DR MELLISSA Mohr, from Stanford University in California, last week published a book examining the history of swearing.
Her text traces our relationship with expletives and points out that English speakers on average utter one curse every 140 words; and that most children know at least one bad word by the age of two.
One curse every 140 words is quite a lot. It might not be on a par with a passage from an Irvine Welsh novel, but it is still enough to suggest that the uttering of profanities is part of common parlance; according to Dr Mohr, as common as the use of the words “we” and “us”.
Whether or not you think that is a good thing, it is a fact: swearing is something many people do a lot of the time. So it seems odd that we get so upset about swearing.
It’s a real case of double standards. Many of us either swear or are at least not too offended when our friends drop a few curses into everyday conversation. Yet, a couple of years ago, a judge on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing earned the broadcaster 600 complaints for using the word “sod”.
There is definitely a hierarchy created around the level of “offence” that emanates from particular words: from low-level alternative words for excrement to the ultimate curse, often referred to as “that word”. Yet, not so long ago, “that word” used to appear in gynaecological textbooks and even street names.
And that’s the point: they are all just words. Words which have been shaped, contextualised and given history by events and society and eventually ended up as unacceptable (in certain circumstances). After former Conservative Party chief whip Andrew Mitchell’s interaction with police at the gates of parliament, who knows, maybe “pleb” will also provoke an apology from the BBC should it be inadvertently broadcast in the future.
If many of us swear so frequently though, perhaps we should have the courage of our convictions and actions and ponder instead that it is people who don’t swear that are the exception. Perhaps we should stop apologising and expecting to be apologised to when words that we all know are really part of common speech are used.
We should also accept that, as part of life, children will inevitably pick up unfortunate language. Most parents would, of course, rather their children didn’t know such words, hilarious though it undoubtedly is when a toddler blasphemes in perfect context when tripping or dropping a toy.
It would be almost impossible to stop children picking up swear words from parents, siblings and the playground; and considering that carers of young children are asked on average 250 questions a day (most of which, in my own experience, consist of a repetition of the word “why”) I’d say one bad word every 140 demonstrates remarkable restraint.