The Fine Art of Swearing


Anyone who doubts the power of words should look at the history of swearing. For centuries in England (until my generation, in fact), the words ‘bloody’ and ‘bleeding’ were unforgivable. ‘Damn’ is harder still to understand until you realise that most swears came from religious roots. Blood was associated with the blood of Christ, damn with the Devil.

When I was a child I was forbidden to say ‘Blimey’, which comes from ‘Gor Blimey’ and thence ‘God Blind Me.’ Similarly, the quaint ‘Cor Lumme!’, a very 1950s epithet, stems from ‘God Love Me’ and ‘Cripes!’ is of course ‘Christ’.

I’m not squeamish about f*ck and c*nt (here asterisked so as not to upset your filters) but I had an editor who insisted they were only ever used as nouns until the 1940s, although as I no longer have my OED (all 42 hard-to-lift volumes of it) I can’t trace the roots back. If this is the case, most period books and films are wrong. It also gives us the film ‘The Exorcist’ as the first example of ‘c*nt’ being used as a verb.

Readers may notice that I hardly use any swearing in the Bryant & May books, mainly because I find it so unimaginative. There are so many more interesting ways of upsetting someone with words, why would you fall back on the kind of over-used epithet you can hear on any street corner?

However, there is a good use for f*ck as a noun. My favourite from the film ‘LA Story’, where Victoria Tennant arrives off the dreaded BA London – LA flight (a trip I had to make once a month) and seats herself at a polite luncheon table where Californians are busy sorting out their ridiculously complex coffee orders. When asked if she’s OK, Tennant – looking very English in a bad hat and print frock – says primly ‘Yes thanks, I’ll be fine after I’ve had a nice cup of tea and a f*ck, as my mother used to say.’ The Californians stare at her in horror.

Londoners in particular swear like troopers, imaginatively and constantly, men and women alike, and there’s something about the word ‘f*ck’ rolled around the mouth of an Eastender, with its hard ‘F’ and extended ‘U’, that makes it far ruder than anyone else saying it. Still, for real imagination I’ll stick with more creative insults. After all, they say the greatest English insult is one where the injured party thinks they’ve been complimented – now, that’s an art.

20 comments on “The Fine Art of Swearing”

  1. Alison says:

    I don’t know if I just think it was during Gilbert & Sullivan’s massive fallout or whether it really was, but the cry of “my dear fellow, good isn’t the word” remains one of my favourite below the belt insults.

  2. Paco says:

    There is something about big city dwellers and swearing. When I lived in the States, I had a female colleague from NYC who was the first person I’d ever heard refer to a woman as a c**t. I’m still reeling from it 17 years later. American colleagues would ask me to recite British swear words such as wa*ker and bo****ks. They never sounded good with an American accent though. However, the aforementioned New Yorker was able to top all swear ladened insults when firing a female subordinate. As she walked out of the office, pink slip in hand my NY colleague watched her close the door and uttered those immortal words, ‘F**k her where she breathes……’ Chilling!

  3. Sam Tomaino says:

    One pet peeve of mind is bad writers of Thor comics (or any other “god” character) who have him saying things like “Zounds” or “Od’s Blood”. These, of course, refer to God’s wounds on the cross or his blood. They would have no meaning for someone who did not grow up in a Christian culture.

    And “Odin’s Blood” would not have the same meaning either.

    As a wretched American, it was years before I even knew that “bloody” was a bad word. It was in TO SIR WITH LOVE, that I heard that pointed out.

  4. Cid says:

    This business with the asterisks is very strange. I mean, presumably if “f*ck” is acceptable (though, why is it?) logically wouldn’t “fuc*” be fine as well? Yet you never see it.

    You’re quite right though, Londoners do swear like arsehole*.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Swearing is anger release, pure and simple. Does this mean that city dwellers, citizens, live in a constant state of anger arousal and need to vent it regularly? I was told that only people with no imagination use swear words. If you want to annoy someone think quickly and create an insulting image of the “your mother wears army boots” sort, only better because we don’t have to denigrate the individual’s parents, who have a large enough burden having to acknowledge such appalling offspring.

  6. Dan Terrell says:

    “Fuc” would sound too much like the real world. Asterick a key vowel and you show you don’t/didn’t intend to offend. Which is, I suppose, more straight forward than talking around a word as the Victorians might have done. Euphemisms can be shudder making. “Did Mum’s little fellow make number two, AGAIN?” Hearing that I want to yell: “Ahh… Sugar Bunnies!”

  7. Dan Terrell says:

    “Ahh… Sugar Bunnies!” That should be “word” up there. I don’t believe “world” makes a good euphemism, I say, slinking off into the weekend.

  8. Ford says:

    I saw an interview with Phil Collins; where he was talking about his guest appearance on the \TV series Miami Vice. He was apparently ad libbing, which was going down well, until he came up with “…. you must think that I’m a right berk!” We love what you’re doing, can’t say that! …” “Why not?” After all it’s not bad! The Americans had to explain to a Londoner, that “berk” is rhyming slang – Berkshire Hunt …. well! I’m sure that we can all work that out! Collins offered to come up with something else. “…. you must think that I’m a right w@nker! …” No probs! I’ve watched the episode – I was never a fan of Miami Vice; or, Phils Collins acting … fine drummer! – and he does deliver the ” … w@nker …” line!

  9. John Howard says:

    Swear words can become such an easy way of conversing and I think you will find that when a youngster joins a group who’s conversation uses these words in abundance then he/she will become educated into using expletives as general grammar rather than what might be considered correct grammar. i find that I tend to moderate my language to the group I happen to be with. In one conversation using lots of swear words, usually only a couple of particular words as a descriptive i.e “the f**king* van, then in another conversation not dreaming of bringing one out because the circumstances don’t require it.
    So I suppose i’m really saying that I don’t think all swearing is an anger release. It depends on who you are and your normal mode of conversation.

  10. snowy says:

    Well out here on the Planet of the Clangers, I find casual swearing just dull and pointless.
    Meaningless place fillers in sentences, that convey no meaning whatsoever. And if you are operating liguistically at 10, there is no 11.

    The ‘dozens’ and the ‘Yo Momma’s’ had great inventive wit, my favo(u)rite being:

    ‘Your Momma’s armpits are so hairy, it look like she got Bob Marley in a headlock’

  11. Alan Morgan says:

    Nothing wrong with swearing in everyday conversation. I ripens, it colours when regionally it flavours. From the casual emphasis of a south London ‘fack’ to the catch-all northern ‘bugher’. If something is f*cking wonderful, then it is certainly worth seeing more than where down the road another thing is just very nice indeed. It doesn’t offend me at all.

    To quote Stephen Fry, ‘The sort of twee person who thinks swearing is in any way a sign of a lack of education or of a lack of verbal interest is just a f*cking lunatic. Or they say ‘it’s not necessary’. As if that should stop one doing it. Things not being necessary is what makes life interesting.’

    And that all being said, I don’t anymore. Just to show my burning hip-hop-cracy then since having children I sound like a someone from Grange Hill. Jumping about when my computer is acting up shouting, “Flipping thing, why won’t you flipping work!”

    I’ve even caught myself saying ‘crickey’ rather than the more correctly used ‘fuck me’.

    ‘*’ used purely because of the statement for use by the initial post. ;0)

  12. Alan Morgan says:

    Sorry, missed the * at the end there.

  13. Dan Terrell says:

    Does – “Ya right, Mate, that’s one’s f*ckin’ twee, but nothin’ a few swift kicks in the asterick wouldn’t cure” – work?

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Hmm. “Necessary” is a euphemism, I realize now. It is a replacement for “a bl**ding bit of f*cking original thought.” According to legend the ability to insult without using “dirty” language is of great importance in some Arabic speaking cultures.

  15. snowy says:

    But swearing for best effect, should be used like a strong spice. Not too much or too often, it should add to the flavour not overwhelm it.

    I’m normally more abstemious in my speech than Captain Corcoran (out of choice rather than upbringing), and colleagues have been shocked when I have used a choice oath or 12, overuse blunts the axe!

  16. snowy says:

    As this tends slightly toward the matter of manners, may I be allowed to point people to this post by someone I’ve read for quite some time.

    If you thought you had come to terms with “Deep English” there is a whole new world waiting for you. The navigation on his site is a bit lacking, but I think it is worth digging through.

  17. Alan Morgan says:

    All true enough, but swearing isn’t very often used as an insult in the grand sweep of its instance. Or if it is; then yes – as many here protest. It’s a part of the swell and flow in many places (certainly those places I’ve lived, town and country both – the instance in town I’d say more). And there are times when swearing is best used. If someone is taking a piss out of someone and they don’t realise it’s going beyond funny, then a friend saying ‘you’re being a bit of a c*nt to xyz’ can rightly act as short, friendly slap of reality. It can even make language concise, accurately short and descriptive. If in a given part of a world someone being say, a d*ck, or a c*nt, or a bit of a wanker means a specific thing then it’s just language.

    Now all this makes me sound like a right tool, I know. It doesn’t mean screaming at someone that they’re a c*nt is especially nice. Or oddly, when to swear is to insult. Taking the piss is inventive; and any swearing therein not the thrust.

    But to the post that started it? Though I’ve gone against the grain of polite society here I do agree that it doesn’t do much unless when used with pinpoint accuracy (if even then) in a book. As Chris has said, dialogue is not conversation.

  18. Bob Low says:

    If you want to make Victoria Tennant swear in real life, just remind her of her appearance in Norman Warren’s ”Inseminoid”.

  19. Gary says:

    My favourite swearing moment came when I heard some of my workmates chatting. They used the word F*ck in literally every sentence that they spoke. After a couple of minutes of this I politely asked them which word they used if they actually wanted to swear. They pondered this for a moment and then one of them said “F*ck me if I know!”

  20. Helen Martin says:

    Spike Milligan’s example ran something like: “The effing effer’s effed.”

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