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A brief history of profanity Taboo words have always existed, just a lapse in decorum away

Malcolm Tucker understood the powerful utility of a swear word

Malcolm Tucker understood the powerful utility of a swear word


April 19, 2021   7 mins

The word “cunt” first appeared in a British newspaper in 1987. Naturally it was in The Independent, which had recently launched as a kind of metrosexual broadsheet: single, open-minded, loose-fit wardrobe. Of course they’d gone for the first non-asterisked version. The real shock was that it appeared in a Test Match report.

I mean, cricket. The blanketed world of chaps and slips, silly mid-ons and dear old things, leather, willow, tea, cake and grimly Etonised surnames. The great Brian “Johnners” Johnston has been dead for a quarter of a century, but they still all call themselves “Gaggers” or “Buggers” or “Spaffers”, the fuckers.

Anyway, Cuntaggedon. Second Test in Pakistan, England captain Mike Gatting and umpire Shakoor Rana had a heated argument, certain words were exchanged. Specifically: “you fucking cheating cunt”. My memory tricked me into thinking it was Gatting who’d said it, as he always came across as the sort of two-curries-and-a-gallon-of-ale bloke who didn’t suffer cunts gladly. But actually it was the umpire.

The outrage was swift. And hilariously it was led by Kelvin Mackenzie, editor of The Sun, who thought it abominable that minors might see that word in a newspaper. Children browsing the Sun at the time could instead have engaged with the Murdoch rag’s relentless war on “poofs”. Or its campaign of hate aimed at “fat, jealous” MP Clare Short who’d objected to topless women on page 3. Still, Hillsborough was a couple of years off so to be fair Sun journalism hadn’t fully found its moral compass yet. Summary: tits in the Sun but no cunts.

Around the same time the C-Word was outed, something interesting was also happening to its F-word sibling: the Great American Fuck Shift from verb to noun. Its most notable airing was in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Dennis Hopper was cartoonishly terrifying as psychopath Frank Booth, and in one short sentence elevated fuck into a new wide-spectrum deployment as oath, transitive verb, adjective and noun: “Fuck! Fuck you, you fucking fuck!” Lynch’s screenplay offered Classic Modernist Profanity, wringing beauty from brute materials and repetition.

The whole point of taboo words is their utility. If you don’t have them to deploy in an emergency, in response to physical pain, or in anger at the latest embossed cuntery from Prime Minister Alexander Boris de Pfuckjumbo Johnson, what’s the point? And so it has been from the beginning. Let’s go back in time. Next slide please — mudskippers to homo erectus, cursing every evolutionary rung on the ladder…

Throughout history, all the top-shelf swear words have been proscribed by haughty aristocracy. Egyptian hieroglyphs are unsullied by profanity, as they mostly occur as examples of dynastic vanity publishing; no king or queen wants to be heard by the common people swearing like one of them. But the tradition of tomb graffiti is different, and in the vernacular. The clerk of works would be the last to leave, and it was his job to scrawl a blood-curdling curse upon any who dared violate that sacred place. Thieves would have been greeted by colourful appeals to the gods to punish tomb raiders, invoking violence from a wide menagerie of avenging animals, from donkey (fucked by) via elephant (flattened slowly) to crocodile (eaten while still alive).

How faithful are the written versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey? Did the oral tradition include passages (“Revealed – Odyssesus’ Nights Of Steamy Sex With Kinky Circe!”) considered by editors simply too vulgar to publish? Who’s to say the Bible wasn’t cleaned up (“What Jesus Actually Shouted At The Money-Changers”) by the early church? Swear words, especially the worst ones in English, are routinely referred to as “Anglo-Saxon”. If we’re blaming the Vikings and Ye Olde English, imagine what the original, adult version of, say, Beowulf (“Then loud rang his voice: fuck you Grendel – AND your mum!”) must have been like.

A few centuries later, Shakespeare’s writing ribald sonnets as a young man — the Dirty Bard of Avon. Suppose Milton had destroyed the first and very angry draft of his masterpiece, “Paradise Bollocksed”? Imagine a letter from a teenage Jane Austen to a close and very smutty friend. Maybe there’s a letter in the Irish Times archive from a very pissed James Joyce, deemed too blasphemous and obscene ever to be printed. And T.S. Eliot would be on no-speaks with his friend and editor Ezra Pound for ages after receiving a filthy mockery of his masterpiece, humorously renamed “The Love Song of J Alfred Profuck”.

What I’m saying is: swearing’s always been there, behind the curtain. All those centuries of the printed word, and before that the millennia of the spoken, and profanity was always just a lapse in decorum away. Still, I wasn’t quite prepared for Swearing’s Great Fucking Leap Forward which happened, for me at least, around the turn of the century.

It was the internet, stupid.

Suddenly, the potential for comedy unmediated by basic human decency revealed itself in an information superhighway going up its own arse. There was a frontier spirit abroad, an infinity of notional space to infect. The internet was getting faster and moving beyond its original incarnation as a platform for dad-joke physicists and slow-loading animé pornography. You could say what you liked on the internet. Nobody was policing what you wrote and, crucially, hardly anyone was reading it. The chances of getting a complaint about either bad language or copyright infringement were as slim as Peter Mandelson. My underemployed brother and I set up a sweary satirical site, Martian FM, in 2000. Every week we banged out a sort of foul-language current affairs magazine. A few short months later we were nurturing a cult following of about 12.

All comedy on the internet at that time felt experimental because a) there was no style guide, no common code of practice to proscribe unacceptable words and b) there were no space constraints. This was mind-boggling at first. I’d worked as a journalist on and off for decades, had served a trade apprenticeship as a local reporter in the early Seventies. Heady days of hot metal and upside-down type and the pubs opening at half five. The First Law of Journalism wasn’t, as high-minded commentators insisted at media conferences, “to be witness to the truth for the advancement of civil society” or whatever. It was, as acknowledged by hacks and sub-editors everywhere: “fill the fucking space”.

Writing stuff that would sit in literally infinite space required its own self-applied perimeters. It’s worth noting that two of the funniest UK sites around at this time were The Framley Examiner, written by Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris in the style of a local newspaper, and TVGoHome, Charlie Brooker’s spoof Radio Times listings. The set-up for both used old, recognisable boundaries, little gardens in the prairie. Incidentally, “Cunt” had been normalised enough by this time to appear as a TVGoHome listing — a pretend series featuring the spectacularly horrible media influencer Nathan Barley.

Swearing was part of a hardening of comedy around this time, a steady trend towards heartlessness you could trace on TV all the way from Morecambe and Wise to The League of Gentlemen. Perhaps the outbreak of foul language was simply a childish reaction to the childish political culture coagulating around the lying shit Blair and his centri-feudal entourage. Remember the bathos of Millennium Eve? The world’s computers didn’t default to the 14th Century because of some digital Colorado Beetle. And Cool Blairtannia bopped awkwardly into the 21st century under the dull tensile roof of the Millennium Dome.

Look — Tony, and Cherie, doing their Pulp Fiction twist! Here comes the 21st century, the economy’s moving up through the gears, Clause 4’s in the bin, neoliberalism’s sent boom-and-bust packing. And the Iraq War is three years off, so Blair still looks like a sexually active supply teacher. Soon, civilian carnage and endless prayer breakfasts with George W Bush would transform him into a haunted Pilates instructor.

By the time the Iraq War was underway in 2003 Martian FM’s audience had rocketed to several dozen. Along with other conscientious satirists we were making imbecilic jokes about Saddam Hussein and George Galloway sharing a tin of Quality Street. Armando Iannucci got in touch that year. He liked the site and, even more brilliantly, started praising it in interviews. We honestly thought that was it, the tipping point, visitor numbers would soar. It never happened. Readership continued to be the regulars — enough people to fill a small pub — and Iannucci.

One of our weekly features was a spoof of Hansard, the transcript of Parliamentary debate. We kept the same format, presented it as an official record of proceedings in the House of Commons, but called it Hansard Late. The premise was an account of proceedings after the cameras had been switched off and everyone was drunk. The toxic swearing was led by a fictionalised version of the Speaker at the time, very Scottish and very angry. It seemed to work best when he was spinning increasingly baroque and violent threats to keep order eg: “Order, ye plasma dumplings, fucking order! Order, ORDER ye trembling airbags, ye skeins o’ wet fucking SHITE!”

Then came The Thick of It. I’d done bits and pieces for Maestro Iannucci; now he invited me to “sprinkle sweary dust” over the first three Thick scripts. It was intimidating at first: the scripts had been written by Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche and Jesse Armstrong — the Holy Trinity of British comedy writers. In the end, I offered an alt to the line “He’s fucking useless” which went “He’s as useless as a marzipan dildo”. That got the green light, I carried on, became part of the team. For a laugh, Armando mythologised the notion of a “swearing consultant” for Thick, even though all the writers wrote swears.

Given that the whole point was to swear imaginatively, a lot of people took a reductive view, including the BBC. With typical flat-footed cluelessness, some executive once praised the groundbreaking use of language in Thick, excitedly reporting that one episode alone had contained 145 fucks, a record for 29 minutes of television! Swearing reduced to a fuck-count; it’s absurd, when context is everything. Roche’s “Come the fuck in or fuck the fuck off!” or Blackwell’s “What is this, Tinker Tailor Soldier Cunt?” use scalpels, not hammers. In one ep a character finds out his colleague has betrayed them by leaking information and calls him a “mimsy bastard quisling leak fuck”. The fuck is there really just to tidy up the cadence.

I’m not saying they’re necessarily related, but there seemed to be an awful lot of compound swears appearing in the wild after Thick, far too many lacking internal logic. You can jam words together – arsewart, say, or cockpunnet – and as long as they “make sense”, however surreally, they work. But I ask you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury: “cockwomble”, what does it mean? “Wankpuffin” – where’s the logic? People have just put a single-syllable rude word with a double-syllable neutral word and called it bants. Not good enough.

We can do better than this. You can do better than this. Profanity is an incredibly powerful tool, not mere bants. So here, hastily arranged on my fridge, is a set of magnets I had made for a talk years ago on the subject. Help yourselves. Tip: lacing your expletives with innocent adjectives – eg “sanctimonious”, “incompetent”, “snivelling” – makes the nasty stuff land harder. Now fuck off.


Ian Martin is a writer and a producer known for The Thick of It, In The Loop, Veep and The Death of Stalin. 

IanMartin

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Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago

Whereas now we cannot even write the shortened version of Richard, in between Tom and Harry, or as the surname of the head of the Metropolitan Police, without our comments being put on hold, awaiting eternal approval. When I spelled the surname of the former health secretary Jeremy Hunt with a c, when it was pointed out that he thought lockdowns were a reslly good Chinese Communist import, and used an asterisk for the u, in order to get round the Mary Whitehouse algorithm, on Youtube, in a live chat, it was autocorwronged to Cannot. This sort of thing is the worst form of censorship and cancelling. It is pure racism against Anglo Saxons, stifling our rage and righteous anger, imposed by bedwetting lefty-liberal, corporate, globalist, arrogant swine.

Good article, though.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
3 years ago

Yeah, it’s gonna be pretty difficult for any comment that quotes the article, or gives counter arguments with examples, to survive the UnHerd automated censor. We have the ridiculous situation where the author cannot be repeated verbatim BTL… even if the author himself were to try and repeat his own quote. As the author himself might put it: not good enough.

Last edited 3 years ago by Prashant Kotak
J Bryant
J Bryant
3 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Ha ha. That was exactly my thought when I read the piece.
Great article, though.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Yes indeed, made me laugh out loud.

John Smith
John Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

My favourite bit:
“Then loud rang his voice: f**k you Grendel – AND your mum!”
Ah the old Skalds would have been scalding!

Last edited 3 years ago by John Smith
G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Yep, just had a go at defending the allegedly indefensible word used at the end of this, citing a scene with Kurtan and Big Mandy from the excellent comedy series This Country, and it disappeared into the ether.

Not even marked ‘awaiting for approval’ any longer, sadly.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  G Harris

The ultimate punishment “Damnatio Memoriae”.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Thanks for that encouragement!
I have just tested the Censor’s nerve with that splendid first line of ‘Carmen XVI’, by Catullus.
Perhaps Martial or even William Dunbar might have stood a better chance of approval.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
3 years ago

And as I can’t see your comment, I assume the censor has zapped it. Catullus would have stood no chance with the UnHerd censor, who seems to be channelling Mary Whitehouse, just as well he was around a couple of millennia ago and not today. Nor I suspect Rochester or Martial or Dunbar. I wonder if even Lawrence would be allowed.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

No, sadly you are quite correct.
‘We’ are continually harangued that we live in the ‘most enlightened times ever’, yet everywhere we are assaulted by this nonsense.
I have yet to decided on the source of this malign influence, but I imagine it is the “usual suspects “.

Fred Dibnah
Fred Dibnah
3 years ago

From Yes Minister we progressed? to the The Thick of it. Which will be remembered longer? I never watched Thick as the author names it but it sounds like it was writtten by a bunch of 6-7 year olds. I am being naughty, ooh. Arthur Smith once did a wonderful monologue on this.
I tell my children save your swear words. Then when used people will ask “Is everything alright?”

peterfriel67
peterfriel67
3 years ago
Reply to  Fred Dibnah

I am always amazed at the talent some people have in enabling them to comment on a programme without having watched it.
Is Fred’s surname Whitehouse?

Sidney Falco
Sidney Falco
3 years ago
Reply to  Fred Dibnah

So “Thick” is unfunny but Arthur Smith is?

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago

‘But I ask you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury: “cockwomble”, what does it mean?’

In defence of this m’lud, I can only refer the jury to the rather wonderful scene in the fantastic This Country where Kurtan uses the word as a term of abuse towards an elderly lady, only to find himself having to repeat it back to the magnificently scary Big Mandy in a grovelling apology…

https://youtu.be/tFh_IhFNKFM

As ever, context is everything.

Last edited 3 years ago by G Harris
G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago

Some of us are born swearers and some of us just aren’t.

My wife isn’t and I am

My oldest daughter, very proper and like her mum is, my youngest daughter, somewhat more like me, isn’t. Funny that.

I always say that I’m not a violent man, but I do swear a lot and like to think I judge ‘my audience’ when I do so.

Under duress it always helps, as has been scientifically proven…ahem, and sometimes, if not sprinkled too liberally, can make a something funny that much funnier but, even as a card carrying swearer, I accept it’s always a fine line.

Last edited 3 years ago by G Harris
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  G Harris

Well put Sir.

Me MyselfI
Me MyselfI
3 years ago
Reply to  G Harris

I swear all the time, and in the workplace had to make a huge effort to curtail it. I’m retired now, and living in a village in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, Spain. The Spanish love swearing, everyone uses a wonderful range of expletives in everyday interactions. My 86 year old neighbour, Maria (there’s an unusual name in these parts) called the local police bloke a coño the other day, and they were just having a chat!

J StJohn
J StJohn
3 years ago

Whenever I see Boris I think, ” Cockwomble”

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago
Reply to  J StJohn

Henceforth BoJo will be known as, ‘the Cockwomble’.

Mark Melvin
Mark Melvin
3 years ago

It is curious how it is totally acceptable to use swear words but other once considered perfectly acceptable words are now banned. This said I found this article laugh out loud hilarious. Thanks. Marzipan d***o…. brilliant!

robert scheetz
robert scheetz
3 years ago

Thick of It (rhymes with “sick of it”) were a good self-satire on the pop genre, were it a one-off. But, turns out the writers, as Ian Martin at some length points out, considered it interesting dialogue.
Actually, it’s just tedious, exhausting and, after all, market determined -targeting the vast and profligate adolescent sector.

Richard Pinch
Richard Pinch
3 years ago

I think the executive summary of this piece reads something like “I can use words you old fogeys don’t like and there’s nothing you can do about it ha ha ha”.

If Mr Martin really adheres to the notion that using words that upset other people is a vital part of comedy, or drama, or, well, anything, really, perhaps in his next diatribe he might demonstrate his courageous commitment to shock tactics by using some offensive words that could really lose him his social status, his income and his club memberships. I’m not going to list them here, but he knows what they are.

Last edited 3 years ago by Richard Pinch
Fred Atkinstalk
Fred Atkinstalk
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Pinch

Let’s bump into the proverbial elephant in the room. We have come to terms with the f-word and the c-word : when will we rehabilitate the n-word?

Scott Carson
Scott Carson
3 years ago

It has never been in any way taboo, as long as you’re the right colour. If you happen to be white, it’s a hanging offence to even think it, much less utter it. If you aren’t, it’s entirely permissible in conversation at the women’s guild tea party.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
3 years ago

Why would we particularly want to? I’m always curious about the concentration on this word above all others as a freedom flag – many, many people, not all of them woke toddlers (I wrote ‘tossers’ but for once the gods of autocorrect made a helpful suggestion) find the word unpleasant, and suspect quite rightly that its use is usually deliberately offensive rather than refreshingly devil-may-care. Perhaps we could let the other side have this one? Oh and don’t start that tedious ‘First they came for the….’ chestnut, either.

Richard Pinch
Richard Pinch
3 years ago

Well, that was my point really. Mr Martin doesn’t mind being deliberately offensive to one group of people, by using one lot of “bad” words, because he knows he’s on perfectly safe ground. He does avoid being deliberately offensive to another group of people, by using another lot of “bad” words, because he knows that might lose him friends, social status or money. Nothing wrong with that at all, of course. What one might criticise, though, is the pretence that doing the safe thing is somehow ground-breaking, daring, edgy — or funny.

Jack Walker
Jack Walker
3 years ago

The best article I’ve read for ages, I had a good belly laugh at parts of it.I hope Ian enjoyed writing it as much as I enjoyed reading it.
I don’t understand why so many are offended by swear words. They are just words like any others, a string of letters, nothing more. But using them is quite delicious, as is the reaction they get.

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
3 years ago

“F***ity f***ity f*** f*** f***”
I have used this phrase since I first heard Malcolm Tucker use it, and I find it does have it’s place.

peterfriel67
peterfriel67
3 years ago
Reply to  Nigel Clarke

There was an episode of The Wire where two detectives looking for clues in a kitchen murder scene announce their findings and conclusions simply by using f*** in a variety of intonations, all of which made complete sense.

Hal Lives
Hal Lives
3 years ago
Reply to  Nigel Clarke

I first heard the phrase, or an extended variation of it, in 2005’s “The Matador” starring Pierce Brosnan.
Hope Davis’ character gleefully says the line when she realises the “friend” (Brosnan) of her hubby who’s visiting them out of the blue is actually an international hitman and not a boring old sales exec.
I believe the film was Brosnan’s first post-Bond, and it’s one of his best.

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago
Reply to  Hal Lives

His Butterfly on a Wheel was really excellent too.

Just goes to show you, when it comes to Hollywood and pretty much anything else, nobody knows anything.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
3 years ago

Anyone who expects to hold back the tide of bad language, simply by wishing it so, will end up looking like a bit of a silly Cnut.

Last edited 3 years ago by Paddy Taylor
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago

“Pēdīcābo ego vōs et irrumābō”. *

* Translation forbidden.

James Wardle
James Wardle
3 years ago

Ian the author is enjoying this a lot! How can you not swear freely in an piece about profanity. I have always been a fan of our Anglo-Saxon 4 letter guttural profane words. Used sparingly and at the right time, see you next Tuesday is a showstopper as one never expected it to utter forth from this normally polite, mild mannered saintly.. actually that’s pushing it, but it never let me down.

I like splitting a word and inserting a well timed “effing” as in “abso-effing-lutely, mon petit chaufleur….”

Freedom of speech… we’re going to lose it if we are not careful as the slippery slide started some time ago. I mean people make bread with their own yeast from their own oven, but say that word and everyone literally has to shutt down like C-3PO resting his over heated circuitry.

SWEAR GLORIOUSLY!

Last edited 3 years ago by James Wardle
Fred Atkinstalk
Fred Atkinstalk
3 years ago
Reply to  James Wardle

“Used sparingly….”

That is the key idea.

Andrew Crisp
Andrew Crisp
3 years ago

Wonderful! He should be giving a creative swearing class to….

Last edited 3 years ago by Andrew Crisp
Marco Federighi
Marco Federighi
3 years ago

F***ing amateurs. Nobody can swear so imaginatively as a Tuscan – and we use blasphemy, too, freely and creatively. A certain American singer was dubbed as many times a w***e as there are rice grains in a railway freight waggon, multiplied by 100.(M****** vagone carico di riso e per ofni chicco cento volte maiala). Match that, coglioni.

Simon Cooper
Simon Cooper
3 years ago

This article pretty much confirmed that only teenagers and bad comedians think swearing is fun.
For everyone else it is a debasement of intellect.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

For pure filth, google “The Lady’s Dressing Room” by Jonathan Swift.