I am packing suitcases so that Libby, the boys and I can take our reluctant leave of Cornwall. I am being observed by a visiting Australian brother-in-law who for no particular reason, starts to sing absently.
‘I’m not a pheasant plucker, I’m a pheasant plucker’s mate, I’m only plucking pheasants…’
‘Cos the pleasant fucker’s…’
‘LATE!’ He shouts, eyebrows raised.
‘Pardon my French.’ I say, not meaning it.
‘Children.’ He hisses, glancing into the hall where unsuspecting kids might lurk.
‘It’s nothing they haven’t heard before.’ I tell him.
‘Mine haven’t.’ He shoots back.
‘You do know they go to school right?’
‘Yeah but…’ I trail off and start thinking, could it be true? Had his children really never heard any swear words? How was that even possible? It would explain a few things, like why they hadn’t seen ‘Back to the Future’ and were both reading ‘Swallows and Amazons.’ Shit! I was at it again, thinking swearing was perfectly normal, me, the notorious potty mouth, the one Libby once furnished with a proper swear jar with a label and everything. She’d quickly given up on it though as it never contained anything but brown or plastic coins and what little there was I would sneakily recycle, that or cover my swear debt with IOU’s. I never gave the jar any serious consideration to be honest, had always felt there was no such thing as bad language, only emphasis, all the best people swear and taking offence is optional, it’s entirely up to you, your choice, it’s never my intention to offend anyone.
This of course is not an excuse, not that I’m looking for one, I have always been aware that some words are unacceptable in polite company and since having children have made an effort at home to curb my trooper inclination, admittedly with limited success. I couldn’t understand it, I never swore in front of pensioners or Seventh-Day Adventists, though at dinner parties, amongst friends, I was renowned for my inventive invective. It’s not affectation, truth is I want to swear all the time but mostly contain it, which makes it sound like a condition, which it’s not. I enjoy it, the jolt of it, how certain words punch so much above their weight, cunt for example, see how you just stumbled over it, not that I use it very often I much prefer fuck, the Swiss Army knife of swear words. I think I gained my true appreciation of it when I lived in Sydney, despite my brother-in-law’s reservations Australians swear with abandon and fuck is their favourite. I once overheard the following conversation in a Balmain pub between two cash-in-hand plasterers, I was so taken with it I wrote it down on a beer mat. I have provided unnecessary translation.
‘Fuckin fucker fuckin fucked us.’ (Our unpleasant boss has swindled us both)
‘Did e fuck.’ (Surely not)
‘Fuckin did.’ (I am afraid it’s true)
‘Right fucker. (The utter cad)
‘Fuckin right.’ (Absolutely)
‘We’ll fuck im’. (We had better put him straight then)
‘Fuckin will.’ (I completely concur)
‘Fuckin fucker’s fuckin fucked.’ (The bounder will be set upon most grievously)
It’s like Shakespeare only less sweary, Australia is an inspiring place, it’s not called the fucking lucky country for nothing. England is different, still quite taken with imprecation but usually only in vetted company, or in Shakespeare. Which is why I was constantly surprised when I swore in front of the children. It was less flamboyant than at dinner parties with only the occasional curse parping out. It was never in anger, more a case of being relaxed enough not to self-censor, like farting in bed and besides they were all boys, swearing was second nature, well it would be. None of this really flew with Libby who, after the swear jar fiasco, tried a different tack by telling our youngest Joa if anything untoward should ever escape my lips to ignore it but also to tell me off, which is somewhat contradictory I know. Unfortunately Joa has ears like a bat, no really, they’re big and pointy, and he can hear the softest of shits from the far end of the apartment which means I am constantly being upbraided from a distance. His standard admonishment though is so sweetly comedic (Daddy, I won’t tell you again) that I might actually be guilty of swearing more than I need just so I can hear him tell me that he won’t tell me again, again.
Perhaps that is the slightly bothersome point, like Father like son, after all I was rudely introduced to the joys of the unencumbered vocab by my Dad. It was an unintentional education on his part but it was captivating, specialising as he did in the combination expletive. I remember him once saying something divinely diverse, deserved yet utterly disgraceful to the milkman over the previous day’s milk-bottle-trip-hazard that left the hapless chap quite unable to deliver. He gave no sense of offence taken, just of white flag waved and his surrender left me impressed for entirely the wrong reason, enough to want to master my own ballistic linguistics. I don’t blame my Father, he was a thoroughly honourable gent, but thinking about it I can see that I was seduced by the power of the magic oaths he cast. Not that I’m unusual, everybody swears, it’s completely natural, oh yes it is, and if any further justification for my predilection for bad diction is required there follows a potted history of swearing.
Swear words are actually the most commonly used words in the English language and always have been. So there. The concept of swearing is an ancient one, one that has been with us since the dawn of speech, though actually calling it swearing is fairly recent. During the Reformation it was not unusual for succeeding monarchs to switch religions and when they did they would call upon their subjects to demonstrate loyalty to them and their particular faith. This resulted in the swearing of an oath to a god you quite possibly did not believe in and as a consequence taking God’s name in vain became increasingly common. ‘Swearing’ and ‘Oath’ became shorthand for offensive language. The offence caused by blasphemy or slur is obvious but the power of other expletives is a mystery and literal meaning is often only a part of it. So called dirty words, those based on bodily function only gained traction when those functions, once carried out in public, became private, this is typical of oaths, privacy, secrecy, taboo. So much so that swear words are held in a separate part of the brain, away from decent language and letting them out causes not only a shock to the recipient’s mind but also increases their skin conductivity, swear words are both figuratively and literally, electrifying.
Is it any wonder then that we are equally fascinated and repelled by them? Denying their existence is pointless, you are already in possession of them, or more likely, they are in possession of you. These are powerful incantations, weaponised by generations of context, the very tip of our pain, our fury, our prejudice. They can speak volumes with a single word, can amuse, ameliorate, shock and deeply offend, their potential is almost limitless. I love the sound of them, their flavour in my mouth but fully understand that others hear and taste them differently, even I am vulnerable if they are turned against me. This is why I have to begrudgingly admit that the Australian brother-in-law has a point. I will never believe that any words are innately bad, every word has a purpose, even racial or cultural epithet but it is up to us to ensure correct and appropriate usage. Innocence is simply a lack of knowledge and it is my duty as a parent to contain ideas that I don’t want my children to entertain just yet and swear words carry, whether I like it or not, really big ideas, some of them disagreeable. With this in mind I am determined to keep a tighter lid on my abiding proclivity, pretend I am in an old people’s home or a church or something, from now on I will endeavour to try harder, to set a better example, to ensure that I seem, in the eyes of my sons at least, a really pheasant plucker.