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Swearing: the power of profanity

From Davos to DC, you can almost hear the silent cursing of presidents and powerbrokers as things go awry: from Donald Trump’s impeachment, to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s alleged hacking of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, to the paparazzi stalking Meghan and Harry in the Canadian woodlands. A collective “F*ck” all round. Swearing is on the increase. Guy Ritchie’s latest film, which opened this month, The Gentlemen, got me thinking about swearing, as almost every other word that comes out of the mouths of the all-star cast is profanity. Hugh Grant, Matthew McConaughey, Henry Golding, Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary Michelle Dockery, spend half the movie dropping the f-word and more.

Swearing helps boost our tolerance to pain. Several months ago a Financial Times headline read, “Smart People Understand Why It Pays to Swear at Work”. Sweary scientist Emma Byrn, who gave The Royal Institution lecture in February 2018, looked at the connection between swearing and emotions, among other issues, concluding in her hour-long discourse that Swearing is Good for You – the title of her book about the scientific look at the power of profanity. Her working title was, “That’s Fucking Amazing”, but publishers thought that was a step too far.

If you watched Fleabag or Peaky Blinders, or the inimitable Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It, the characters swore with impunity, because profanity has power and it demands we pay attention. All languages have it, although it differs. In Quebec, bad language is linked to the liturgy and the Catholic church, and known as sacres (to consecrate). I remember growing up in Montreal and learning ‘tabarnak’ (the worst of the worst), ‘maudit’ (damned) and ‘calice’ (chalice).

One survey found that almost 90 per cent of Britons swear and most don’t think it’s terrible. Melissa Mohr wrote, Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing and, in southeast London’s Bermondsey, the police have tried to shut down Fuckoffee. Their response? “Fuck ’em”. Celebrity photographer Rankin’s book is called “F*CK Y*U”.

Profanity doesn’t shock us. However, it’s still tricky. Angelina Jolie invited a high-ranking official to dinner in Chiswick a few years ago. They hadn’t met, but both were involved in the same charity. The A-list celebrity wanted to create the right impression and set the scene. In the private room in the well-known club where she had arranged the dinner, there was a large painting with the word f*ck on it. Unsure whether or not this might offend her guest, she had the offending artwork removed for the duration of the meal.

While the f-word demands we take note, as it sends out a signal, it can be celebratory, unifying and painkilling. In Japan, scatological insults are not as emotive as here, but all languages have swearing, something that makes us feel awkward. We imbibe learning to swear, and it’s not something we’re taught. In some places, like St Kitts in the Caribbean swearing is illegal as 50 Cent found out when the police arrested the rapper for using profanity on stage.

At my brother’s wedding, as we stood outside waiting for the bride and groom to exchange their vows, a wasp had, unbeknownst to me, made a bee-line for my leg. The pain was so unexpected, so excruciating that instead of hearing “I do” the guests heard my anguished “Oh, f*ck”.

As it turns out, people who swear a lot scored higher on IQ tests. A 2015 study from Marist College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts discovered we’re just smarter. There’s still a double standard in the way that women and men are perceived when they cuss: men fare better. Women are seen as out of control and less attractive, men as more powerful and direct, but both genders swear about the same amount. So, as you might say, WTF.