April 19, 2021

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.