&!*$! Words



A librarian once took me to one side and said,’ One of the reasons we like you is because you never make the characters use swearwords.’

It was a conscious decision on my part; most swearing is unimaginative (except when spectacularly released by my pal Simon ‘Pottymouth’ Rennie) and too easy. I’ve always taken a more challenging route, using the English language in more luxurious ways, picking elderly frail detectives over healthy young ones, using abstruse murders over procedural plots, avoiding the supernatural get-out clause.

But sometimes it’s hard to keep the books this way and have them reflect real life. Londoners are legendarily foulmouthed, but creative with it. Surely it’s one of the reasons why ‘The Thick Of It’ was so successful? Now news reaches us that UK bosses are the most foul-mouthed in Europe. Trigger warning; this clip is astoundingly rude.

So, with all this swearing about – and British newspapers like the Times and the Guardian both print swearing when it’s quoted – what’s the big deal? Call me perverse but I just don’t miss it on the page of a novel and enjoy working around the problem. There are times when it’s tricky though, such as when you’re writing about white working class males, who swear continually, making it sound strange when you stop them from doing so.

Meanwhile, Ofcom has compiled a swear code for use as a guideline to pre- and post-watershed television. I left out the rude half of their sliding scale because it was well, predictable.


I always notice the different when our more conservative American friends are here. They’re far too polite to let invective fly at dinner, unlike Steve Martin’s British girlfriend in ‘LA Story’, who arrives in California from a BA flight and astounds the assembly with a casually dropped sweary moment.

The limitations of swearing are obvious, whereas a finely tuned insult can make everyone feel good. Watching ‘Darkest Hour’ I rather enjoyed Churchill’s ‘Keep buggering on’, and the moment when his secretary has to explain to him what it means by having the V-sign the wrong way around.Up Yer Bum

22 comments on “&!*$! Words”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    Privately, I wouldn’t spoil a good joke by deleting a swear word, and I swear occasionally “in an emergency”* but apart from that, I detest swearing, especially in modern comedy acts, theatre/filmsTV and in the written word. It is so ugly. I also don’t like passing people in the street who are swearing. So thank you Mr Fowler for not using swearwords, it is one of the facets of your writing I so like.

    *Perhaps I’m a hypocrite, it’s OK when I do it!

  2. Ian Luck says:

    Churchill’s “Keep buggering on” was used in the Doctor Who story ‘Victory Of The Daleks’. It was written by Mark Gatiss, who probably included it to see if it would make the broadcast. In a similar vein, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie wrote a sketch where a character has the surname ‘Cunterblast’, and all four members of the cast say it several times. Regarding swearing, well, it’s a good safety valve. I once accidentally stapled a finger to a workbench with an industrial staple gun. Did I say “Oh heck”? I did not. The air around me was positively cerulian. I take guidance from the great John Cooper Clarke, who says in ‘I don’t wanna be nice’: “I dont wanna be nice. I think it’s clever to swear…”

  3. Graham says:

    I don’t mind swearing in literature, though most of the books I read now tend to avoid it. In my personal life I do my best not to swear too much, but I do work with computers all day, and if I swear at them, well, the buggering bastards have it coming.

  4. Jan says:

    Isn’t Mr. Cunterblast a very famous actor?

  5. Denise Treadwell says:

    Well here you again. You have made my day!

  6. Brooke says:

    Oh, Mr. Fowler, where have you been? In the US swearing is very common in the workplace, restaurants, on the street (don’t ever get caught in a traffic jam here), in public places, i.e. trains, airports, etc. Women and men. Office emails are quite full of it.

    Perhaps you haven’t heard that our president is a great proponent of public swearing and hires folks with similar habits–remember Scaramucci?

    Your approach to using a work-around for swearing is great; Arthur insults people using language they don’t understand which becomes a double insult. Love it.

  7. Adam says:

    What do the asterisks next to beef curtains and bloodclaat (never heard that one!) mean? I’m quietly amused that some committee had to reach an agreement as to what word went in each category (“all in favour of arsehole as a medium word, please raise your hand”)

  8. Ian Luck says:

    Adam – ‘Bloodclaat’ is a primarily Jamaican patois word – it’s basically ‘Bloodclot’ but it’s applied to stupid, or ignorant people. I worked for many years with a great Jamaican bloke, an ex policeman, from there, in fact. He died several years ago (rest easy, Charlie), but would occasionally utter ‘Bloodclaat’, with a disbelieving shake of the head after dealing with some idiot or other. It’s not a word you’ll hear often.

  9. Ian Luck says:

    Sorry, I forgot to mention that it possibly can be construed to mean ‘Sanitary towel’. As unpleasant as that is, it’s as valid as any other swearword.

  10. Martin Tolley says:

    But in some cases and the hands of some writers swearing can be an artform. James Kelman’s depiction of life and language in Glasgow (in my view) accurately portrays both the monotony and the poetry of a working-class city. And then, of course, there’s Anthony Burgess who invented many a swear phrase, and who worked his way past censorship with the exclamation – for cough! He was a pioneer of the old/obscure swear phrase which could surely upset no-one. If memory serves, he described a plus-sized man of indeterminate parentage who had poor personal hygiene as being a steatopygotic stymphalistic yaldson.

  11. Wayne Mook says:

    Being Northern white working class male and working on computers all day I often use phrases like, ‘Oh blimey,’ and ‘Oh ‘eck.’

    I don’t mind swearing any where, only when it feels out of place does it grate, when it’s used in a phoney or unconvincing way. Personally when it’s used to intimidate or denigrate people is when I take offense, but you can do that without swearing. Intent is the key.


  12. David Ronaldson says:

    I enjoy quirky swearing. An old friend used to regularly say “F*****g hell” ( excuse asterisks: isn’t discussing profanities awkward?), but always pronounced the words correctly, with a sharp “ck” sound, a ringing “g” and an undropped “h”; a long way from the common ” ‘kin ‘ell'” version.

  13. Adam says:

    Thanks Ian! You learn something every day.

  14. Denise Treadwell says:

    I was told swearing was for people who didn’t have the words to express themselves any other way! But sometimes. …

  15. Peter Dixon says:

    I’d recommend Viz comic’s ‘Roger’s Profanisaurus’ as a truly great reference for creative British swearing

  16. David Ronaldson says:

    Peter, 2 of my published works are in the Profanisaurus. Proud day…

  17. Ian Luck says:

    When I lived in Ripon, in North Yorkshire, in the late 1980’s, there was a female band advertised who called themselves ‘The Chuffinelles’. “Chuffin’ Ell!” being a brilliant, nearly rude expletive that I heard used quite regularly. The Viz Profanisaurus – if you can’t read a few pages of this without (a) Mentally filing an entry away for further use; (b) Crying helplessly with laughter; (c) Both, then you’re a buckle-hatted Puritan bastard.

  18. Ian Luck says:

    Jan – are you thinking of the star of ‘Sherlock’, Benedict Cunterblast? The one I was thinking of was Ted Cunterblast, who, according to Messrs. Fry and Laurie, wrote a book about Cricket. They might be related, through the Chipping Norton Cunterblasts…

  19. Peter Dixon says:

    I remember a club act called ‘The Four Kinell’s’. Also appreciated a relatively recent band named ‘The Test Icicles’.

  20. Wayne Mook says:

    That reminds me of Ivor Biggun and the Red Nosed Burglars, it turned out the lead singer was on That’s Life and when the Puritan Esta Ratzen found out about their BBC banned ‘famous hit’ he suddenly left the show, and wasn’t for being called Doc Cox, which sounds like a double entendre.


  21. Ian Luck says:

    Wayne – my brother has the Ivor Biggun album on vinyl. He had it on cassette when he was a kid. The only real problem with most of the tracks is that, although it’s not very clever, the tunes, once heard, are real ‘earworms’, and ones which will surface many, many years later. Seeing the words ‘Ivor Biggun’, I immediately got the song ‘I’ve Farted’ in my head. Cheers for that.

  22. Ian Luck says:

    Hearing someone swear when one is not expecting it, can, if the word used is strong enough, feel like a physical blow. Once, on lovely, staid, comforting, BBC Radio 4, there was a programme about swearing. It was on late, but then droll comedian Arthur Smith came on talking about the early days of ‘Alternative’ comedy. He said that he started with a joke, which wasn’t funny, but always got a big laugh – and then he said it: “Why does Noddy have a bell on his hat? Because he’s a c**t.” I couldn’t believe my ears, and then Arthur Smith said: “I apologise to all the Radio 4 listeners, for my use of the word c**t.” Now, that word is one I often use, but hearing it on the radio, is a lot different from using it talking to your mates in the pub. It was actually jarring.

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