The Swearing Corner: USA vs UK

 by Steve Wetherell

Like much of the world, I grew up on American television, and so was comfortably exposed to a lot of American swear words. (‘Shit’ was the big deal when I was a kid. People always seems to be shouting “Ooooh, shiiiiiit!”)

However, I’ve also always been proud of the wonderful rainbow of swearwords in my own country. I don’t think you’ve really heard ‘wanker’ until you’ve heard it said by an angry cockney, and the sheer dismissive silliness of a northern Englishman calling you a ‘bell-end’ is a whimsical thing indeed.

So, I’ve always considered it a fine thing that I have two pots of foul language to draw from. But, let’s be real here, not all swear words transfer across the Atlantic particularly well. There are some words that just sound better in Americanese, and likewise some that sound better in Original Recipe English. 

Ass versus Arse is a great example. There are some British who seem to think these are interchangeable, and in fairness they both technically mean the same thing. There’s a whole different universe of inflection there, though. Arse is just…well… a bit grimy, and so is suited when a bit of dirtiness is called for. Ass is generally more positive, more action orientated. You’d kick an ass, you’d move an ass, you’d get some ass. Arse, has an insidious drawl to it. If you kick an arse, you might need to disinfect your foot afterwards, and god help the sinister pervert who openly says he wants to get some arse. People will, quite rightly, move away from him on the bus. 

On the other hand, if you call someone an ass, it’s very PG13. Call someone an arse, and it packs more of a punch. This stands up even to the addition of ‘hole’. 

On the flip side, Americans can simply not say ‘twat’ properly. They pronounce if ‘Twodt’ which sounds like a fish course for which you need an acquired taste (I realise there’s a solid innuendo there.) But that softening of the consonant robs it of any veracity. 

The British pronounce twat in two distinct ways. There’s ‘twadt’ with a soft T. This is when you roll your eyes because someone’s being silly. Then there’s ‘twatt’ with the hard T. This is for when the knives come out. 

The final comparison is in the old staple for when you desire personal space; ‘fuck off’. Again, there’s no separate meaning, but it’s all about inflection. American’s tend to emphasise the latter half of the phrase: “Fuck OFF” or even ‘Fuk’OFF’. Shortening the Fuck and elongating the Off. That’s got a real nice aggressive ring to it. Carries a lot of weight in a small package, like a pool ball in a sock. In Britain, it tends to be the opposite; “FUCK off.” A pronunciation particularly prevalent in Scotland. While this pronunciation acts the growl of its American counterpart, it does have an airy dismissiveness to it that can be useful. In short, the American version serves as a warning. It implies consequence. The British version merely scatters your opinion to the wind and then goes off to buy another drink.

Multiculturalism is a wonderful thing…

 

The Swearing Corner: The “C” Word

by Steve Wetherell

I was in Newfoundland once, for whatever reason, sitting in the smoking area in their seemingly eternal winter and talking to some locals. They were curious about my English heritage, and as a bit of fun, we got onto popular swear words. What, they wanted to know, was a common swear word unique to your neck of the woods.

“Bawbag,” I said, after some consideration. It’s essentially “Ball-bag” (or scrotum) filtered through the Scots-English heritage of my hometown. It’s a nice handy put down, often said with a half smile and a shake of the head when someone accidentally throws up on his own dog. My turn done, the locals turned their attention to my sister, a Londoner then of five years or so.

She squinted into the perennial snowstorm for a moment, before answering; “Cunt.”

Unexpectedly, the tone of the gathering changed almost instantly, and I was surprised to see genuine shock on the faces of our hosts.

It seemed that “Cunt” had a little more sting in its tail across the cold Atlantic than it did on our own side.

Since this worldly revelation, I’ve been more careful about using the word in company, particularly in front of Canadians, Americans, and other weirdos. Where I come from “Cunt” is a fairly genderless put down that can be used both casually and with venom. Someone leaves his wallet at home? He’s a silly cunt. Someone runs over your cat, deliberately? He’s a proper cunt.

However, whenever I see the word used in American media (and that’s rarely) it is always a man being venomous to a woman. it seems that, in a very popular sense, it is very much a word that hates women. That’s a shame, because it’s a create word. Think of it phonetically.

“Kk”

“UUUnn”

“Tt”

There’s so many hard, visceral sounds in that word its practically pornographic. It’s a word that can be growled, spit or screamed with utter confidence. It’s a word that carries.

Is it anymore offensive to women than, say, ‘prick’ is to men? Yes, I think so, simply because of the strength of the word. The soft ‘Puh’ or prick doesn’t sand up to the hard ‘Cuh’, and while Cock has a Cuh’ sound going for it ‘ock’ lacks the deep undulating ‘uh’ and the final disapproving ‘tttt’.

You can see why we Brits adopted it as punctuation.

Still, knowing its power, and because my audience is mostly American, its a word I try to use sparingly.

Other than in this article, of course.

You cunt.

The Swearing Corner: Dicks

by Steve Wetherell

 

When Stephen Colbert suggested that Trump’s mouth was only useful as a holster for Vladimir Putin’s dick, there was a backlash suggesting this comment was homophobic. I am here to argue that it wasn’t.

For a start, I have a feeling this accusation is disingenuous. There’s a culture war going on right now that exist whether you acknowledge it or not, and this backlash whiffs of “Oh the left think they’re so progressive, but here they are making gay jokes!” Sadly, though, political correctness is at present such hot territory that a lot of leftists (most of them likely straight) are considering that perhaps there’s some truth to it. This is because, in this culture war, either side is united by the theory that tactics are irrelevant and targets are all that matter.

So, is telling someone to go eat a big hot dick homophobic? I’m going to say no.

To put it in context, there once was an Irish king who, when subjects swore fealty to him, would demand they suck his nipples. Now, this wasn’t because the King happened to be in a loving consensual relationship with his subjects, it was about power. He was subjugating them. When Colbert says Trump sucks Putin’s dick he isn’t implying they are two men engaging in a  completely normal sex act for their mutual pleasure, he is implying that Trump is willingly subjugating himself to Putin in a graphic and obvious way.

There’s a similar backstory to fag. In English private school history there was a tradition of older boys forcing younger boys to be their dogs bodies. This was called fagging for someone, or being their fag. No sex involved (although, being an English private school, there was bound to be at least some sodomy). It’s all about power.

Now, this theory doesn’t give carte blanche to start dishing out the gay insults, of course. There’s a distinctive difference between demanding someone choke on a dick salad, and merely showing disgust in the fact they like sucking cock. Statistically, a great deal of people must at least be tolerable of sucking cock, or agree with the act on principle, so merely saying “I bet you like sucking dick!” is a lot different from saying “I’m not surprised all you can talk is bollocks considering so and so’s dick is so far down your throat.”

It’s all about context.

But what about the casual “Eat a dick dumb shit!”? It would seem to suggest that the act of dick sucking is indeed bad, so let me try and grasp it another way (as the nun said to the vicar.) Like so much in life, it’s all about give and take, and there’s something emasculating about taking it. The process of emasculation comes with its own baggage (“Oh, so being anything other than a man is BAD somehow?”) but for the sake of practicality, I’ll focus on what is actually being said, rather than the uncharitable ocean of implication. Emasculation is a big part of social leveling in men- you can’t have someone getting too big for their boots, or taking themselves too seriously. Every bully and thug is a guy who was too big and tough to be mocked, who let all that raw testosterone go unchecked, so the process of “busting someone’s balls” is, metaphorically, exactly that. It’s a process of humiliation, and going down on someone else, whether you are gay or straight, is an act of humility and subservience. So, that’s the mechanics sorted, but down to the nitty gritty. Is it homophobic? Nah. Conversely, if I tell another guy to suck my dick, it’s not about being gay, it’s not even about sex. It’s just a gorilla thumping its chest. It’s about power.

However, you don’t get to choose who takes offence, so do I force a future where telling someone to go and eat a dick is a progressive no no? Yeah, it’s possible. So what I intend to do is what I do in most situations- destroy any serious implication with ridiculous hyperbole. With this in mind, here’s a few examples that can’t possibly be interpreted as homophobic by anyone who actually understands what a gay is. Enjoy!

“Drown in a tsunami of dicks.”

“I hope you are slapped a million times in a hurricane of dicks.”

“I hope that when you die the ghosts of every dick you thought about sucking but didn’t because you’re a fucking coward is waiting for you with your mom.”

“Dine out on a dick salad. An over priced, low-calorie dick salad.”

“I hope they throw you out of the all you can eat dick buffet before you’re even full.”

The Swearing Corner: Why Swear?

by Steve Wetherell

Swearing is fucking great. I mean, some people don’t think so, and that’s fine, but you can’t deny swearing has power. No really, you can’t, science fucking says so. Studies show that your pain management greatly improves when you swear. It’s purely psychological of course, you can’t just substitute the swear word with an angry noise and get the same effect. So, when you hit your thumb with a hammer, you call the hammer a cunt, and then throw it through a cunting window and then scream at your bastard wife when she asks you what the cunt you think you’re playing at.

Swearing has power, and that’s why it’s a useful tool for the writer. The right swear word at that right time can amplify a threat, lend further weight to despair, or sharpen the edge of spite. And that’s not even getting into the comedic potential, where a swear word can act like a punch line in and of itself (if you ever need to end a scene on a high note, have a sweet old lady say “piss flaps”.)

This is not to say, however, that a writer shouldn’t exercise restraint. Not for any kind of moral reason, but to increase the impact. Just like violence, sex and humorous ethnic comic relief, too much of a good thing can lessen its value. Saving your big guns for the right moment can give you some vital muscle when its needed, which might otherwise be lost in the static of a dropping an f-bomb every paragraph.

Of course, that’s no iron clad rule. Casual swearing can be hilarious, or it can set the entire tone of your piece. Think about any Tarantino movie, for example, or anything by Irvin Welsh. Your book may want to reflect a type of social environment where everything is expressed through enthusiastic genital references. That’s fine and perfectly valid.

You may, however, want to write a book where no on uses any foul language at all. It’s perfectly possible, I’ve done it myself (if you don’t count crap, bugger, arse and hog-shagger which… I guess are swear words, actually, now that I think about it.) But you will be depriving yourself of some of the most creative, historic and powerful words known to the English tongue. These words have weight and history, and no, I don’t mean internet puffery like “twat waffle” and “cum burglar”, I mean the classics. Stuff that goes right back to Chaucer. You shouldn’t be ashamed of them, or to admit they have power. Break ‘em out like a surgeon breaks out the bone saw now and then.

 Fuck it.