Henry Hitchings: Unholy Shit

Censorship and Obscenity

Henry Hitchings was born in 1974. He is the author of The Secret Life of Words, Who’s Afraid of Jane Austen?, and Defining the World. He has contributed to many newspapers and magazines and is the theater critic for the London Evening Standard. The following is an adapted excerpt from his book The Language Wars: A History of Proper English.

Political correctness is an invitation to practise self-censorship: to conform to a model of fairness. This brings us to the larger issue of what we are not permitted to say, what we are discouraged from saying, and what we elect to say only in very particular circumstances.

Censorship has a long history, and so does opposition to it. Indeed, it is the practice of policing what people are allowed to say that creates opportunities for subterfuge. The main concern of censorship is smothering ideas, yet because language is the vehicle of ideas censorship has often seemed to be above all else an attempt to muffle language or extinguish it. You can jail a person, but not an idea. There are two forms of censorship. One is interference in advance of publication – by the state or by some other authority such as the Church. The other is action after publication: lawsuits and financial penalties.

In Britain it is the Crown that has usually taken responsibility for censorship. Henry VIII published a list of banned books in 1529, and in 1545 the first permanent Master of the Revels was appointed, with responsibility for licensing playhouses and approving the works staged there. Later this role passed to the Lord Chamberlain, whose responsibility for theatrical censorship continued until 1968. There is also a tradition of self-appointed moralists: early ones included William Prynne and Jeremy Collier, who attacked the decadence of the theatre in the seventeenth century; the type is perhaps best represented by Mrs Grundy, a character mentioned in Thomas Morton’s play Speed the Plough (1798) who embodies the idea of bourgeois propriety and is name-checked in novels by Dickens, Thackeray and Dostoevsky.1 The moralists’ indignation is always no more than a step away from intolerance, and part of it stems from the conviction that the authorities should do more to repress profanity and depravity.

It is well known that whole books have been suppressed on the grounds of obscenity: for instance, Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Britain, the United States and Australia, and, less famously, a guide to euthanasia called The Peaceful Pill Handbook in Australia and New Zealand. Sometimes, too, a regime has outlawed literature on political grounds. A current example is North Korea, where the arts are expected to instruct people in socialism; educated North Koreans are unlikely to have read anything published outside their own language or before 1948.

More often there have been small acts of suppression. Parts of books have been cut or amended to avoid causing offence, and certain books have been kept out of schools. Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle titles have been purged of words such as coon and darky – favorites of Dolittle’s pet parrot Polynesia. Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451, which has been interpreted as an indictment of censorship, was expurgated for distribution in high schools; among other things, an episode describing fluff being removed from a navel was changed to a description of ears being cleaned. J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was widely banned in schools in the 1960s and ’70s; in 1960 a teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was fired after assigning the book to a class of sixteen-year-olds. The American Civil Liberties Union reports that the most challenged books in the 1990s included Huckleberry Finn (because of its use of the word nigger) and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels (because they allegedly teach witchcraft). Common reasons for challenges are allegations that books contain ‘sexually explicit’ material and ‘offensive language’ or are unsuited to the age group to which they are ostensibly addressed.2

Probably the most celebrated example of censorship in English is Thomas Bowdler’s The Family Shakespeare (1818). As its subtitle announced, this edition of Shakespeare’s plays omitted any words that ‘cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family’ – stripping away anything sexual, yet retaining the violence. The edition was Bowdler’s completion of work done by his sister Henrietta Maria; ungenerously, the title page omitted her name, though it did advertise his position as a Fellow of the Royal Society. Bowdler was also a member of what became the Society for the Suppression of Vice. His text, in which vice was diluted rather than completely effaced, led to his being accused in one review of having ‘castrated’ Shakespeare and of having ‘cauterized and phlebotomized him’.3 But The Family Shakespeare was popular, and went through five editions in twenty years. (Less well-known is Bowdler’s attempt to do the same thing with Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, from which he excised ‘all passages of an irreligious or immoral tendency’.) The verb to bowdlerize has passed into everyday English vocabulary.

By contrast, an atmosphere of the alien clings to the title of John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644) – a work often claimed as a pioneering defence of free speech, although it would be more accurate to call it a wartime defence of the freedom of the press from government interference. The name of this tract is an allusion to the Areopagus, a hill where the Court of Athens met in the fourth and fifth centuries BC. Maybe we should read something into the fact that the name Milton chose for his defence of a free press remains so obscure. We may find many acts of censorship ridiculous, especially when we reflect on them from a distance, yet the defenders of free expression are often thought of as superfluous bores or are simply forgotten.

Sometimes a single word can cause outrage. George Bernard Shaw wrote several plays that, while apparently apolitical, addressed controversial issues; of these the best-known is Pygmalion, in which Shaw pokes fun at the social purity movement. For a bet, Henry Higgins transforms the Covent Garden flower-seller Eliza Doolittle into a ‘princess’, which chiefly involves purifying her pronunciation. This is also, covertly, an attempt to ensure her moral probity. At the start of the play Eliza is mistaken for a prostitute – a matter dealt with obliquely, but not obscurely – and in learning a more refined style of speech she reduces the chances of this kind of thing happening in the future. However, the refinement is robotic, and there are moments when she escapes from it, expressing her true personality in vivid terms. One of these exercised the press. Before the first performance on the London stage of Pygmalion, the Daily Sketch warned that ‘One word in Shaw’s new play will cause sensation’. Its preview continued: ‘It is a word . . . certainly not used in decent society. It is a word which the Daily Sketch cannot possibly print.’ The word was bloody. On 11 April 1914, the first night of the run, Eliza’s use of it did indeed cause a sensation: in the theatre there was a stunned silence followed by more than a minute of hysterical laughter. Newspapers responded with dramatic headlines such as ‘Threats By Decency League’. Both bloody and pygmalion became catchwords of the moment. Shaw made a statement that was printed in the Daily News: ‘I have nothing particular to say about Eliza Doolittle’s language . . . I do not know anything more ridiculous than the refusal of some newspapers (at several pages’ length) to print the word “bloody”, which is in common use as an expletive by four-fifths of the British nation, including many highly-educated persons.’4 Almost a hundred years on, news media continue to play an ambivalent part in censorship, reporting events that have caused scandal, and often thereby drawing attention to acts or statements that might otherwise have gone largely unnoticed.

The practice of censorship is closely linked to the concept of taboo – behaviours that are prohibited or strongly inhibited by the belief that they are improper, and things that are considered unfit for mention because they are sordid or sacred. The first recorded use in English of the word taboo – usually said to be of Tongan origin – is in Captain Cook’s 1777 account of his Pacific voyage. Sigmund Freud gave the word greater currency. In paying attention to the social role of taboo, he noted that we can feel guilty not just about things we have done, but also about our wishes (even subconscious ones). He identified this ‘creative’ kind of guilt as an important part of the machinery of our psyche, and went so far as to suggest that swearing, easily dismissed as mere catharsis, is an expression of wishes that exist below the threshold of consciousness, conveying a primal disgust.

We frequently censor ourselves. I may sweeten a salty anecdote when relating it to a friend’s parents, or modify the way I talk about religion when I am with someone I know is a believer. While there is nothing that is at all times taboo for all people, we typically restrict or suppress parts of our vocabulary for fear of violating common taboos. This may well feel not like fear, but more akin to reverence or courtesy.

The words and expressions most tabooed in English-speaking society are to do with sex, excretion, ethnicity and religion. Elsewhere there have been other prohibitions. Bandits in Republican China did not use the names of animals they considered dangerous. The linguist Leonard Bloomfield reported that a Cree Indian would not mention his sister’s name. In Japan, taboo terms are known as imi kotoba; at a wedding, one is expected to avoid using a common verb meaning ‘to repeat’, because it hints at the idea of divorce and remarriage. The Zuni of New Mexico will not use the word takka, meaning ‘frogs’, on any ceremonial occasion. Traditionally, Faroese fishermen refrain from using the word for knife (knívur), and, in the Yakut language spoken in parts of the far north of Russia, the word for a bear is avoided.

For most readers, though, the four taboo subjects I have mentioned will be to the fore. In Britain until the 1960s the use in print of fuck or cunt could result in prosecution. Speech, of course, has been a different matter. Michel de Montaigne observed in one of his essays that the words most rarely or warily spoken are among those most readily recognized. There is justice in this, but in the English-speaking world the rarity and wariness are doubtful. William Hazlitt had it right when he remarked that the English are ‘rather a foul-mouthed nation’. I don’t think of myself as a heavy swearer, but elsewhere in the English-speaking world – except in Australia – I seem to pass for one, as taboo terms trickle from my lips.

The reaction these words provoke is caused more by the words themselves than by the things they denote. Far fewer people will be upset by the word vagina than will be appalled to hear the word cunt. Very few will be disconcerted by a reference to sexual intercourse. It’s also, I think, worth briefly reflecting that swearing, besides often expressing strong feelings and relating to taboos, is not on the whole to be taken literally. Consider, for instance, the statement ‘I got fucked by my boss in my annual review’. Or ‘Fuck me!’, which is an expression of surprise more often than an invitation. Yet the associations of sex with physical force, pain and exploitation – concentrated in the quick invasive aggression of fuck – are present here.

Shit is, undoubtedly, a different matter. The word does not seem to have bothered readers in the fifteenth century, when Caxton used it in a translation of Aesop’s Fables. By the eighteenth century, attitudes had clearly changed. It seems safe to assume that English speakers by then were a little less intimately acquainted with their dung than Caxton’s contemporaries had been. Some dictionaries of the period were squeamish, and others less so. In Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum (1730) there is no entry for shit, but shitten (‘beshit, fouled with Ordure’) is there and so is to shite, which is ‘to discharge the Belly; to ease Nature’. (Bailey also registers cunt, but evasively defines it only as ‘pudendum muliebre’.) Johnson includes none of these words. Moving forward, in the first edition of the OED shit does appear, labelled ‘not now in decent use’.

It has been suggested, by Steven Pinker among others, that slang words for effluvia are unacceptable in precise relation to the unacceptability of emitting – or eliminating – those effluvia in public. Accordingly, shit is worse than piss, which is worse than fart, which is worse than snot. The various slang words for semen are probably somewhere between shit and piss. It is no coincidence that the substances that most disgust us are the most dangerous. Feces is a powerful vector of disease, whereas snot carries less hazardous infections. There are ways of referring to feces that infantilize or medicalize it – doo-doo, for instance, and stools – and these neutralize our disgust. But shit does no such thing and is offensive because it arouses our disgust and connects us, subconsciously, to disease. It seems plausible that, the further we are (or believe ourselves to be) from shit in our daily lives, the more the word appalls us, because it insinuates something feculent back into a world we think we have made clean and safe.

Undoubtedly, too, even if on an intellectual level we accept that the connection between sounds and meanings is arbitrary, we feel otherwise. Steven Pinker explains that ‘most humans . . . treat the name for an entity as part of its essence, so that the mere act of uttering a name is seen as a way to impinge on its referent’. Confronted with a taboo word such as shit, the part of one’s brain known as the amygdala experiences a surge in metabolic activity: ‘The upshot is that a speaker or writer can use a taboo word to evoke an emotional response in an audience quite against their wishes.’5

George Orwell writes in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933):

The whole business of swearing, especially English swearing, is mysterious. Of its very nature swearing is as irrational as magic – indeed, it is a species of magic. But there is also a paradox about it, namely this: Our intention in swearing is to shock and wound, which we do by mentioning something that should be kept secret – usually something to do with the sexual functions. But the strange thing is that when a word is well established as a swear word, it seems to lose its original meaning; that is, it loses the thing that made it into a swear word.

Less than twenty years after the first London production of Pygmalion, Orwell notes, ‘No born Londoner . . . now says “bloody”, unless he is a man of some education. The word has, in fact, moved up in the social scale and ceased to be a swear word for the purposes of the working classes. The current London adjective, now tacked on to every noun, is —–. No doubt in time —–, like “bloody”, will find its way into the drawing-room and be replaced by some other word.’ No prizes for guessing what —– stands for. In Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) Julia strikes Winston as natural and healthy because she cannot mention the Party ‘without using the kind of words that you saw chalked up in dripping alley-ways’; Orwell avoids saying which words she uses in order to shock by implication, and perhaps also to avoid committing himself to a view of what might prove shocking in the future.

Fuck is the dirty prince of English vocabulary – aggressive, flamboyant, versatile, awkward. As Jesse Sheidlower’s book The F-Word enjoyably illustrates, it not only has a vast number of applications, but also is prolific: here’s Robert Louis Stevenson writing in a letter about a fuckstress; here’s a character in a Philip Roth novel using the verb guaranfuckingtee; and here’s Eric Partridge in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English explaining that a Dutch fuck is the act of lighting one cigarette from another.

Until quite recently, dictionaries have treated fuck with caution. In Britain, the word appeared as early as 1598 in John Florio’s Italian-English dictionary, in the definition of the Italian verb fottere – ‘to iape, to sard, to fucke, to swive, to occupy’ – and in cognate forms under fottarie (‘fuckings’), fottitrice (‘a woman fucker’), fottitore (‘a fucker’), fottitura (‘a fucking’) and fottuto (‘fuckt’). The verb to fuck was listed in Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum as ‘a term used of a goat; also subagitare feminam’, and found its way into John Ash’s New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language (1775). But then fuck disappeared from lexicographic view. After the second edition of Ash in 1795, where it is labelled ‘a low vulgar word’ and defined as ‘to perform the act of generation, to have to do with a woman’, fuck’s next appearance in a general English dictionary was in 1965, when a definition was presented in the Penguin English Dictionary. No general American dictionary contained fuck until it appeared in The American Heritage Dictionary in 1969. For all its alleged permissiveness, Webster’s Third did not include the word. Less surprisingly, neither did the original OED. When the entries for the letter F were being put together in the 1890s, it had been omitted; by the 1920s, when the editors had made it as far as W, the word windfucker – the name of a type of kestrel – was considered fit for inclusion. Fuck got its own entry when the OED’s first supplementary volume was published in 1972.

When the American scholar Allen Walker Read published an article about the word in 1934, his chosen title was ‘An Obscenity Symbol’, and he managed by various circumlocutions not once to use the offending term. In 1948 Norman Mailer, preparing his novel The Naked and the Dead for publication, amended every instance of fuck to fug, on the insistence of his publisher. The wisecracking Dorothy Parker, meeting her fellow author, allegedly joked, ‘So you’re the young man who can’t spell fuck.’ (In some accounts it was not Parker, but the sexually adventurous screen star Tallulah Bankhead. Mailer denied that it happened at all.) Elsewhere the word was printed with asterisks in place of its second, third and sometimes also fourth letters; the practice had begun in the early eighteenth century. It was not used in the New York Times until 1998, and then only in the context of the Starr Report into alleged misconduct by President Clinton. Many newspapers continue not to print the word. In other media the equivalent of this reticence is the bleep. The practice of bleeping out profanities on television began in the 1960s, and fuck was not heard in mainstream American cinema until around 1970.6 Yet in Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995) fuck is in one form or another said about four hundred times, a figure surpassed by Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth (1997) with 428.7

If you suspect that fuck is more common than it used to be, you may well be right. The decline of religion in much of the English-speaking world may help to explain why fuck appears where a religious expletive would once have been effective. Unrestrained language seems to attend unrestrained behaviour. Steven Pinker notes that ‘Sexual language has become far more common since the early 1960s, but so have illegitimacy, sexually transmitted infections, rape, and the fallout of sexual competition, like anorexia in girls and swagger culture in boys. Though no one can pin down cause and effect, the changes are of a piece with the weakening of the fear and awe that used to surround thoughts about sex and that charged sexual language with taboo.’8 Though Pinker is no conservative in matters of language, this argument, phrased more angrily, is perfectly suited to becoming a weapon in the arsenal of reactionary commentators.

There are circumstances in which saying fuck creates a momentary solidarity even between people who would normally be offended by the word. If I call you a ‘fucking idiot’ you will be unimpressed, but if I drop a hammer on my foot, I may well exclaim ‘Fuck’ or ‘Shit’, and very few will disapprove. Besides being cathartic, my exclamation has the effect of reassuring anyone who has just seen what has happened; it is a sign of my normality, much less disconcerting than silence, and I am acknowledging my incompetence. If I drop the hammer on the ground rather than on my foot, I am more likely to exclaim ‘Whoops’. My performance in this case is milder, and there is no need for catharsis, but the purpose of the exclamation is the same: I am still drawing attention to the fact that this mishap was unintended – and subconsciously, or semi-consciously, I am keen not to be thought of as someone who goes around dropping hammers.

Fuck, it should be emphasized, was not the only word to be deliberately omitted from the first edition of the OED. The absence of cunt is not surprising, though the issue of whether or not to include it was vigorously discussed. But the comparatively innocent condom did not make it either. James Dixon, a surgeon who was a valued contributor to the OED, was startled by the word when he came upon it in print – or rather, startled by the existence of the item itself. He told James Murray that it was ‘a contrivance used by fornicators, to save themselves from a well-deserved clap’. It was ‘too utterly obscene’ to be included in the OED. It seems that Murray concurred.9 Clap was labelled ‘obsolete in polite use’, despite recent evidence to the contrary.

In the opposite camp there were, and of course still are, those who think there is no such thing as an obscene word. Their strategy, usually, is to administer shock treatment. One of the prime movers in this was George Carlin, whose comedy often contained social commentary and observations about language. In Carlin’s sketch ‘Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television’ – which appeared on an album he released in 1972 and led to his arrest when he performed it in Milwaukee – the words in question are fuck, cunt, shit, piss, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits. These words were not in fact banned; there was simply an informal understanding that they should not be used. Carlin dubbed them the ‘heavy seven’, joking that their use will ‘curve your spine’. His real point was that there were ‘no bad words’, only ‘bad thoughts’ and ‘bad intentions’.10 Carlin’s aim was to question people’s capacity for taking offence. What made certain words more shocking than others? He later expanded the list, adding fart, turd and twat. Was fart acceptable, or was it bad? Wasn’t it, after all, just shit without the mess? In 1978 the Supreme Court ruled that the sketch was ‘indecent but not obscene’. Yet, as Jack Lynch notes, ‘Carlin’s list became the de facto standard of what really couldn’t be said on the public airwaves. It’s a strange paradox that a foul-mouthed champion of free speech should have been instrumental in writing the law prohibiting those same words.’11

In Britain, the law relating to obscenity has been in place since 1857, modified in England and Wales by two further Obscene Publications Acts in 1959 and 1964. The 1959 Act states that ‘an article shall be deemed to be obscene if its effect . . . is, if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.’ (For these purposes an ‘article’ is anything ‘containing or embodying matter to be read or looked at or both, any sound record, and any film or other record of a picture or pictures’.) However, the publisher of an ‘article’ cannot be convicted if publication ‘is justified for the public good on the ground that it is in the interests of science, literature, art or learning, or of other objects of general concern’. The contradiction here is hardly inconspicuous: can things that ‘tend to deprave and corrupt’ really be ‘justified for the public good’? And how are we to assess or indeed define the experience of being depraved and corrupted?

Anxieties about obscenity lie behind a lot of humour, which tends to deal with sex, violence and society’s ritual practices. Jokes help us grapple with our distastes and mistrusts: of our bodies, our desires, our apparent superiors and people who seem to menace our lives’ equilibrium. Typically, jokes expose a gap between what we expect and how things turn out; humour is liberating because it momentarily makes the real world seem surreal and because it briefly gives us a chance to reflect on the fears implicit in our daily existence. ‘The genius of jokes,’ writes the philosopher Simon Critchley, ‘is that they light up the common features of our world.’12 They pique our distaste, making us uncomfortable and at the same time making us question this uncomfortableness.

Lenny Bruce is an important figure here. Unusually for a comedian, Bruce did not tell jokes. His rhythm was typically that of a conventional stand-up comedian – set-up, delay, punchline – and his subject matter (despair, destruction, the truth) was of a kind that has frequently been mined by comics, but Bruce’s profanity took the form of an abstract jazz performance rather than a studious progression. Bruce wanted his audiences to be shocked by the things that were really wrong – not by four-letter words, but by the inequalities and depravities of society. Why was it unacceptable to depict sex (something most of us practise) in a film, yet acceptable to depict murder? A crucial part of his act lay in demystifying the language conventionally deemed obscene. Bruce used the phrase ‘yada yada yada’ to sum up the endless torrents of blather spouted by the moral majority.

It probably now seems bizarre that Bruce was in 1961 arrested for using the word cocksucker during a routine at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop. Twenty years later Meryl Streep won an Oscar for her performance in Sophie’s Choice, in which she uttered this very word. We have become inured to hearing it – and to hearing what would generally be considered far worse. Still, the use of so-called bad language is likely to provoke complaint when it happens in a context where it seems especially inappropriate. When the singer Madonna presented the Turner Prize for contemporary art in 2001, she successfully outraged many by exclaiming, on live television and before the nine o’clock ‘watershed’, the words ‘Right on, motherfuckers!’

Although motherfucker is regarded as outstandingly obscene in its condensed expression of Freud’s Oedipal theory, today the term most likely to cause shock is nigger. When first adopted in the sixteenth century – from French, Spanish or Portuguese, though ultimately its source was Latin – it was used neutrally, without obvious hostility and contempt. That changed in the late eighteenth century, and there is no mistaking the tone of Byron’s ‘The rest of the world – niggers and what not’ (1811) or Henry Fearon’s reference in Sketches of America (1818) to ‘the bad conduct and inferior nature of niggars [sic]’. The word is fatally linked to white supremacy and slavery. Although it has different levels of toxicity according to who is using it, nobody can now free it from its long history of derogatory connotations. The popularization of the hip-hop endearment nigga, which the rapper Tupac Shakur improbably claimed was an acronym for Never Ignorant and Getting Goals Accomplished, and what might be called its neutralized and generalized use as an equivalent of guy or man, have only complicated reactions to the original word. Black people’s use of nigga or indeed nigger as a form of address is not a unique example of an insult being recast as a badge of honour; the Christian movement known as the Quakers adopted that nickname – more formally called the Religious Society of Friends – in order to neutralize what was at first a term of derision.

Sensitivity about nigger has led to the avoidance of the unrelated adjective niggardly. In 1999 David Howard, who worked in the mayor’s office in Washington DC, used the word during a meeting. Rumours circulated that he had used a racist epithet: Howard resigned his post, conceding, ‘I should have thought, this is an arcane word, and everyone may not know it.’13 Because niggardly sounds as though it derives from nigger, it is tainted. Knowledge of the two words’ different etymologies is no protection against those for whom their sounds are simply too close for comfort. There are other words one can use instead of niggardly that will cause no offence. Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman suggest that ‘Somebody who uses it is in effect telling his audience: “I’m smarter than anyone who’s dumb enough to get mad.” ’14 Well, maybe. But I suspect most people who use niggardly do so without the snooty premeditation this implies.

The episode involving David Howard was not the first time that niggardly had caused controversy, and there have been similar rows since, as when a student at the University of Wisconsin made a formal complaint about a professor’s discussion of the word’s use by Chaucer. Niggardly is a pejorative word, and was in the fourteenth century, though of course Chaucer knew nothing of nigger. The negative import of niggardly makes its similarity to nigger both plausible and likely to give offence. I suspect that many people hear it as niggerly. I am pretty confident that niggardly will fall out of use. But will that be the end of it? What of niggling or snigger? Or denigratory?

There has been more than one campaign to have nigger removed from American dictionaries. Yet a dictionary that registers usage rather than policing it must include nigger. Called upon in 1936 to explain why the OED gave ‘cheat’ as one of the meanings of Jew, the Oxford University Press’s representative Kenneth Sisam wrote, ‘I should like to explain that our dictionaries aim at explaining actual usage and do not attempt to form moral judgements’.15 In 1972 a businessman from Salford brought an action against the OED’s publishers, claiming that the definition in question was defamatory. He lost the case in the High Court because he was unable to meet the law’s requirement that he show the offending words ‘referred to him personally or were capable of being understood by others as referring to him’.16 Words and disagreeable senses of words are hard to kill off, and prohibition is a form of encouragement.

Abuse moves with the times. Call a woman a witch and you’ll cause offence, but four hundred years ago the charge would have had graver implications. Witch-hunts do in fact still happen – notable recent examples have occurred in Kenya and the Gambia – but for most people in English-speaking countries belief in witchcraft seems archaic. Insults work by attacking our points of greatest vulnerability: the things about which we feel awkward, certainly, but also the things about which we know others feel awkward. A few years ago, when a teenage boy on a train said to me, as his mother looked on blithely, ‘Fuck off, you bald cunt’, my reactions were complex: I was amused by his brazenness but also struck by the realization that, even though I was reconciled to the fact of having lost a good deal of my hair, this was how I was seen by others – not as a man, cuntish or otherwise, but as a bald man.Typically, insults give narrow names to aspects of us we would wish to be treated in a more complex fashion. They place us in categories to which we may indeed belong, but they insist on those categories at the expense of judging us more roundly. Personally, I would sooner be called a cunt than a coward or a thief, because to be called either of the latter is to be an object of focused moral disapproval. That said, someone who calls me a cunt is more likely to want to thump me.

Coming up with an original insult demands a great surge of creativity. Swearing can be extraordinarily expressive. However, most of the time it is formulaic. For the person doing the swearing, what matters is the performance of excess; injuring the target may not be important at all. The most obvious kind of formulaic abuse consists of ritual insults – the ‘flyting’ of sixteenth-century Scottish poets, the African-American tradition of ribald trash talk (sometimes called ‘the dozens’), the orchestral banter of teenagers just about anywhere. Insults of this kind are not true – ‘Your momma drink rainwater’, ‘You got shit for brains’ – but sting because for a moment they make us part of a piece of theatre over which we have no control.

Obscenity invades every area of our lives, however much we do to try and repel it. Fear of the obscene is expressed in networks of vigilance such as campaigns for public morality. Legislation about obscenity persists, and calls for its extension are frequent. But the fascination of the forbidden is irresistible, and obscenity can seem the nucleus of English eloquence. The English were once labelled ‘les goddams’ by the French; since the 1960s they have been ‘les fuckoffs’, and among the many benisons of English-speaking culture is that snarling expletive, a two-word anthem for the Anglosphere.

1. Geoffrey Hughes, Swearing (London: Penguin, 1998), 243.
2. Geoffrey Hughes, An Encyclopedia of Swearing (London: M. E. Sharpe, 2006), 65.
3. Quoted in Andrew Murphy, Shakespeare in Print: A History and Chronology of Shakespeare Publishing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 171.
4. Hughes, An Encyclopedia of Swearing, 372.
5. Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (London: Penguin, 2008), 331–3.
6. Jesse Sheidlower (ed.), The F-Word, 3rd edn (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), xxii–xxxii.
7. Ibid., xxvii.
8. Pinker, The Stuff of Thought, 370.
9. Quoted in Lynda Mugglestone, Lost for Words:The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 84.
10. Quoted in Marc Leverette, Brian L. Ott and Cara Louise Buckley (eds), It’s Not TV: Watching HBO in the Post-Television Era (New York: Routledge, 2008), 128.
11. Lynch, The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, 236.
12. Simon Critchley, On Humour (London: Routledge, 2002), 87.
13. Maureen Dowd, ‘Liberties; Niggardly City’, New York Times, 31 January 1999.
14. Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language (New York: Random House, 2009), 135.
15. Quoted in Charlotte Brewer, Treasure-House of the Language: The Living OED (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 96.
16. Quoted in Robert Burchfield, ‘Dictionaries and Ethnic Sensibilities’, in Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks (eds), The State of the Language (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 19.