When I was a teenager, the norms of swearing changed. Even now, the conflicting messages leave me firmly in neither camp.
On the one hand, according to the old standard, swearing was something no decent man did in front of women and children, but was essential for membership in some aspects of masculine culture. Women weren’t supposed to swear at all, and the most feisty woman looked embarrassed if she did.
On the other hand, with publication standards being relaxed and the rise of the counter-culture, everyone was starting to swear. In fact, to swear was to be modern and unbound by convention.
Today, this time of transition feels so remote as to be incomprehensible. What, anybody under forty-five might ask, was the fuss about? Yet knowing when you could swear and when you couldn’t was an important social skill, and swearing inappropriately said more than anyone today can imagine about your class and personality.
For example, to my father, who had been in the army and was employed in working class positions for most of his life, an atmosphere of casual swearing was a normal part of his week day. Yet perhaps because he was upwardly mobile or because my mother would never approve, he was careful about his swearing outside work.
Until I was fifteen and worked my first summer in the Canadian Telephone and Supply shops where he was a front-line supervisor, I was under the impression that he hardly swore at all. He might use “bloody” or “hell and damnation” if he was frustrated with one of his house-building projects in the basement, of “hell’s bells” if he was seriously fed up, but never when any of the family were in the same room. These mild swear words were as much as I ever heard, and my impression was their English-flavored colorfulness made them almost acceptable.
Laboring under this illusion, I was surprised when, after I made a mistake in the shops, he loudly asked, “What the heck you were doing?” and was greeted by howls of uncontrollable laughter by the workers he supervised. For weeks afterward, they would exclaim, “Heck!” around him in a good-natured way, and he would respond with a burst of ordinary profanity and mock-anger. A few times, I joined in myself.
More than anything else, this episode drummed into me that, for years, my father had been restraining his normal vocabulary around me. But that was what men of his generation did, living with a double-standard for expression. Any man who didn’t swear at all was considered effeminate or snobbish, but any man who swore in what was called “mixed company” was uncouth and boorish.
In such a complex atmosphere, I went through a period when when I was eight or nine when I prudishly avoided swearing. When my best friend took up the habit of saying “shit” at every opportunity, after a couple of months, I shocked his younger sister by telling her what he was saying. A few days later, he shamefacedly promised me he would change his language.
I was not going to be “one of those teenagers,” I repeated told my mother, referring to those who accepted modern standards (and were no doubt unruly because they didn’t speak properly). I believed firmly in the old standard’s last line of defense: swearing showed a lack of imagination and vocabulary, and I could prove that I had both by not swearing.
I still find that condemnation of swearing true. Now, however, I have to add that the whole point of swearing is to have some forceful words available when you have no time to be imaginative. When you want to swear, being original isn’t your priority (although I do envy some of the medieval kings, who, according to T. H. White, had such oaths as “By the head, teeth, and the splendor of God.”).
However, the times were changing, as I said. By cultural and personal necessity, in adolescence I found I could no more do without swearing than anyone else. I knew better than to swear in front of my parents; strangely enough, my father wouldn’t have approved any more than my mother. But I started using some of my father’s milder and more colorful expressions, like “bloody.” At the time, I still had a residual Christianity, so “God” seemed a suitable addition to my vocabulary as well. Both remain with me – although the religion does not. “Bloody” in particular seems to delight some American women when spoken with an English accent.
For several years, I held out against the more popular words like “fuck” or “shit.” I even winced when someone used them. They just weren’t words I could bring myself to use.
However, by the time I started university, the change in standards was complete. Swearing or not swearing was no longer an indicator of anything. Almost everybody was swearing, and there was something wonderfully liberating about hearing women swearing as freely as men – both to my ears and, so far as I could observe, to the women themselves. It seemed part of the march towards equality that such superficial gender differences had disappeared overnight, and that men no longer needed the double-standard of my father’s generation, except when talking to the old.
Now, of course, swearing is not even remotely a political act. A generation, if not two, no longer think twice about swearing as the mood hits them. It’s just another means of expression, and I no longer react to it. In a hard-swearing company, I usually notice myself swearing freely myself as I unconsciously try to fit in.
Still, childhood habits persist. Left to myself, I remain an infrequent swearer, a habit that gives me a reputation for politeness. Even today, I’m most likely to use “fucking” when reporting what someone else says, or in fiction because it’s part of how a character would talk. If you listen carefully, when I do swear, a small catch in my voice reveals the last trace of my first conditioning.
Mostly, though, I just consider swearing a matter of personal style – and that’s how such words should be viewed. They’re just words among words. They never were worth the worry they used to cause.