The British Board of Film Censors recently announced that they are changing the guidelines about swearing in 15 certificate films – that is, they’re going to let more of it through. (At the same time they’ve apparently pledged to crack down on swearing in U films, which is a bit mystifying because I didn’t think there was any.) The change for 15 cert. films obviously makes sense – no one over fifteen is remotely offended by swearing. Teenagers swear far more than adults do. They love it. I was teaching a class of students, aged 16-17, in a Philosophy A-level class a few days ago – this isn’t my regular job, but I was doing a couple of weeks of supply work – and couldn’t turn the computer on, and said ‘Oh for fuck’s sake’ under my breath, and they heard and thought it was brilliant. In fact it made me popular for the rest of my time there.
Swearing is interesting. Why is that words connected with sex and lavatories are regarded as taboo? They aren’t in all cultures. Japanese people don’t swear in the way we do. The Japanese word for shit is unchi. But if, in a moment of stress, you were say to say unchi in Japan, people would be mystified. They’d look around them to see where it was. I once asked my first wife, who was Japanese, what a Japanese person would say if they were on their way to a really important meeting and realised they’d left the papers that they needed on the train. She said they’d exclaim, ‘Oh, I’ve left the papers on the train!’
In our culture, though, swear-words are the words connected with sex, toilets or generally-concealed body parts. Steven Pinker has a fascinating theory about why these words became taboo, explained in his brilliant book The Better Angels of our Nature. Up until the middle ages, European manners were, by our modern standards, gross to the point of being infantile; people blew their noses on tablecloths, spat and belched and farted without shame, and urinated and defecated in public. Pinker writes: ‘People were publicly naked more often, and couples took only perfunctory measures to keep their coitus private. Prostitutes offered their services openly; in many English towns, the red-light district was called Gropecunt Lane.’
But gradually, a cultural change took place; this sort of behaviour started to seem uncouth, uncivilised, a mark of ignorance and low breeding. Scholars like Erasmus wrote etiquette manuals, in which people were advised not to defecate on staircases, or in front of ladies, not to fondle their private parts under their clothes, and not to pick their nose while eating. ‘This change,’ Pinker writes, ‘left its mark in the language… many of the words for the fraught actions and substances became taboo… As the historian Geoffrey Hughes has noted, “The days when the dandelion could be called the pissabed, a heron could be called a shitecrow and the windhover could be called the windfucker have passed away with the exuberant phallic advertisement of the codpiece.” Bastard, cunt, arse and whore also passed from being ordinary to being taboo’ (Pinker 2010, p. 85).
Still – several centuries on – now we’ve got the uncouth behaviour sorted, it shouldn’t matter too much if we let the uncouth words creep back. Should it?