Swearing and cussing? Sirrah! It’s a lot of craven murrain

The other week the Prime Minister of New Zealand used a word in public that literally means the ordure of a male cow. The colloquial meaning the PM deployed it for was ‘rubbish’.

William Shakespeare, the 'Flower' portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

‘Thou dankish unchin-snouted malt-worm!’ William Shakespeare, the ‘Flower’ portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Oooh, naughty. Or is it? Way back in 1970, the same word was publicly used by Germaine Greer when she visited New Zealand. Then, police issued an arrest warrant. This time? The PM is in the middle of an election campaign in which everything he says or does will win or lose voters – and nobody batted an eye.

But of course. In New Zealand, today’s generation don’t regard this term as particularly offensive. I’ve seen the same word used in book titles, in the US it was the title of a Penn and Teller series, and so on. But that’s swearing. Words come and go. If they didn’t, we’d all swear like that impious swiver, Will Shakespeare.  Zounds! (God’s Wounds). The big word of his day was fie. But wait, there’s more. Not satisfied with the general vocabulary – which included some of the Anglo Saxon we use – the immortal bard is usually credited with coining around 1700 new words, many of them boisterously intended. You can check some of them out for yourself – here’s a Shakespeare insult generator.

What changes is the degree of offence society considers the word causes to ‘polite’ ears. That’s how Benjamin Tabart was able to use Shakespeare’s vilest word in his 1807 childrens’ tale ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’. Of course, by that time the hot potato word was ‘damn’, so offensive in polite society it was soon censored to d—d. That became a swear word too – ‘dashed’.

As always, older swear words that now seem acceptable aren’t directed ‘at’ anything. They’re abstract intensifiers that have lost connection with their original meaning. That’s different from offensive words intended to demean others’ behaviours, beliefs or cultures, which never become acceptable, any time. The fact that new terms of this latter kind keep turning up says quite a bit about the unpleasant side of the human condition.

But abstract intensifiers, directed at revealing one’s response to an ordinary event – like stepping in dog poo – are something else, and the funny thing is that any word will do, providing it’s understood. Sci-fi authors coin new ones often as devices for reinforcing the difference between ours and their future society. In Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) the word was ‘frack’. An obvious homophone, but it worked well anyway. Or there’s Larry Niven’s Ringworld-series ‘futz’, which to me sounded like a mashup with putz. But you can’t fault the logic – the ‘different but not TOO different’ principle demanded of accessible SF.

I’ve only seen one place where a different word emerged. It was in Harry Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero. The forbidden term, the deeply offensive word of his galactic future, repeatedly used by his ‘starship troopers’? Bowb. It echoed 1930s slang, but Harrison made it the verboten word and used it with stunning effect – a multi-purpose obscene noun, verb and adjective with which readers instantly identified because of the context. ‘What’s this, bowb your buddy week?’ a trooper demands as his power suit fails and nobody stops him drowning. ‘It’s always bowb your buddy week’, the gunnery corporal tells the troops as the man sinks.

Bowb. Conveying the intensity of personal emotional response to the abstract without the current-day offence.  And that, of course, is the essence of writing – transmitting the intended emotion to the reader. Way cleverer than using existing swear words.

Trouble is, when I use bowb  in conversations, people look at me funny and think I’m a gleeking, beef-witted dewberry.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


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11 comments on “Swearing and cussing? Sirrah! It’s a lot of craven murrain

  1. I was amazed that Joss Whedon was able to get away with using British curse words in Buffy the Vampire Slayer dialog (wanker, bollocks, bugger), when the American English equivalent would have been nixed.

    Great topic. It is interesting how our perception certain words changes from generation to generation. I love the Shakespeare insult generator! :-)

    • It’s a great piece of software, that generator! Apropos Wheedon – in ‘Married With Children’, a couple of decades back, Peggy’s maiden name was ‘Wanker”. A term whose scatological meaning definitely doesn’t seem to have made the trans-Atlantic crossing.

  2. bevrobitai says:

    Speaking of Joss Whedon – try Googling the Chinese swear words used in Firefly. There are some stunning phrases I’d love to add to my sweary collection!

  3. Colline says:

    An interesting post.

  4. KokkieH says:

    Of course, today “frack” really is a swear word. Here in SA the subject is almost as contentious as in the US. I also enjoyed the Chinese swearing in Firefly, though too much swearing turns me off. The television show, Dexter, was just too much for me, for example. Overuse it and it loses it’s effect. Perhaps that is exactly why invented swear words in SF works so well – the novelty balances the intended crassness and we don’t get numbed to (or offended by) it so quickly.

    • There’s been talk of ‘fracking’ here in New Zealand – you know, near fault lines and such (sigh…) No question that over-use of swearing reduces the words to meaninglessness. I inadvertently learned an awful lot about grammar while working, once, for a trucking company. They managed to get one particular word to work as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb and a gerund. After a while it definitely seemed time to invent a new one. Given their prolific tendency these truckers had with this word, I always think of their organisation as the ‘Mother’ trucking company.

      • KokkieH says:

        If you write a SF or fantasy novel you should use “trucking” as a swear word :-D

        I’d imagine fracking might be a bad idea over there, the whole debate about whether it damages the environment notwithstanding.

  5. Lemuel says:

    A friend once told me that they had heard that the term ‘munted’ was a racial slur that Kiwi troopers brought back from South Africa, but I’ve never been able to find any proof of this. Nonetheless it was amusing to hear the term graduate into everyday lexicon after the Christchurch earthquakes.

    I like your insight into how authors of sci-fi use the evolution of cuss words as a literary device. The blasphemy in Asterix books always amused me for the same reason. By Jupiter!

    • Oh yes, the Roman cursing there was excellent! Munted is a curious one – I’ve not heard of its origins at all & the South African etymology sounds intriguing. There’s no doubt it’s become an everyday word now. One we might possibly call a ‘New Zealand’ word because of the way the original meaning vanished – was, shall we say, munted… in favour of our own.

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