Curse? Not bloody likely!

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SOMETIMES I could just curse the postal service – especially when a reader’s letter goes missing as I figure if someone takes the trouble to write to me, the least I can do is acknowledge the effort. Talk about “snail mail” becoming “fail mail”.

It seems to have happened – according to a note received by one of my colleagues – to a letter about a column I wrote about the benefits of swearing, not as part of regular conversation but when you hit your finger, toe or whatever.

And even though I’m not a huge fan of swearing, I’ll admit I’ve been known to let slip a few “naughties” in my time (I was in the music business, after all). The claim about the efficacy of expletives wasn’t my own, though, it was from one of those seemingly pointless studies some universities appear to constantly churn out.

The reader says she finds the way swearing has evolved an interesting “side-light on language”.

“In the ‘old’ days,” she writes, “one swore with serious intent, calling God to witness the truth of your statement, etc, or damning a soul to hell, and so on.

“This became trivialised as we later read of ‘God’s bodikins’, which came from God’s body; ‘zounds!’ from God’s wounds, and so on.

“Later again, we just had ‘hell’ and ‘damn it’ … and ‘Jesus’ became ‘Jeez’ or ‘Gee-whiz’.”

And the boundaries, as the letter writer says, are constantly being pushed further.

Well, as they apparently would have said in 1914 England, isn’t that the pygmalion truth!

That was after the UK’s then most famous female star, Mrs Patrick Campbell, shocked the nation by swearing on stage, according to the latest MacMillan Dictionary Blog that just dropped into my e-mail inbox as a seemingly synchronous addition to the subject.

Never mind the fact that at 49 she was a little long in the tooth for the part, Mrs Campbell appeared as the ingénue Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s famous play, Pygmalion. Not that he minded – he said he wrote the part specially for her. And, in any case, no other actress of the day would say the then-taboo word.

The line she uttered? “Walk? Not bloody likely.”

It was scandalous at the time.

“The word pygmalion was used for decades afterwards as a jocular substitute expletive,” explains the blog.

And although “bloody” may seem tame to most people today, it apparently still has the power to shock.
“Just a few years ago [2006], its use in a tourism campaign in Australia caused a considerable fuss,” says MacMillan, noting that the Aussie prime minister couldn’t bring himself to speak the offending line: So where the bloody hell are you?”

The tourism minister had no such problem. “It’s the great Australian adjective. We all use it, it’s part of our language.”

As a “colloquial intensifier”, I’d say it’s pretty innocuous. What do you think? – Stevie Godson

(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch)

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This entry was posted by stevieg on Sunday, November 13th, 2011 at 11:14 am and is filed under General . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. The historical path of swearing has not been a straightforward one. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is frequently coarse. Shakespeare, Milton and Bacon could all turn a choice Anglo-Saxonism or two. And John Donne was a shocker , for a priest.
    In my own early life as a junior copywriter I was asked to research some advertising from the birth of newspapers in Restoration England. It was totally off task and nothing to do with my assignment, but I will always remember an ad from the Spectator detailing a bet between two aristocrats. I can’t remember the exact names but the ad went something like:
    Lord Something has bet the Earl of Somewhere that he can f**k Lady Whatsit by three o’clock on Friday.
    Much of our current aversion to the more colourful aspects of English stem from the Victorians and their misplaced belief that if things were spoken of only in euphemisms, then they would soon disappear. It’s the same sort of reasoning why there were no laws against Lesbianism in England while male homosexuality was punishable by long jail sentences. Women just didn’t do that sort of thing.
    With today’s frequent use of the f-word and other swear words particularly in youth culture (I’m an ex-teacher too), I feel that we are losing a strength of the language. A recent discussion with my own teenage kids showed that they don’t regard either ‘bloody’ or ‘bugger’ as swear words (both have been used in TV commercials here in NZ recently).
    A language needs to be able to express strong emotion – such as hammering a thumb – with a suitably strong word. If those words are over used then they become diluted in strength and the emotion has less outlet.
    Look what has happened in Israel where spoken Hebrew was reconstituted by religious scholars from the scriptures. They omitted to supply any swear words. So most Israelis now swear in Arabic or English or combine Hebrew words to make translations of English swearwords eg ben (son of) zona (female dog).
    There is a need for swearing, but like anything really, there is also a time and a place for it.

    • stevieg says:

      What an interesting take on the subject, Paul. I think you’re right – the Victorians probably were largely to blame. They had obviously never heard the children’s rhyme about sticks and stones… As for “ignore it and it’ll go away”, well that didn’t work, did it! Probably made it all that much more attractive.
      I was fascinated to read about what happened in Israel. I didn’t know that, so thanks for enlightening me (think I feel a new column coming on…will credit your inspiration, of course).

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