Sunday 21 April 2019

On Cussing: A history of bad language: from zounds to F-bombs

Non-fiction: On Cussing

Katherine Dunn

Tin House Books, paperback, 70 pages, €11

F-bomb: we can resist pain for longer if we curse aloud
F-bomb: we can resist pain for longer if we curse aloud

Bad language - swearing, profanity, being foul-mouthed, "effing and blinding", cursing (or, as Katherine Dunn euphemises that in the title of her book, cussing) - has been around for as long as we've had language itself. "The graffiti on the walls of Babylon," she writes, "would scorch our eyebrows, and the raunchy Romans had a whole literature of spicy kinks."

She divides the concept into three main strands throughout Western history and culture, and explains how they've held a greater or lesser power, to shock and offend, depending on the era and its mores. In the Dark and Middle Ages, for instance, religious cursing - profanity - was the worst thing you could say.

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Taking the Lord's name in vain was linguistic anathema during those theocratic times. Even something which seems innocuous to modern ears, such as "by Christ's wounds", was verboten: you had to shorten it, and therefore strip it of its impact, thus giving us that lovely Shakespearean word "zounds".

(This still applies, of course, if your parents are reverent enough. I'm reminded of Eddie Murphy's joke about not being allowed, as a child, to "even say dang around my house; my momma said it sounds too much like damn.") Dunn's second category, obscenity, wasn't considered especially outré until the late Middle Ages. That's the one we most associate with the basic idea of "swearing": the f-word, the two c-words, the three p-words, the s-word, and all the rest of this pantheon of bawdy, alternative expressions for bodily functions.

Up to the 16th century, most people lived in one room, regardless of how rich they were; this was because there was one fire, with a hole in the roof to vent smoke. Lords slept in the same close quarters as servants. Everyone had to pee, or otherwise do some venting of their own, in full view of everyone else, simply because it was too bloody cold to go somewhere private.

Then chimneys were invented, which allowed for several fireplaces and separate rooms - and consequently, Dunn tells us, the idea of shame. Sex and defecation et al were now thought "dirty" by an aspirational middle-class, so the rough, colourful words used to describe them were too.

Eventually we reached an absurd apotheosis when, during Victorian times, even something innocent such as "legs of a table" had to be softened to "limb". After World War I, however, that proscription loosened considerably; the horrors of mass murder in the trenches made bad language seem rather harmless by comparison.

Post-World War II, the knots have been untied altogether. Norman Mailer's 1948 epic The Naked and the Dead coyly transcribed f**k as fugging, but nowadays Irvine Welsh-esque authors fill their pages with the unexpurgated version.

The third form of cussing, Dunn says, is to do with group identity and prejudice. She writes: "The deepest language taboos (today) surround racial, ethnic and more recently gender epithets. These are our most genuinely shocking and offensive words."

Proof, in short, of how radically things can change: a century ago respectable gentlemen could speak blithely of Negroes and Chinamen without fear of reproach, but would have been sent to purdah for dropping the F-bomb or saying Jesus Christ.

This short, brisk and quirky book - subtitled "Bad Words and Creative Cursing" - contains some other interesting factoids. Did you know that we actually respond differently, on a physical level, to swearing than to "clean" words? We remember curses, from a list of 100 random words, more clearly. We can resist pain for longer, and to a more severe degree, if we curse aloud.

Dunn herself is an interesting character, or was: she died in 2016, aged 71. Novelist, poet, journalist and something of a legendary figure in Portland, Oregon, she had a particular love for boxing - no doubt she heard "oh heck" and "flip it" around the ring once or twice over the years. There's also an Irish connection: Dunn lived here for a time in the early 1970s, and her son was born in Dublin.

She has a breezy-but-smart style, somewhat reminiscent of Joan Didion (though not quite as intellectual as that immensely gifted writer and thinker). Gus Van Sant - yes, the same one who directed the wonderful My Own Private Idaho - writes in a preface: "Katherine's sentences often have a surprise inside… her writing can be ear candy, like the music you hear during parades (or) a velvet glove with a strong fist enclosed that can pack a punch."

As a lesson in how to reduce a subject to its essence in few words, On Cussing is exemplary. It's crisp, lively and playful, with just the right touch of oddness. Dunn even suggests some ways for the reader (particularly if they're writers, too) to improve their own swearing.

Mix-and-match, be sparing, create your own oaths, and most of all, be imaginative - the world of bad language is your f**king oyster.

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