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.