What the f**k: why swearing is back and better than ever

·7-min read
 (Etienne Girardet)
(Etienne Girardet)

Shit Show at the F*** Factory. World’s most awkward orgy? Newspaper headline describing on-and-off lockdowns that (sadly) did not make the cut? A late-night satirical sitcom whereby those who dare swear the most, win? Getting warmer. As Succession stans will be well aware, this is an early episode title from the award-winning show featuring the most morally dubious, power-hungry and unapologetically foul-mouthed family on screen: the Roys. A sample for the uninitiated — though please, I beg of you, watch it — comes in the shape of youngest son Roman’s opening line. ‘Hey, hey motherf***ers!’ he smiles: a precursor to an endless chorus of his dad Logan’s signature epithet, ‘F*** off!’

Make no mistake, there is an art, a musicality really, to these Olympian diatribes. They are big and they are clever. Lit on a linguistic stage. Subtract the curse words and these characters are speaking in Morse code. ‘My favourite sweary lines [in the show] are something based on truth, describing a feeling,’ says Georgia Pritchett, co-executive producer/writer for Succession and author of My Mess is a Bit of a Life. ‘Then I think it’s really helpful. It can get to the heart of something, be descriptive rather than insulting. Open you up to their humanity.’ I’ve never felt more seen, I tell her. Sure, they’re hardly the most sympathetic of characters to align oneself with (compelling, yes; slap-happy, certainly not). I will, however, forever fight profanity’s corner. One that has personally reached the peak of its powers of late.

Like any love affair, it has been a journey. My swearing literacy traces back to school, overhearing kids in the playground trading obscenities like Pokémon cards, without properly understanding its ‘true’ meaning or value. But it sounded strong. And wrong; that too. A vernacular swiftly expelled as lazy at best. Violent at worst. So, the people-pleaser side of my psyche learnt via social conditioning — ie, my mother — to cut the crap, quite literally, in certain-slash-most environments. Cut to the present day and, notably, my threshold over the past year for caring about other’s opinions on anything I say — not least habitual cursing — has dwindled drastically. The pre-pandemic ‘everything is fine’ façade doesn’t fit any more. Emotions — good, bad, ugly — they’re more surface level. And positively, less shameful to express. Now the lid is off. I’m routinely decorating sentences with strong language when talking to family members. People I fancy. Colleagues. Yours truly.

Though as much as I would love to paint myself as some sort of misfit or revolutionary in this regard, it could not be further from the truth: reading the cultural room points to a distinctly pro-profanity future. Even our propensity to be turned off by swearing on radio and TV is on the decline according to a recent Ofcom study, which declared viewers more ‘relaxed’ about it if the word(s) adds authenticity.

Of course, there are times in real life when we curb how we really feel, through fear of provoking an already uncomfortable situation. The Roys, however, have the unique superpower of, well, not giving a shit (NB: Microsoft Word’s autocorrect prompt would prefer I wrote ‘caring’). It’s what makes their interactions so delicious to be in such close proximity to, albeit virtually. In one scene, Roman clearly wants to disengage from a conversation at Shiv’s wedding. He lands on the most outrageous, yet delivered ever so casually, ‘Well, these hands aren’t going to fuck themselves.’ An ‘I’d rather wank than talk to you wankers’ overtone that slices through social interactions shrouded in artifice, Pritchett reveals. Instead of ‘being a bit Jane Austen’, and trying to pick ‘a polite exit line, when we all know that both parties have just had enough of each other’.

This refusal to cloak conversation in politeness and PG-rated small talk is part of swearing’s unending charm. And, instead of signalling the death of professionalism, it has the potential to make people properly listen to the content of your complaint (or elation). A fashion director friend of mine, Matilda, 29, admits that she actively started swearing more at work five years ago after the ‘woman I respected the most in the world’ — a former boss — swore all the time. In meetings (‘she’d say c*** to a man’s face’); the subject line of emails; in emails; texts. ‘She had real big dick energy,’ she says. ‘I liked the way she was respected, loved and feared in equal measure.’ Adding that while ‘it was shocking’ at first, she ‘enjoyed watching the shock factor on other people’s faces. Then, the more I saw it, the more I acclimatised to it.’ On a more earnest note, it made this colleague come across as more sincere. ‘Now, if something’s amazing I’ll say, “I f***ing love that!” If something’s bad: “I’ve never seen such a load of bollocks.” I’m telling you exactly how I feel.’

Two things that have long riled me are, one, the impression that women’s capacity to let rip is somehow lesser than men’s. Or, more insidiously, should be curtailed more; considered vulgar or unladylike. For whose benefit? ‘I think the reason that women’s swearing was so heavily policed was so that we would be literally less audible,’ says Emma Byrne, author of Swearing is Good for You. The fact that Pritchett had a strict swearing quota while working on the cult female-dominated comedy Smack the Pony in the late 1990s is telling — she was forced to adhere to a certain number of ‘f***s’ per series (‘one week, we blew all our swear words in one sketch so that the following week, when we wanted to say “motherf***er”, we were told we had gone over our allotted swear word rations’). Secondly, that this type of language is inherently negative or indicative of anger.

‘We shouldn’t see it as an affliction but as something that can make us feel better,’ says Byrne. ‘It’s a self-soothing tool and a good social signal that the person doing the swearing is overwhelmed: emotionally, socially or physically.’ Which, let’s be honest, we’ve all had to battle more, since the other c-word entered our periphery. ‘Swearing and offensiveness are two separate axes,’ she adds. ‘It’s possible to be incredibly offensive without using swear words to [make someone] feel invalid, like when Donald Trump refers to Hillary Clinton as a “nasty” woman, we all knew what he meant.’

Psychologist and senior lecturer at Keele university, Dr Richard Stephens, points to the happy consequence of dropping f-bombs and suchlike in unhappy scenarios: lalochezia, which is defined as ‘gaining stress or pain relief through swearing and foul language’. He conducted one experiment whereby two groups put their hands into ice-cold water; one repeated a swear word of their choosing, the other a neutral alternative. ‘Across every study people held their hand longer under swearing conditions.’ Which suggests that colouring outside the lines of syntax propriety can make you tolerate pain more, as you cathartically let go of your inhibitions, triggering a fight-or-flight response.

Though it would be a disservice to describe swearing as a mere coping mechanism. It’s more magnificent than that. As George Orwell wrote in his memoir Down and Out in Paris and London, ‘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.’

In other words, its meaning shapeshifts constantly, depending on the context. (See the 250k-times-streamed YouTube video of a woman explaining ‘how to say bitch in many ways’). If I had to pick a favourite in a line-up, the f-word trumps all. It’s exceedingly satisfying to deliver (like putting sauce topping on a hot dog, rather than a meaningless filler, it’s a necessary additive to ensure a wholly more pleasurable experience) and wonderfully versatile (as a noun, verb, adjective or stand-alone exclamation). Applied to, and amplifying, a constellation of feeling. Red flagging a guy to a friend (‘f***boi’). Reading an email asking me to do pretty much anything these days (‘F*** no’). Maybe I’m in a hurry. Or happy. Or horny. Sometimes, rather encouragingly, all three at once.

It’s here I realise that my swearing does follow some sort of moral code. Rarely, if ever quite frankly, doing so with the intention of attacking someone directly (this is where Logan Roy and I part ways). This feels like it veers into genuinely hurtful, not entirely useful and potentially quite pathetic-sounding territory. Desert Island Disses? Not my style. Letting off verbal steam to express a long and winding road of emotion? Abso-f***ing-lutely.

Read More

Greta Thunberg jokes she will go net zero on swearing

Alastair Campbell on Succession: Logan Roy swears much more than Rupert Murdoch

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting