Matt Gemmell

Profanity

5 min read1364 words

I’ve been known to use profanity on occasion, like everyone else. It’s infrequent here on my blog, and only slightly more common on Twitter. Still, I get complaints.

Actually, ‘complaints’ is probably too strong a word: I see people mentioning it in a disapproving way. Those people will no doubt find this article offensive too. The usual sort of remark I get is that such-and-such a piece was interesting or worth reading, but it’s a shame about the “bad language”.

Swearing isn’t bad language. Swearing is essential language.

I periodically check the incoming links to this site. I remember a particular time when someone had actually complained about the “potty mouth”. That’s a direct quote. I can only assume it was either a child, or an adult with a child’s mental age. I think I’d had the temerity to say “fuck”, within sight of this prudish Victorian time-traveller with the vocabulary of a five year old.

There’s a long history of using slang terms for genitalia as curse-words, of course. An inconsiderate person is a dick, and a wilfully obnoxious person is a cock, for example. But that’s barely half the story.

I grew up in the city of Glasgow, in Scotland. We swear a lot, and in almost every situation. We have a healthy relationship with profanity. We obtain our full measure of utility from it, as an emotive and an intensifier, a defuser and a restorer of perspective. More importantly, it’s a joyous thing. There’s such relish in a properly-prepared and skilfully wielded curse word. It’s like exquisite seasoning for language.

More than that, though, profanity is a powerful pressure-release valve. Any injured feelings after a jibe, prank, defeat, humiliation or otherwise can be salved immediately by lambasting the perpetrator with some choice curses (perhaps out of earshot, as discretion requires). Profanity can drain the tension right out of you. It’s a terrible shame to waste that power by abstaining from a few words. It’d be even more of a shame to hold negative feelings inside unnecessarily, allowing them to fester.

Not all swearing is equal, admittedly. Profanity is overused, and used too soon – usually by those with an unsophisticated vocabulary. If I want to actually insult you, I won’t be using unadorned curse words. Only the feeble-minded (or temporarily rage-blinded, perhaps) would actually say “fuck you” in earnest. It’s a child’s insult, only given weight by mutual immaturity.

In the same way, shock and outrage over profanity exist only for the willingly repressed. There are those who voluntarily yoke themselves under preposterous limitations of self-expression, despite being adults, and swearing tends to be one of their regular taboos. I pity them. Linguistically, they’re operating with one arm tied behind their backs.

Profanity lives and breathes. It’s vital, in both senses of the word. Language is one of the prime examples of evolution, and is ruthless in its selectiveness. Unsuitable words are excised from the common tongue in far less than a generation. New terms mutate into existence on a daily basis, are tested by society (often globally, these days), and either take hold or vanish. It’s an unquenchably egalitarian system that delights and frustrates in equal measure. We have “LOL” and “sext”, and “blog” and “selfie”, and thousands more.

But we also have “fuck”. Fuck lives on. Fuck thrives. It couldn’t do that if we weren’t still finding it useful. If we weren’t throwing it around, trying it out, and discovering that, yes, at times it does add a certain something.

There’s nothing inherently special about fuck. You can make it from “fun” and “duck”, and have three letters left over. It might as well be “blir” or “morv” instead. The magic comes from the fact that we’ve reserved it.

Socially and collectively, in an almost unequalled act of universal cooperation, altruism and shared will, we’ve made it special. When someone says this word (we’ve decided), we’ll have an amplified reaction. We will understand that the speaker means to impart an uncommon degree of emotional intensity to their statement.

Profanity is a linguistic special move. Forward, down, down-forward, punch: Shoryuken! Or indeed, Shoryu-cunt, if you must. Because we’re adults.

Were you shocked at my use of “the c-word” there?

Yes, you may very well have been: even I was shocked, because it’s a bit of a special case, isn’t it? By definition it’s misogynistic, which is reason enough for condemnation. It’s not part of my daily vocabulary, and I’m a little ashamed to have said it at all; such is the power we’ve given to an arrangement of four letters. You can’t deny that it’s jarring. In fact, it’s almost talismanic. You can still feel the aftershocks from the moment you read it, like the unnatural whine of utter silence after a bell has been struck.

You’ve just witnessed the effect I’ve been talking about – and it only works by mutual consent, en masse. It’s an amazing achievement; a monument to our species. If only we could pull that trick off more regularly, and in other fields of endeavour.

There is such a thing as bad swearing, too – it’s bad in the sense of just not being done very well. I see it periodically on blogs and even hear it in podcasts: the “angry teenager” style of discourse where almost every sentence has a swear word, blunting all impact and leaving the audience with the impression of someone who’s afraid they don’t have enough of actual value to say. When you’re always angry enough to swear, you’re maladjusted.

We know those words too, little boy. We’re not impressed.

The rest of us are grown-ups. There’s no need to practise the absurd, infantile self-censorship of using phrases like “the f-word”, as if we were giggling schoolchildren. We can choose whichever words we like, and we hopefully know there’s no such thing as a word you should never use.

It’s faintly ridiculous, and amusing, to apply a moral judgement to something like a word, across all possible contexts. Curse words are amoral, not immoral. Profanity is rich, expressive and exceptionally useful. It’s a wonderful and legitimate tool, when wielded judiciously. It wouldn’t exist otherwise.

Our culture has some catching up to do. This article, for example, will gain fewer links than others. Those it does gain will have quaint warnings (written by adults) about the monstrous use of words that everyone knows and probably uses themselves from time to time. I’ll even include a warning myself, when I tweet about it. I’ll lose a few followers for having the temerity to discuss this subject.

More vexingly, some people will mark this article as “not safe for work”; an environment presumably populated entirely by adults. Naturally, it’ll also get some wanton and gratuitous expletive-including citations that just come off as puerile, thus rather missing the whole point. That’s inevitable – for the moment. But perhaps we can make some progress, in time.

I’m not asking you to add a swear word where you wouldn’t have before. That would only dull the magic, and bleed some of the colour from the world. I’m just inviting you to think for a moment the next time you automatically reject some of the most resonant and accessible words our language has to offer. Are you truly doing so for reasons of style? Or an outdated, unnecessary reluctance to speak how people actually do?

If it’s the latter, I’d advise you to think again. Approach the issue with a calm mind. Remember that you’re not a child anymore, and your reader probably isn’t either.

Yes, there are a hundred words you might use instead, and plenty of people who would sanctimoniously thank you for doing so. But are you still truly making your point? Is your voice authentic? What of art, and aptness?

Sometimes, the word you’re really looking for is fuck.


There are ten instances of profanity in this article, of which seven are “the f-word”. Did it seem like more? This piece is thus approximately 0.8% profane, for the record, and by far the most curse-laden thing I’ve ever published.

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