Monday 21 October 2019

Darragh McManus: I'd swear we're among the happiest people on Earth because we know cursing's effing fun

Bad language eases your mental and emotional anguish too
Bad language eases your mental and emotional anguish too
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

THIS won't come as a surprise to anyone who, after accidentally hammering their own thumb, lets out a long and satisfying stream of four-letter words - but swearing helps us deal with pain.

In research conducted by psychologist Richard Stephens, as recently reported on the 'Wired Science' podcast, cursing allowed volunteers to endure freezing water for longer than clean-mouthed counterparts.

Apparently, most pain is actually psychological; in other words, bad language eases your mental and emotional anguish too.

This might explain why the Irish, despite incessantly moaning about every aspect of life, consistently rate as one of the happiest peoples on Earth: we're champion swearers. It's not something to be proud of - though we're not exactly ashamed either - but is, I think, the reality.

The Irish curse more than possibly any other race, and certainly with an inventiveness, flair and humour that is, as far as I can make out, unparalleled. There's almost something charming in how we use four-letter words; as though it's a bawdy but harmless (perhaps even necessary) part of the richness of Hiberno-English.

From the biggies - f-word, c-word, other c-word, all three p-words - right down the line of severity to borderline cases like "arse", we swear all the time, in a colourful, bewildering kaleidoscope of profanity. The Irish language provides us with brilliant cursing, which has fed into the volume and diversity of our vulgar slang in English.

But we also reduce the strength of bad language, render it more palatable, through sly transformation. Words such as "feck", "hoor", "Jaysus" and "s**te" sound somehow innocent, or childlike - despite everyone knowing what is really meant.

'Navan Man' made "buck" as a synonym for, well, you know what it rhymes with; "fup" and "puck" have been pressed into service.

Swearing can even be a term of endearment for the Irish. How often have you seen two old friends embrace with a hearty "ah c'mere, you bo**ox, it's good to see you?"

It's not only the hoi polloi: Irish artists have turned the air blue with gleeful abandon. Nearly a century has passed since James Joyce's 'Ulysses' was banned for obscenity (according to the OED, the first time "f***" appeared in print).

The Pogues, one of the greatest ever Irish bands, took their name from a much-loved expression as Gaeilge, referring to one's posterior and the kissing thereof.

Roddy Doyle basically made an entire career out of finding new and imaginative ways to swear, as has Brendan O'Carroll - his 'Mrs Brown's Boys' maybe proves the point that Irish people seem able to curse without being overly offensive. Martin McDonagh's 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri' is an extravaganza of bad language.

Oddly enough, in terms of movies using the f-word most frequently - yes, someone has worked this out - Irish films rank quite low, with 'The Commitments' at No. 89.

This seems surprising, because we clearly don't mind swearing on film at all. I remember seeing a video, back in the days when they put both UK and Irish age classifications on the cover.

This was a comedy stand-up gig, crammed with four-letter words. Rather amusingly, the UK cert was 18, the Irish was just 12: the authorities, and by extension us, weren't half as bothered by cursing as violence, sex or drug use.

Why do we swear so much? I've read all sorts of explanations, justifications and extrapolations: we're "irrationally exuberant"; language flows out of us and we've sworn before we realise it; it taps into our rebellious instincts; it appeals to a sense of machismo; something to do with a reduction in the Catholic Church's influence; and foreigners don't mind indulging our coarse tirades because we're just such likeable little leprechauns, sure how could you get mad at us?

Personally, I believe we curse a lot for three main reasons. First, we subconsciously realised, long ago, that bad language is a comfort and helps get you through this vale of tears. (Ireland being so damp, that's almost literally the case.)

Secondly, it's a form of linguistic evasion and subterfuge, which goes "against" the formal, respectable language of the ruling classes.

This ties into the intrinsic nature of Hiberno-English and how, for historical/political reasons, we tend to talk in riddles. Plus swearing.

Thirdly - most importantly - swearing can be a lot of f***ing fun. And if you don't like it, may I refer you to the name of Shane MacGowan's band once more.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss