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Language | Literacy | Linguistics

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Swearing is an art. Some people do it extremely well. Very occasionally, the ability is a job requirement, traditionally so for an English sergeant-major drilling a parade ground of squaddies and quite commonly today for stand-up comedians. I have no talent whatsoever, brought up in a milieu where swearing was equated with letting yourself down. My father could direct a vicious tirade at his wife, full of hate-filled epithets, not one of them drawn from the standard repertoire of swear words. 

    The dictionary for those starts from an initial division into two principal categories,  obscenities and profanities. The former make essential reference to the sexual and excretory organs and their activities. The latter refer to things sacred in religions. In actual use, the vocabularies are not mutually exclusive and words from both categories can be combined, as in Jesus fucking Christ!  I don’t often see that in print, though when I put it inside quotation marks Google gave me 425,000 results so clearly I have led a sheltered reading life. There is a third, more complicated category, that of derogatory expressions which I shall consider later.

    Swearing is rooted in speech and written uses are heavily derivative and subject to extensive censorship and self-censorship which still continue on an industrial scale. Novelists have to handle the problem that swearing is most clearly authentic (and in consequence, much less likely to be embarrassing) when it vehicles the immediate expression of an occurrent feeling like anger or surprise or disgust; it is not readily something to be recollected and re-used in tranquillity. It is actually quite hard for a writer to get it right when either a narrator or a character is made to swear. Creative writing classes are littered with failed attempts. The attempts fall into the same wastebin as those which reckon that use the word spiffing and you have created an English public school milieu or use wench and you have done enough to bring on tankards and heartiness. 

Silence is So Accurate is Trevor Pateman's second A-to-Z book of essays, inviting us to think more about what we take for granted. Provocative and impatient, its author considers our weaknesses in how we use language, our hesitancy in challenging our own intellectual conventions, and the dilemmas that war and survival create for our moral certainties. The imprint under which the books are published, "degree zero", acknowledges a debt to Roland Barthes with whom Pateman studied in the early 1970s

But even if such difficulties are overcome, maybe after a Creative Writing class devoted to Philip Roth, there are lots of words that are still avoided in print or on websites. For example, suppose you want to check the first line of Philip Larkin’s poem and Google ‘Your Mum and Dad’ + ‘Larkin’. There are only 26,000 results. Of the first 20, thirteen give an accurate text for the first line. I take this as a measure of Progress. Seven give variant readings: three propose in place of the word fuck the alternative f***; two read it as f - - - ; one, obviously for those slower on the uptake, has f*ck; one offers the mystifying variant ****.

    Except for the last, all the variants have been provided on the assumption that the reader will be able to decode them back to fuck, though that will still leave it unclear what Larkin actually wrote; maybe he wrote f*ck and so f*ck requires no decoding. Logically, they don’t help the person who is trying to establish an authentic text, though it’s true we can be pretty sure that Larkin did not write f*ck because for a serious poet it would be a reputation-destroying choice. But because of the uncertainty they create, stars should never appear high up in Google searches. It would be relatively easy to create an algorithm that demoted stars and dashes versions of anything to the tail end. (I shall suggest this to Google.) 

    Interestingly, there is perhaps still some awkwardness about that first line, even though it dates from 1971, and which leads us to hasten past a possible subtlety in the way it works. Take out the phrase they fuck you up and compare it with they magic you up or they conjure you up and then let the penny drop and you get they conceive you—and it’s true: they may not mean to but they do.

    Before I continue, let me try to inspire a passing linguist to do a little research.  How many native speakers of English do not know the word fuck? What is the average age at which children get to know fuck and at what age do they acquire some idea about what it might refer to? How many adult native speakers of English have never used fuck in speech or in writing? Failing the research, go on, Guess.

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You don’t have to be a linguist to tackle the next question: What words cannot be spelt out in contemporary English-language mass-circulation media? I did a little study of the news website which, frankly, seemed to have set itself up for my purposes. I recorded headlines from its news stories, not very scientifically because I did not record every day. But at the end of a couple of months, I had accumulated a stack of headlines, keeping screen grabs so that my research could be verified. I spare you their bold type but not their Capitalisation and provide some examples:

23 March 2016

David Cameron Wants Us All To Get S**tfaced For The Queen’s Birthday


12 April 2016 

Film Shows Disability Benefits Assessor Calling Woman ‘F**king Fat'        


19 April 2016 

Aussie Website Names Couple And Takes The P*ss Of Injunction


8 May 2016

Boris Johnson's Final Act As Mayor Sees Him Branded A ‘P***k’               


18 May 2016

Emily Thornberry Mouths ‘B******s’ At David Cameron Across The Commons


Toe-curling, isn’t it? How could anyone take this website seriously? Just reflect a bit on what is going on. Emily Thornberry is seen mouthing Bollocks at David Cameron and The Huffington Post (along with lots of other news outlets) wants you to know this. But they aren’t prepared to tell you in plain English. Why? For fear that you will be offended? But how could six stars solve that problem? They know that you know the word bollocks and they know that you know that stars are meant to be replaced with letters (they give you the correct number of stars to do the job) and so, after a 0.05 second delay while you search, you get to what the headline is trying to nudge you to, that Emily Thornberry said a naughty word. And then what? Are you meant to snigger and say Ooh, Emily, you naughty girl? Is that what some sub-editor did, preparing this nonsense? There is a word for it: Juvenile. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe the word is: American.

    To be fair, the Huffington Post is not alone. Around the time I was monitoring for stars in their words, the Guardian interviewed Jessa Crispin, founder of the website Bookslut. In the course of the interview, she opined that ‘The Paris Review is boring as fuck’—that’s her style, though in this instance maybe not so brilliant as ‘The New Yorker is a dentist magazine.’ Anyway, the Guardian website duly headlined the interview ‘The Paris Review is boring,’ which makes you wonder why they were interviewing Jessa Crispin in the first place. They must know that she isn’t suitable for a Sunday School newspaper.

Trevor Pateman was born in 1947 and has always lived in southern England, except for a student year spent in Paris in the 1970s. His doctorate was rewritten as Language in Mind and Language in Society (OUP 1987). He taught at the University of Sussex for 20 years and then became a stamp dealer, travelling extensively and specialising in territories that were once part of Imperial Russia and later the Soviet Union

It is possible to use obscene or profane words without using derogatory language, and vice versa. The real author (Nabokov) of the fictional Foreword to Lolita correctly observes that ‘not a single obscene term is to be found in the whole work’—a failed attempt to keep the word ‘pornography’ away from the novel—but Humbert Humbert does describe Charlotte Haze as the big bitch and the mad bitch, though neither has the venom of The Haze woman. 

    Though it is not easy (or even sensible) to build a dictionary of derogatory words, in derogatory speech people often liken humans to animals and use words which have a legitimate use to talk about those animals, in the same way that those who profane use words which have a legitimate use in religious contexts. I suspect that our sense of what is and isn’t in the Derogatory dictionary will not stand much analytical scrutiny. For example, to call a man a swine is more acceptable than to call a woman a bitch and I am sure that the Huffington Post sub-editor would want to see at least one star in the latter but none at all in the former. But that would seem more like old-world courtesy than as something analytically grounded. Only a cad calls a woman a bitch, but anyone can call a man a swine. Since I am not a cad I have never in my life used the former. It has always been off-limits. But that, of course, would not much comfort my feminist friends. It arrives at the same result of avoiding derogatory language but by a different means, and the different means is not the one they want—indeed, rightly see as part of the problem. I am not here to defend old world courtesy either.

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I avoid the main issue. I am all in favour of people using obscene and profane language, especially if they do it well and make me laugh. I think **** should be abolished, and removed from the keyboard if necessary. But what do I think about derogatory language? It’s tricky, partly because of the dictionary problem. Derogatory is something you do, it’s about the relationship between you and what you say and the target of what you say. It is you who derogates someone or something, not a word. Sometimes, you will draw on ready-to-hand words, pre-adapted for derogatory use and strong candidates for the dictionary; at other times, you will try to be more inventive in rubbishing a person or an idea. In my book The Best I Can Do, there was a point at which I wanted to aim fire at readers of the Daily Express. I go into my corner shop and read each day’s ludicrous or vicious headline and twist in the wind at the thought that there are people who every day buy this newspaper and read it seriously. It’s not a choice I feel respectful of. It doesn’t make matters any better that this newspaper’s target audience are those who will forget tomorrow what they read today, sparing the Daily Express the tiresome work of changing the News. Forgetful or not, those who buy the newspaper deserve a bit of discomfort. So I called them dead souls. Derogatory?  I hope so. As for the people who write the headlines, I can only think of someone else’s words: Nothing occurs to me.

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