Aasof on English expletives


This week on Facebook: English language¹ has always been replete with expletives and having spent from 1956 to 1969 in the forces I am no stranger to their use. I posted Philip Larkin meets the moderators, remarking that the now defunct My Telegraph site would arbitrarily imposes automated censorship by deleting expletives², which seems like a neat solution but it completely disregards the context.

Moderation unconnected with context made me unable to call King Charles II ‘a bastard’, an expletive that I had cause to believe was an apt description of his vindictive pursuit of the ‘regicides’. By way of a response to this unwarranted moderation I posted ‘Everything in moderation?’. It may even be that the general use of expletives as imprecations — with their ever increasing use on social media — become simply adjuncts to the development of the English language.

click image

The first definitive use of the F word in “the English adjectival form, which implies use of the verb.” The Very First Written Use of the F Word in English (1528)

When I was in the services you never expected a woman to swear or service men to swear when in mixed company. This reminded me of an anecdote some service colleagues recounted while we were serving in Germany during the mid sixties. Two of my colleagues went into a Cologne hardware store and the conversation went something like this:

“Sprechen Sie English?”, my colleagues asked.

“Of course I fucking do!”, replied the man behind the counter.

My two colleagues became embarrassed over his use of expletives and looked at the ladies inside the store with some apprehension. After a conversation with the storekeeper that contained many expletives from him, they eventually they bought what they went into the store for. Before they left remarking that the storekeeper’s knowledge of English was very good.

“Where did you learn how to speak English”, my colleagues asked (really referring to his use of expletives).

“From fucking prison guards in North Africa”, came the reply.

Having reread my opening post ‘The  trouble with speaking English as a second language’ (1), I have to wonder if the use of expletives, when used as imprecations, makes the use of English as a second language easier to learn  — apart from Shakespearian quotes (3). Of course, the use of expletives in English may simply not be understood either by english speakers or those using english as a second language. I suspect that in general use, expletives are used mostly as substitutes for the correct use of alternative words and that as a consequence many sentences lose their intended impact.

In ‘The Proper Use of Profanity’ (5), the remark is made that young people today hope that TYPING IN ALL CAPS will make their weak, unstructured swearing more impressive. The author of the article appears to be attempting to use profanity to teach prosody, or at least a very small element of it. However, the syntax of, “A cock-knocking cunt-cramming cavalcade of contemporary cursing” (sic) is something of a wild goose chase, when any emotional response can be indicated by a simple ‘FU‘.


1. The trouble with speaking English as a second language: But the success of English – or indeed any language – as a “universal” language comes with a hefty price, in terms of vulnerability. Problems arise when English is a second language to either speakers, listeners, or both. No matter how proficient they are, their own understanding of English, and their first (or “native”) language can change what they believe is being said.

2. Swear Words, Etymology and the History of English: English is a language whose vocabulary is the composite of a surprising range of influences. We have pillaged words from Latin, Greek, Dutch, Arabic, Old Norse, Spanish, Italian, Hindi, and more to make English what it is today. But the story of English is above all the story of two languages that were thrown together almost one thousand years ago and have vied with one another for possession of our vocabulary ever since.

3. William Shakespeare and the Gentle Art of Cursing: Sterling Johnson in his narrow tome English as a Second F*cking Language employs a variety of doctored “quotations” from famous authors in an effort of encourage his readers to curse. His most curious usage, however, is in quoting William Shakespeare. By page seven, Johnson has already invoked a particularly relevant line from The Tempest :

You taught me language. And my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse.

Why, then is Johnson’s invocation of Shakespeare curious? I find it so because Johnson’s book is designed to extol the virtues of English’s most taboo four-letter words, most of which Shakespeare merely alluded to, but did not himself employ.

4. Swearing in early modern English: Swearing supposedly ran along the lines of social status and gender. And swearing was always something of a performance. If you wanted to be believed by your neighbours, swearing a solemn oath with one hand on the Bible was the best option. The legal system was built on that promise to tell the truth, so help me God. But this was an invocation that spilled over into other arenas.

5. The Proper Use of Profanity: It’s about time someone wrote a proper article on how to use English profanity effectively. I look at the young people today hoping that TYPING IN ALL CAPS will make their weak, unstructured swearing more impressive, and all I feel is pity. English is perhaps the most exquisitely expressive language on Earth, with a working vocabulary twice the size of most languages, and a history of pure invective that can stand up against any living tongue. Any truly fluent English speaker should be able to use all the words, even the rude ones — especially rude ones.


Referenced Articles Books & Definitions:

  • A bold text subscript above and preceding a title below (¹·²·³), refers to a book, pdf, podcast, video, slide show and a download url that is usually free.
  • Brackets containing a number e.g. (1) reference a particular included article (1-5).
  • A link (url), which usually includes the title, are to an included source.
  • The intended context of words, idioms, phrases, have their links in italics.
  • A long read url* (when used below) is followed by a superscript asterisk.
  • Occasionally Open University (OU) free courses are cited.
  • JSTOR lets you set up a free account allowing you to have 6 (interchangeable) books stored that you can read online.

¹English language (url*): Openness of vocabulary implies both free admission of words from other languages and the ready creation of compounds and derivatives. English adopts (without change) or adapts (with slight change) any word really needed to name some new object or to denote some new process. Words from more than 350 languages have entered English in this way. Like French, Spanish, and Russian, English frequently forms scientific terms from Classical Greek word elements. Although a Germanic language in its sounds and grammar, the bulk of English vocabulary is in fact Romance or Classical in origin.

²What Are Expletives in English Grammar? (url): In general usage, the second definition of an expletive is an exclamatory word or expression, often one that’s profane or obscene. In the book Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language (2005), Ruth Wajnryb points out that expletives are “frequently uttered without addressing anyone specifically. In this sense, they are reflexive—that is, turned in on the user.”

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The Real Economy

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