As a child I was sheltered from the adult world in many ways. One part, to which I returned this week was swearing and what one might describe as Oaths, Ancient and Modern.
During my primary school years, I became aware of swearing though it was mild by today’s standards. The worst swearing imaginable was to insert ‘bloody’ into a sentence such as: ‘That’s bloody ridiculous.’
Dad also had problems with ‘damn’. And he squirmed if either the Archaeologist or I said ‘Oh God.’
Being told ‘Don’t swear,’ if we used these words was pretty common the older we got. The hypocrisy too as he wasn’t able, as was mum, to control his language under strain. But then again it was a time of don’t do as I do, do as I say.
As for the F and C words? I couldn’t have guessed what they might be, back then. Flipping? Cripes? Possibly the C might be a bit more blaspheming in a dad’s eyes: Oh Christ! That was a no no. So what could be worse than that?
I turned two corners in my early teenage years, in terms of language.
First, when my Uncle un-emigrated from Australia. I remembered my uncle and aunt from the early sixties but only snippets. They had a car before mum and dad. They loved picnicking. And uncle sang ‘There was an old lady who swallowed a fly…’ with lots of actions, just for me.
Then they decided to try their luck as ten pound poms, or whatever scheme was in place. When they returned, ten years or so later, they brought my two cousins. My first cousins, two lively super blonde girls of about six and four. We met at my gran’s in Kent and that first day is memorable for a walk to the shops. My aunt had us play a game of not treading on the edge of the pavement. When my cousin lost her balance and crossed a crack, her response shook me.
‘Oh bloody hell!’ She was about six.*
(* my cousin, however, denies this. Of course she does. She has the same, or similar, genes, the same instinct to snobbery as me).
I looked at my aunt. She smiled back at me. It didn’t matter. It was just a word.
I’m not sure how I processed this. But I’m pretty sure, after that, I wasn’t so intimidated by the power of language.
And the second thing? Chaucer. Studying English literature was eye opening. His language was… erm, earthy? Extraordinary? And we were being taught about it as if it was normal. No longer would the C word be cripes…
The power of language is extraordinary. So many words are used to hurt, to control, to embarrass, to belittle. But of course, it’s not the word itself, but who’s using it and to what end. Watching the Hoffman film on Lenny Bruce in the 70s had a strong impact. Since then I’ve been cautious about those who try and dictate what language I can use. I understand some words have been made to carry associations that give them a power over and above others. I am happy to abide by the cultural norms, if otherwise it would cause offence. They will no doubt change as they have changed before in my time.
But swearing? Nope, I enjoy it too much to stop now.