Thursday 18 January 2018

Why having a potty mouth isn't such a bad thing after all

Journalist Brendan O'Connor has said sorry for using a profanity during an RTE radio interview. But why are we all so coy about words we use all the time

Pulp Fiction: John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson and the rest of the cast used the expletive 'f***' 265 times in Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film.
Pulp Fiction: John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson and the rest of the cast used the expletive 'f***' 265 times in Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film.
Soundbytes: Brendan O'Connor apologised this week for his bad language on the radio.

Mark Hayes

So Brendan O'Connor felt he had to apologise for using the word 'w***y' during an RTE radio interview with Ryan Tubridy - am I the only one who thinks this is a bit f***ed up?

"It's a word you would use among your friends but not a word to use on the radio. I think Ryan was offended and he was right to be offended," Brendan said this week of the incident which took place last July.

Perhaps it was not Brendan's most eloquent moment, but is 'w***' not a word that most listeners, young and old, hear all the time in different contexts, and, indeed, often use themselves? And if the answer to that is yes, it begs the questions - why is it not okay to use the same words among your friends as on a radio show aimed at adults?

And if we all know the words and what they mean, why do we bother asterisking the (admittedly gratuitous) bad words in this article? What's the big f***ing deal?

These are questions I've asked myself before about bad language, both in my role as a language teacher and as a dad. I recently watched The Martian with my daughter, who is nine. I saw it before and deemed it suitable. But I hadn't even noticed that in the first 20 minutes, Matt Damon used the word 's***' four times. He wasn't swearing, as such. He used it idiomatically, for example, 'You don't give a s***', 'I'm in deep s***', etc.

My daughter's first language is French and she can curse en français with the best of them. But she didn't understand these common phrases that all Irish kids would pick up in the playground - indeed, studies have shown that generally children start using bad words at the age of six.

She learns English through two sources - me, and the Disney Channel. I don't really swear in front of her because, y'know, she's a child, and while 's*** happens' in the real world, it certainly doesn't on the Disney Channel.

So I paused the movie, explained each idiom, we giggled a bit and we moved on.

But as we watched Damon getting increasingly p***ed off with the s*** storm he was facing, I realised that if my daughter's going to be fluent in English, I'll have to teach her how to curse like a sailor. Or Brendan O'Connor.

But bad language gets a bad rap. Children who use bad words are seen as indisciplined at best, whereas adults who swear a lot are accused of having a limited vocabulary. Salford City Council in the UK recently went so far as to ban swearing in public.

But by and large, we all do it, and often. A study by Wright University in Ohio concluded that 0.7pc of all the words we speak are curse words (compared with, for example, 1pc of all the words are first-person plural pronouns (we, us, our).

Of course, it varies across different languages and cultures, but wherever there is language there is bad language and swearing, and it generally is linked to bodily functions and superstition/religion - things that we don't like or are afraid of.

Feargal Murphy, a linguistics lecturer at UCD, explains how it works: "If you think about this notion of polite society where you don't talk about certain things, then the words that you use for those things become to some extent taboo, or 'bad' words.

"Words have no goodness or badness in themselves, it's what people invest in them, and there are three aspects to that - the social, the psychological and the neurological.

"Socially, we decide as a group that some word is 'bad'. Then psychologically you accept that it is a bad word, to be used in certain ways and you can feel that in yourself - for example, if Anne Doyle had said on the news 'There was a big f***ing crash on the M50', you'd be shocked, but if your friend called you up and said: 'There was a big f***ing crash on the M50', you wouldn't be shocked because you've accepted the social norms around this word. Then neurologically - words that we have accepted like this get wired slightly differently in the brain, so that's why when you hit your thumb with a hammer, you say 'F***!', because the word now has an emotional charge."

But the term 'bad' language is quite unfair - because letting fly with a barrage of obscenity can do you a lot of good.

For one, it can make you endure more pain. A study by Richard Stephens, author of Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad, showed how students who were allowed to curse were able to keep their hands in a bucket of ice longer than those not allowed. More studies have shown that a well-placed expletive can add to effectiveness of a message. And another benefit is solidarity - workplace studies show bad language can engender a greater bond among colleagues with different levels of responsibility.

Then there's how much fun it can be.

"We like to play with language and one great area of playing is in bad language, because you get a lot of pay-off in that - you can have fun and be a bit offensive, and a bit inventive, so it's an area where that ludic area of language can be explored more," explains Mr Murphy.

So what are the negatives? These are mainly to do with the way others perceive you. But adults who swear a lot don't actually have a limited vocabulary - in fact the opposite is true.

A study by US psychologists Timothy and Kristin Jay found that the tendency to swear was actually indicative of greater verbal fluency, and a greater vocabulary of swears indicated a greater vocabulary in general - people who knew more bad words knew more words.

So if swearing is good for you and shows how eloquent you are, should I break out the Viz comic dictionary of expletives, the Profanisaurus, and start my daughter on A is for A***holes? Should foreign language students be taught to swear?

Sadly, no. As Brendan O'Connor refers to in his mea culpa, the crux of the whole thing is context, and the while the social norms that exist do change, it takes a long time.

"When you are learning a foreign language, yes, you have to learn the bad language, but it's not just knowing the words, it's knowing what their limitations are, when you use them, when you don't use them, how often you use them," explains Feargal Murphy. "When you meet your friend and you say 'Ya oul b*****ks,' you use bad language but it's actually very positive in that context. But someone overhearing it might think there's going to be a fight.

"When a child says a bad word, they study the reaction. They are learning about the power of that word and watching the use of the word, developing that over time - and that's not something you can easily teach.

Murphy says there's a global trend of language loosening up. "If you compare RTE now to RTE 20 years ago, the language used would be totally different," he says. "In Ireland, and in most of the Western world, we've become less formal around these things and less distinct across the different contexts." But aren't the Irish particularly zealous cursers? "If you went to Liverpool or Manchester, you're not going to find that someone there curses and swears less than someone in Dublin. But if you went, say, to some fancy part of London, you might.

"A lot of Irish people might think we swear more than the British, but they are thinking of that particular middle class, polite society - and we don't really have that so much. We do use bad language but people still are aware of when they shouldn't use it. If you are brought to Aras an Uachtarain to meet the President, you are not going to say 'I'm f***ing delighted to meet you.'

"But the British are very happy that Father Ted gave them 'feck'. They were stuck for a euphemism and feck is a good one. Now they too can say f*** without saying it."

Perhaps next time, Brendan, you should say 'wenky'?

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Life