Monday, June 21, 2010

What we don't say

The other day I found myself in the difficult situation of needing to explain to the small guy the difference between swearing and other kinds of dubious language.

"What about 'you dick'?" said the small guy. "Is that swearing?"
"Um, no, not really."
"Fool? Cretin? Idiot?"
"No. They're not very nice, but not swearing."
"Yes, that's a swear word."
"Really? I saw it written on the back of a jeep."
"Well," [mentally cursing Saatchi & Saatchi Wellington], "maybe people used to think it was a swear word more than they do now. But anyway, you can't say it."
"What about buttocks? That's a rude word."
"No, buttocks is OK. It's medical."
"How about bloody hell? Ron Weasley says it in Harry Potter. Bloody hell, Harry. Bloody hell. Bloody he-e-e-e-ll."
"What? I'm just saying what Ron Weasley says."

This is the sort of conversation that you can never in a million years imagine yourself having, before you have children. Then you have this sort of conversation every single day.

In the end we settled on a satisfactory three-part classification of language into 1. swearing; 2. normal; and 3. NSFS, or Not Safe For School, which includes what used to be known as vulgar language, or language not used in polite company, both of which definitions were useless when I tried them on the small guy. "What's polite company?" he asked, as well he might. Finally, Words We Don't Use At School hit the spot. "Oh yes, I know: once J called D & I 'dickies' and Mrs F said 'That's not school language.'"

The British media regulator Ofcom recently published some quite hilarious research concerning the TV viewing public's increasing tolerance of bad language: apparently "loony", "nutter", "poof", "lezza" [?!], and "Jesus Christ" are unexceptionable and socially acceptable at any time of day, while Anglo-Saxon epithets of all perusasions are fine after the watershed. I found it all a bit sad, really: what's the point of swearing if it's socially acceptable, I ask myself? It's almost enough to make you knock it off.

Clearly we are all going to hell in a handbasket, when you compare Ofcom's list of currently acceptable foul language on TV with this list reproduced by Gordon Mirams in Speaking Candidly, his social history of the movies in New Zealand, published in 1945.

The following collection of unacceptable words was known as the 'Hollywood List'.


Alley cat (applied to a woman)
Broad (applied to a woman)
God, Lord, Jesus, Christ (unless used reverently)
Fairy (in a vulgar sense)
'Fire' - cries of
Goose (in a vulgar sense)
Hot (applied to a woman)
'In your hat'
Nuts (except when meaning 'crazy')
Razzberry (the sound)
Tomcat (applied to a man)
Buzzard (too similar in sound to bastard)


Bum (England)
Punk (England)
Stick 'em up (US and Canada)
Shag (British Empire)

Of these, I think 'in your hat' could definitely make a comeback. Might even be safe for school.


Martin Edmond said...

wonderful moment in the Sopranos, after Uncle Junior goes AWOL and is brought back home by cops; who, expecting thanks or even praise, get told: shit in your hat.

Cheryl Bernstein said...

"All hat and no cattle" is also a phrase that could do with another ride.

Anonymous said...

I thought that was "all mouth and no trousers" my mother used that a lot, whilst going vaguely pinkish...

Cheryl Bernstein said...

I know this one as "all mouth and trousers", meaning a loud-mouthed idiot; but I have heard the 'no trousers' version, as well as a dubious variant: "all fur coat and no knickers".