Look At Life: Mind Your Language

24th April 2015

Is it profane or profound?

Heather Harris

Apparently, swearing is ‘a harmless emotional release which could make you feel stronger’. Luckily the researchers who put forward this theory at the British Psychological Society conference in Birmingham were not within reaching distance of my mother. At 75, she would still have no qualms about washing their mouths out with soap – just as she did with my brothers and me forty years ago and with her own seven ‘foul-mouthed’ grandchildren over the decades.

“There are enough words in the English language without using offensive ones,” is her own personal theory, and on paper it’s tricky to argue with.

So why then do we ‘eff and blind’ more than ever? I blame David Cameron – if the Prime Minister of the day can, in an interview on commercial station Absolute Radio, quote someone as referring to his party as “effing Tories” and then suggest that the public are “p***ed off with politicians” – what message does that send to the rest of us?

The sad fact is that swearing has become as much a part of British life as queuing, rain and delayed trains (three things that can, ironically, often prompt a string of profanities). A High Court Judge even ruled that people should not be punished for hurling obscenities in public “because such words are now so common they no longer cause distress”, while The Guardian reported that ‘36% of the 308 UK senior managers and directors who responded to a survey accepted swearing as part of the workplace culture’ (despite the fact that offensive language can officially be cited as an Act of Gross Misconduct.)

And don’t even get me – or my mother – started on the subject of television. She’s still getting over hearing Scarlett O’Hara’s “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”, in the 1939 film classic Gone With The Wind, so what she’d make of BBC’s The Thick Of It, for example, I dare not put to the test.

This award-winning political satire was so full of ‘industrial language’ that one of its writers, Ian Martin was given the title of ‘swearing consultant’. It’s hardly surprising, then, that he argues that “swearing is by definition an aggressive, transgressive act. Its impact depends entirely on context. There is a huge difference between watching someone swear on the telly and watching someone swear outside a primary school…”

…which, to use, Boris Johnson’s favourite expletive is, in my opinion, “b***ocks”. He’s missing the point totally. It’s the very fact that swearing is broadcast into our homes on a pre-watershed nightly basis (the man controlling the bleeper button must surely have been made redundant) that means that children use it not only outside the playground but inside too.

They lip-read their favourite football stars abusing the referee and repeat it on their school pitches; they listen to music stars ‘eff and blind’ their way through the latest chart toppers before singing it on the school bus.

Ironically, this so called ‘harmless emotional release’ that the boffins at Keele University spent several years studying is no longer even linked to negative emotion. I regularly overhear my own teenagers talk to their friends (out of my earshot, or so they believe) and use swear words in a jokey or descriptive way. They don’t even realise they’re doing it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not pretending that Anglo Saxon expletives never cross my lips, but they’re usually brought on by pain – think finger trapped in car door, bare foot on Lego brick or the minor matter of childbirth.

And science allows this. According to senior psychology lecturer Dr Richard Stephens, “Swearing makes us feel less pain.” In his research study participants were handed a glass of water filled with ice and split into two groups – one told to swear and the other to keep quiet. The group allowed to swear held the ice-cold glass for longer.

However, he also disputes the theory that foul language is a sign of ignorance. “The stereotype that those who swear have a low IQ or are inarticulate is wrong,” he says. “It is rich emotional language.”

My mother and I would disagree. So would Peter Foot – and Vladimir Putin.

Mr Foot, Chairman of the National Campaign for Courtesy which lobbies for better manners in British life, argues, “If you want to do it in your own room, that’s fine. But if you’re in a place where you’re in earshot of other people it can be very distressing”, while in 2011 the Russian President passed a law banning swearing in Russian plays, films and books.

The debate is likely to rage on. Let’s just hope that all sides can remain calm and, of course, mind their language…

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