Thursday, 23 April 2009


Lexicography is one of the few professions in which it is not merely permissible to use obscene words, but it is actually compulsory. Words that you would not use in conversation with your bank manager or your mother-in-law turn up as part of the work: they are found in the language and there is no avoiding them. Of course, whether this state of affairs is a penance or a privilege really depends on the individual.

Few people of working age are seriously embarrassed or offended by many of the words to which the dictionary attaches its cautionary labels of ‘taboo’ or ‘offensive’. Indeed there is often a certain relish attached to such words, especially when they are used in a way which is neither gratuitous nor offensive. When Michael Caine snorts ‘You’re only supposed in the blow the bloody doors off!’ in The Italian Job, or Audrey Hepburn urges ‘Come on, Dover, move your blooming arse!’ in My Fair Lady, the swearing is integral to the situation and appropriate to the characters, and we are naturally amused.

For most people there is a dividing line between tolerable obscenity and unacceptably foul and abusive language. Yet it can be difficult to judge which words fall on which side of the divide. In a recent conversation I was censured for using the word pee. I had thought I was choosing a harmless euphemism, but something about the word made it quite unpalatable to my interlocutor.

So it appears that each individual may respond differently to a word. Some words may develop unpleasant associations for us from the contexts in which we have heard them. Others may contain sound combinations which are somehow objectionable to our ears. Much also depends on the culture in which the person grew up. Americans, for example, appear to be quite unabashed about using the word crap (although it is not one I would use in front of my local vicar, rabbi, imam or guru), and yet they react with horror when Brits use the word toilet.

On the whole, however, words relating to religion, sex and bodily functions have lost much of their power to shock in recent decades – probably because their subjects are no longer taboo. I can type words such as crap, bloody and arse without experiencing any serious concern that I might be offending anybody. And yet these words have not entirely lost their vestigial power as obscenities - I still wouldn’t use them in front of my bank manager.

Ian Brookes

Those who are not easily shocked will have fun browsing Smut, a collection of the most down-and-dirty of slang words.
Bookmark this post

No comments:

Post a Comment