I Swear

To use a ‘swear’ word is rather different from using most other words. Many swear words are context-free – they can be used on their own. They become power words – like a mantra that plugs directly into the limbic system of the brain, the centre where emotions reside. Hearing the most powerful swear words jolts us out of conversational language mode, and into an area which evokes a primitive response, or it should anyway. If you believe, as I do, that the underlying structures of language are hard-wired into our brains, then that’s maybe not surprising. It’s true also that most of our ‘taboo’ words refer to sexual parts, acts or bodily functions, the most fundamental of our body image descriptors. I mean you don’t hear (or delete) expletives like, “You’re an absolute shoulder blade!” Or, “Go digest yourself!”

It took me a long time before I would use the f-word in speech, and even longer to use it in poetry. I don’t use the c-word at all, ever, either in speech or writing. And yet swearing does have its uses. It’s recently been established that swearing reduces the perception of pain by a significant amount. And last year, when I fell off my bike and broke my arm, I repeated the f-word, no, the F-WORD (for I said it loudly) several times. That’s part of its power.

And yet we’ve all been in situations when we’ve heard others use the taboo words routinely in conversation, until the repetition dulls their emotional impact, and with none of the humour and inventiveness of ‘The Thick of It’. What’s left in our mantra cupboard if the most powerful words have lost their potential to shock or energise? Fuck all.


This is a simultaneous blog linked to the following blogs:

Mairi Sharratt – A lump in the Throat

Caroline Mary Crew – Flotsam

Colin Will – Sunny Dunny

Andrew Philip – Tonguefire

Sally Evans – desktopsallye

Kevin Cadwallender – Cadwallender

Claire Askew – One Night Stanzas

Russell Jones – Russell Jones

Alastair Cook – Written in my hand

Martaerre Sobrecueva – de la poesia y otras disciplinas en palabras

Tony Williams – Tony Williams’s Poetry Blog


About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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3 Responses to I Swear

  1. Jim Murdoch says:

    The instance of swearing that always sticks with me because it is so powerful is the old woman in Beckett’s Rockaby who, towards the very end of the piece, says: “Fuck life.” Far more powerful that the wall of swearing that film-makers like Tarantino feel they need.

    Of course growing up in Scotland I’m used to swearing. I remember my brother when he worked at ICI got into the habit of swearing constantly and he said to me, “Jimmy, if you don’t stick a swearword into every sentence they don’t understand what you’re talking about.”

    I blogged about this a while ago and one of the questions I asked is where are all the new swearwords. I now see that the c-word is starting to appear more and more in films and on TV but what’s left?

  2. I agree with many of the things you’ve said here. Swearing also works to emphasise something, “It was f*cking brilliant” which in a sense, I think it quite ‘nice’.

    In response to Jim, some new swearwords would be good. Things like “feltch” are sometimes used but I’m not sure whether it’s considered a swear word, though it’s certainly used as an insult.

  3. meghan says:

    Interesting blog, enjoyed reading it. however I do disagree with nearly all of it! I have gotten used to being in environments where words like fuck and bastard are just part of the lingo. far from them jolting me out of conversational mode, they practically define it. from folk sessions, to the factory where I worked until recently, to the university room, to my shared office, to pubs, to various flats, I’m very rarely in a social context where people don’t say ‘fuck’ – and even more rarely in a social context where the word fuck is likely to offend.

    it seems to me that language still has the power to offend though. homophobic slurs and racial slurs and certain phrases are still considered offensive, not because of their lexicography but because of their semantic content (which seems to me logical). we live in an age where calling someone a ‘poof’ or a ‘paki’ is perceived as far more offensive than calling them a fucking bastardin cunt, which seems to me as it should be really. the most offensive thing anyone has ever called me is ‘working class scum’ – I think the elitist classist implications here are far worse than anything that ‘cunt’ ‘bitch’ etc has to offer. if someone pisses you off, you have a right to verbalise your upset, and i think society now acknowledges this now that profanity is enjoying something of renaissance. but things like discrimination, racism and elitism which used to be socially acceptable are receeding. Top gear presenters get hassle for using phrases like ‘ginger beer’ (cockney rhyming slang for queer) in a derogatory context. language still has offensive and violent power, but this power has transferred from traditional ‘swear’ words to words which transgress the accepted norms of political correctness. Politeness is out, PCness is in. And linguistically at least, they’re not the same.

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