Changing language at the far canal

Words change their meanings from time to time as we have noted recently with regard to “misogyny”. Gerard Henderson tries to tease from the Editor of the Macquarie Dictionary, Sue Butler, the exact nature of the process; alas, not entirely to his satisfaction.
Those of us who have watched Gerard’s traversal of the Australian mediascape are well aware that he likes his ends neatly tied in a satisfactory manner. We also know that he takes a great deal of care in his use of language as he is well aware that poorly deployed words and phrases can very easily ruin an otherwise exemplary argument. Words should be accurately used to construct coherent phrases, which can then be arrayed in clear and concise sentences. OK, he can be a bit pedantic!
Which makes it interesting that on his honour wall he is happy to include certain words that we would scarcely have imagined passing his lips 20 or 30 years ago, even when reading a poorly edited Robert Manne column: “half arsed buffoon”, “pretentious turd”, and the slightly more problematic “complete f-ckwit”, not yet entirely suitable for you. In the body of epistle 160 Gerard himself is happy to run with the mildly blasphemous “gosh” (a minced oath) and flush a “turd” of his own. Language moves on.
This is part of the story of “Filthy Language” by Peter Silverton which tries to trace the use of filthy language down the centuries and across cultures. Unsurprisingly there were some naughty graffiti left behind in Pompeii (perhaps lightly translated). More surprising are some of the phrases that pass for nasty swears in some cultures. Mao Zedong referred to Chiang Kai Shek as a turtle egg which relates to an additional meaning of turtle as a brothel pimp, and a turtle egg as the bastard child of a prostitute. Some scholars have thought that the Japanese don’t swear, but this relates more to a certain reticence on their part about discussing such matters with outsiders. I sent someone off to Japan, which I have never visited, with the phrase “henna gaijin” (crazy foreigner) and it was apparently poorly received in Nihon.
Swearing was typically censored from the printing presses for many years except for specialist productions, and was easy to keep off the air when there were less than a handful of radio or tv stations operating in a city, or even the entire UK. Silverton sees the advent of more truly mass media as having made clearer the demotic usage of swearwords, and also promoted their use. Ken Tynan was a theatre producer waging a war on the role of the censor in the London theatre in 1965 when he dropped a more in sorrow than anger academic fuck on a late night discussion show on the most highbrow of the BBCs 3 networks. Outrage ensued. Mary Whitehouse suggested he should be caned for his indiscretion, which young Ken with his SM proclivities might have quite enjoyed. And then in 1977 Bill Grundy interviewed the Sex Pistols.
In the USA circa 1970 George Carlin was doing his stand up routine about the 7 words which could not be said on network tv. It is difficult to believe that in 1970 the words piss and tits could be banned from television. It is also difficult for an Australian to believe that at that time the words arsehole, bastard, bloody and bugger were not on the list. To be fair though, “the bloody red baron of Germany” was very popular in primary schoolyards in the mid 1960s, so the supposedly blasphemous reference to the blood of our Lord must have been rapidly waning in swear power even here. Chesterton’s point from 100 years ago is even more relevant today in the secular West: “Blasphemy depends upon belief and is fading with it. If anyone doubts this, …try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor.“
George’s other five naughty words were shit, fuck, cunt and the American double barrel words. Mofo is the black word and cosu is the white word apparently, so you don’t often hear them as a double barrelled pile-on. Fuck was the biggie for a very long time and the extraordinary flexibility with which it can be used explains its long term popularity. Repetition may be reducing its innate charm and shock value. Sid and Nancy was possibly the first time I heard it on tv on SBS in the late 80s. Deadwood apparently clocked in at a record setting 92 fph. Cunt is the new peak swear and many people remain embarrassed by the word, although Vagina Monologues features a group therapy chant for its patrons at the end of the show, mainly middle aged women. Normalisation proceeds.
A part of Silverton’s argument is that where people in the past were reluctant to use the F word or the C bomb they are now more likely to be concerned about the use of the N word. Racist epithets are the new no go zone supposedly. The great unsayable was once YWHW and then we moved on to sexual behaviour and genitalia. “Now (swearing’s) focus has moved from the spiritual and genital to that other source of selfhood – community. Hence the new awfulness of ‘nigger’ and ‘paki’. Swearing and the taboos around it are extremely important ways of pointing to, protecting and dramatising our most private and essential selves. In a time of unprecedented social, religious and skin-colour collisions, it’s not really a surprise that that’s where the swearing action is.”
As the subject is necessarily poorly documented there will be errors along the way. One of the claims in the book is that root is reputedly nearly as naughty as fuck in Australia. Wouldn’t have thought so. I would place it an order of magnitude down: consider the boot, and consider the duck as exclamations of bewilderment.
All in all, I’d have to say that it was a pretty bloody good read. This is a thought provoking book about an aspect of human life all too often hidden away and not discussed. Silverton is not a language specialist, more an interested observer and active participant in the evolution of swearing. He brings his enthusiasm for the topic with him. Sadly blasphemy is not covered in any depth, but then no-one really wants to be the next Salman Rushdie. Those words still have real power.


About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
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