I’m currently reading a book on swearing –actually it’s my second book on the subject for some reason. I’m not trying to get better at it, or anything, I’m just, well, curious. Like playing with matches, or sticking my used gum under the kitchen table, swearing was something I was never allowed to do as a child. I gathered it was an adult thing, because we kids on the playground at school all used to practice what we’d heard at home, even though most of us had no idea what many of the words meant. They just felt good to say –in my case, whatever expletives I could remember, I shouted over my shoulder while I was running away. The problem was in my pronunciation, though –I always got the oath wrong, or with the accent on the wrong syllables of the mysterious sounds. And I scattered loud misattributions that made some of the pursuing hoard laugh, rather than apologize. Rather than stop, amazed and shamed in their tracks. Life as a small kid was far from easily navigated.
But if curses were the last resort of unvocabularied people as my mother always insisted, I wondered why they were so satisfying to others, and yet so mysteriously tepid to a short, precociously sesquipedalian and ostentatiously bespectacled child like myself –a child who used to look up new, bulky and difficult to pronounce words in the dictionary each night in hopes of destroying my opponents in the inevitable verbal sparring contests at recess. Defeating them, not with profanity, but with pedantic disparagements that would leave them withering in their trainers. Unfortunately, these admittedly puerile attempts were met with derision, and hostile but convincing epithets that did little to win me -or for some reason, my mother- quality time on the local pedestal. I was not a particularly popular kid in Winnipeg, and I was a little hesitant to let anybody sign my yearbook when I finally graduated from high school. Actually, nobody volunteered…
Anyway, you can understand why, now that I am safely retired, I felt the need to explore that which I had missed in my youth. The mystery of swearing seemed a good place to start. Actually, on the surface it seemed like rough, but academically barren ground. The subjects were readily classified into roughly four pigeon holes: religious, bathroom, gender, and of course them. I quickly learned that the thems were whatever group was currently out of favour, or different in some manner. I kept getting that last one wrong; I suppose I should watch the news more often.
And yet, whatever the category, there seemed to be different metaphors in different countries –different regions, even. Different times. And it’s hard to keep up with them all. To use them efficiently, and with the desired effects, you have to get them right. It is of absolutely no use to shout a Shakespearean malediction like, say, zounds when the person you’re trying to insult merely shrugs and looks vacantly at your angry face with a little smile on his. It’s embarrassing. (It means something like ‘God’s wounds’, by the way –rather torpid as a let-off-steam swear-word, I think.)
The cultural variability of swearing, and the constantly changing effects of various designations, makes one wonder, as globalization begins to swallow our uniqueness, whether at some stage swearing will become passé, or at least so ritualized as to become meaningless. Non dissipatory. Functionless.
Well, the neuroscientists would beg to differ, apparently. Swearing allows you to keep your hand in a pail of ice water longer than ‘neutralling’ if I may be allowed a descriptive neologism for a banal substitutive word. Given that climate change may render that particular attribute unconvincing, or perhaps unachievable, you have to wonder what they were thinking. I suppose that they may have had trouble with sword piercings, or getting hammer damage through the ever watchful eyes of the ethics committee, but any port in a storm, eh? Anyway, ethicists seldom take into account the fact that many obscenities are, in fact, merely repurposed words –exaptations- and as such, require innovative proofs. A relaxation of the usual rules of business.
And let’s face it, swearing may well help you through a lot of things –with particularly bad things that require an immediate response, or getting past frustrating people that you need to take down without involving the police. And you need to be clever; past should not be prologue if you want to have an effect. If a quick jab with a clever word, or a lance-like thrust with a shrivelling sobriquet does not suffice, you have to be armed with enough potty words to stun the opponent or at least confuse him (I do not recommend swearing at women, you understand) long enough to pull out the really destructive heavy stuff: the post quem nihil, as it were.
I mean it’s a whole new world out there for someone like me. While I was wasting my time wading through abstruse lexical compendia for the unachievable perfect response, and assiduously avoiding the use of bathroom expressions on anything but my mirror, everybody else was honing their kludges, brushing up on their put-downs. And even now, any time I attempt an insult, I have to explain the meaning to my victim; I always feel I have been bested on a tilted field. The plough of justice does not easily furrow uphill on an already stony plain.
Still, even at my age, I cling to the hope that there is still time. That, hidden in some dusty tome somewhere, the perfect, lusty, vengeful response awaits. An expression so unexpected, so cleverly constructed, it will leave the swearee wide-eyed with admiration, yet cut to his knees with remorse for daring to evoke such an unmitigated disaster. An Armageddon of such proportions he will struggle to breathe, let alone recoup.
But, alas, it is so far only a dream, an el Dorado that surfaces at 3 AM during the usually scheduled panic attack. But you have to start somewhere, I figure. As it stands, I have to admit that I am still toying with Shakespeare, and I am enamoured with something Prince Henry says to Falstaff in the Boar’s-Head Tavern (Henry IV, Part 1): Why dost thou converse with that trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloakbag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly…? Later, in the same tavern, he adds, Why, thou claybrained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson, obscene, greasy tallow- catch—
What’s not to like in that, eh? But, even assuming I could memorize the choice bits, I’d probably still have to explain them, I bet.