearing in ways that would make me cringe to repeat.

And clearly, I should have a handle on this. My Granny may visit at the weekend and I won't swear in front of her, whatever happens. Burning rocks can fall from the skill and all I'll say is "Blimey!"


Lisa said...

So many swear words are just such wonderful sounding words. Sometimes when talking about vaginas, for example, you have to use the word "cunt" because it just sounds so much better than the synonyms.

Ben S said...

Loved this - though I'm now worried it may have set off my work-internet-filter ; )

(Until about three years ago I never swore in front of my Mum, and had only ever heard her swear about three times in my life.. Something has changed and our conversations are full of mid-level swears and the occasional 'fucking hell' - but never, *ever*, the C-word...

Spoonydoc said...

Regarding the second language thing, I think it is fairly hard to swear in a foreign language.

I was brought up in France. We spoke English at home and I am fully bilingual.
I didn't hear many english swear words growing up though, as my parents tried not to swear and I didn't hear English from other sources.
On the other hand I have now been back in the UK for 17 years, long enough to hear and learn plenty of english swear words!

I very rarely swear. But when I am on my own I occasionally do, for instance when dropping something on myself or when my laptop goes wrong (my pet hate!).

The interesting thing is that I still invariably automatically swear in French. I find it almost impossible to swear in english.

Anonymous said...

"But unless you grew up with that, swearing in the second person can still feel like an attack."

Well, for me, BECAUSE I grew up with it (in the form of an abusive mother who reminds me of your first husband's description) it feels much like that type of always too-extreme attack. Just saying. Lol. :P

I think exposure to more and more films and TV shows, to more groups of people like that family whose cousin was getting ordained, etc helps to condition you to the normalcy of curses in certain context, and helps you to learn the nuances of the words' definitions, but your method of actually speaking is conditioned by who you hang around at a very heavy concentration - like the people you actually live with - as you so beautifully illustrated. It's interesting to know just how socially conditioned even our exclamations are.