The Art of Swearing

I love words me. Love ‘em. There are exceptions though. ‘Bespoke’ for instance. And ‘Brexit’.

Oh, and ‘authentic’. And ‘synergise’.

I could go… oh, hang on, and ‘smashing it’. Ok that’s two words but I still hate it.

I could go on. I usually do. But it’s not so much the words themselves I hate, it’s the context I guess. Blame it on too many conferences with Blue Sky Thinkers and Change Agents.

Context is important. Nuance is important (now there’s a nice word). And it ain’t always what you say, it’s the way you say it. Knowarramean like? (That’s Boro speak for ‘know what I mean, like’. There is an unwritten rule that it must be used at the end of every sentence where I’m from, knowarramean like).

Which brings me onto some words that can be, in my humble opinion, unfairly maligned, not given the respect they deserve. Words that can be too lazily associated with a lack of vocabulary and intelligence, without due consideration to the intricacies (oh I like that word) of context, delivery, timing, intonation (and that one) and intent.

I’m talking swear words.

Dropping f bombs

If you are familiar with my writing you may be aware of my liberal dropping of the f bomb, along with smatterings of other charming cuss words. A few readers have pointed it out to me, most notably, and eloquently, in this amazon review of my book.

I’m aware of it, and a few things have recently prompted me to reflect on my own use of swear words and their wider use.

I recently started working for a mental health charity, something that I have been looking to move into for a little while now, ever since I found my voice through writing about my own experiences. While writing and speaking about mental health to this point I have only ever spoken for myself, and I haven’t self censored when it comes to swearing.

But a few days ago I was about to share a post that I wrote last year to LinkedIn, before stopping myself when noticing that the fourth word – which would therefore appear in the post preview that would be displayed – was ‘fuck’s’. I didn’t post it.

Why not? Well, because although I write and speak as myself, I now spend my working days representing a mental health charity, and there are connections on LinkedIn that know me only in that professional context and not as a writer. Let’s face it, when we consider the attributes of a professional ‘swears like a docker’ isn’t usually high on the list. But again, context.

You’re avin’ a fuckin’ laugh mate

I used to work with a woman who was coach to a men’s rugby league team in Hull. (Or, in keeping with the theme of how we say things, ‘ull). We worked for a national sports coaching company and were debating with colleagues the use of swear words in coaching. We all agreed that swearing when coaching children was best avoided, while some were dead against the use of any swearing by coaches at all, with anybody. Even when the players were beefy working class blokes from ‘ull. Oh, and furthermore, the coach had a duty to tell the players not to swear.

The coach of said players was, it is fair to say, not in agreement. Her response was, if memory serves, something along the lines of,

‘Fuck off, you’re having a fucking laugh. If I told them not to swear they’d laugh me off the field. While telling me to fuck off.’

Her argument, and one I happened to agree with, was that while it’s important to set standards, and in many circumstances ‘no swearing’ would be a reasonable standard to apply, in the context she was working in it would actually be damaging. Coaching, and indeed language, is about building rapport, conveying meaning and communicating in ways that others will understand and respond positively to. For my colleague and her players, that meant swearing.

Since then I have had reason to reflect on the use of swearing at work, having worked in the sport of boxing for over 10 years, where for some people it would seem that swearing is compulsory. As far as that job was concerned, it went with the territory.

Apologies for the language

And yet… even in that world there is a strange concession to standards of decency, where commentators on big fights on Sky are duty bound to apologise to us whenever there is bad language used in the corner. Which begs the question of who they think their core audience for watching two people punching each other in the face actually is.

(As an aside, at one point I had a boss who had a special skill of making up words and using words completely out of context, ‘amoeba-ise’ and ‘I’ll just plagiarise a sandwich’ being my favourite examples).

To me, there is a big big difference between using a swear word and swearing at somebody. But even then it isn’t black and white, ‘ya daft twat’ (and worse) being a term of endearment between some people for instance. Once again, context. In any interpersonal relationship the foundation for this is respect. Having respect for each other and for each others’ standards.

Parental Advisory – Explicit Content

Another thing that has given me cause to reflect on swearing is music. More specifically, the music that I listen to in my car and house when I have my kids with me.

My daughter recently read a book about Beyoncé so I thought it would be nice if I played the album, ‘Lemonade’ for her in the car.

Who the fuck do you think I is?
You ain’t married to no average bitch boy
You can watch my fat ass twitch boy

Yeah, well done dad, that went well. What am I teaching them by exposing them to such bad grammar? And as for the language….

I turned the song off, with much amusement from my kids.

Lots of the music I listen to has swearing in it. Personally I find any lyrics by Westlife and their ilk far more offensive. Very little of what the kids hear is what I would consider gratuitous; I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not dropping any Eminem shit or anything.

But there are a fair few songs that that will include an f word or two. When the kids were younger I figured they wouldn’t be able to pick them out. But now they are at an age where they will, and it’s usually accompanied by a cheeky, knowing smile and them helpfully pointing out to me that ‘he/she said a naughty word’.

Some might say I should never play any of these songs in front of them (and some might say we will find a brighter day, ahem). Instead, I use my discretion based on the extent of the swearing and the context and meaning of the lyrics. As such, songs with one or two f words will usually escape the cut.

I have made it clear to the kids that these aren’t words that they should be using, but I’ve explained that singers and writers can use swearing for a purpose – emphasis, humour, emotion. Because let’s face it, they’re going to be hearing these words from people around them soon, if they haven’t already.

(But no, they can’t read dad’s book until they’re older).

Bob Hope doesn’t use the f word

When I write I use swearing very purposefully, to make a point or to (try to) make people laugh. For me they serve an important function in what I’m trying to say. I think that in tackling the subjects that I do, using language in this way can make difficult issues seem more relatable and more accessible to people that perhaps might not read about them otherwise.

Even the greats aren’t immune to disapproval of their language, including from their parents. For example the late, great comedian Bill Hicks. Bill’s father would lament his son’s use of the f word. ‘Bob Hope doesn’t use the f word.’ To which Hicks would reply, ‘Yeah dad, but Bob Hope doesn’t have to play the shitholes that I play.’ Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

I think it’s a very English thing to try to use humour, often through swearing, to diffuse and lighten serious situations. And to make serious points in a way that doesn’t feel pompous or hectoring. That being said, I accept that not everybody will like how I write, or agree with my views on swearing. That’s fine, but it won’t alter the way that I write and speak because I can only ever be true to myself.

And anyway, I’m from Middlesbrough; sometimes I just can’t help it.

Here are a few of my favourite examples of swearing being used to perfect effect, followed by the perfect soundtrack.

Danny Dyer – has there ever been a better use of the word ‘twat’? Twice. Highlights how both emphasis (first use) and timing (second use) can make swearing the most appropriate use of words:

The Libertines ‘I Get Along’ – exemplary use of the word ‘fuck’ in a song (1:29):

Winston Wolf – nowhere near as offensive as his Direct Line adverts:

Stewart Lee – proving that with timing, pacing and the right subject, even the most offensive of words can find its perfect place (3:56 to end):

Soundtrack:
The Man Don’t Give A Fuck – Super Furry Animals

Leave a Reply