I hate to break this to you,” my 10-year-old announced. “But everyone at school swears.”
“That may be true,” I told him, “but it doesn’t mean you have to.”
My grandfather had a favourite saying, “Swearing is evidence of a poor vocabulary.” Needless to say, my grandfather never swore as far as I can remember. He did make up wonderful stories, for example of monkeygland sauce (a favourite in South Africa), and how the glands were extracted from the monkeys. At the time he was quite believable. Poor monkeys.
Language is fluid, as everyone knows, and swearing being part of language, is equally fluid. As a child, I don’t remember my mother swearing, except the one time she drove her car over a concrete ballard, which was fairly detrimental to the chassis. Otherwise her language was pure – just like her father’s.
My father, on the other hand, spent a lot of time on the building site, and might have had a few choice words to use fairly frequently, which is typical of building sites. But he didn’t bring these to the dinner table until we were much older. For someone who worked in the environment he did, he was and still is a perfect gentleman.
It struck me as my son was explaining the swearing facts of life, that cursing has definitely permeated our speech. You only have to watch Hell’s Kitchen to see this in action. Frankly, it is fairly off-putting. It’s not that I’m against swearing as such; I can curse with the best of them (a good example being when a thief had grabbed my handbag and I was trying to get it back – I won, he didn’t). It’s just that swearing is so much more effective when it is used rarely. And as our children are exposed every single day to one expletive after another, these words don’t seem to have the impact they used to.
While in the 18th century bloody and bugger were curses that might have raised a few eyebrows, I doubt they would now. Say crap, bitch, pissed or shit, for instance, and barely anyone will blink. Damn is acceptable and most forms of blasphemy go down without a hitch in many circles. And this is without going into all those swearwords that found their origins in body parts and copulation…
When we were girls my sister called our brother a “bloody Kalahari bushpig”, for which she got her mouth washed out with soap. (Twice – she told my mother she couldn’t taste it.) I doubt very much most families would have the same reaction now. Words have become watered down. Meaning is diluted. I think in many ways this is a shame. There seems to be a loss of dignity in language.
In 2016, it takes a lot to make a potty mouth. Nevertheless, if what my son is true, and I believe him, the next generation is certainly doing its best not to let the side down…