This is a weird thought I had the other day after watching ten weeks of Big Brother, the programme on which the participants seem to swear an awful lot. Earlier that day I had had to explain to my children (who during the school holidays seem to know when I want to watch Big Brother) yet again that swearing that much is ‘not what most people do’ and isn’t something they should do.
So later that evening I asked my husband: do people swear more than they used to? To which he replied with a high level of certainty ‘no’. I disagreed with him. We debated the issue for about ten minutes (without swearing) and finished the evening in disagreement.
I don’t recall people swearing much when I was at school, or when I went to University, or when I started work. I don’t remember my friends and fellow teachers swearing when I lived in Japan (in Japanese or English). My colleagues at Oxford University Press rarely let out a rude word (although Simon Winchester memorably shouted a very bad expletive at me once in a fit of temper over coffee – not about the coffee).
So, despite what my husband thinks, as far as I see it, people seem to swear a lot more now in the year 2014 than I remember before this current century started. But am I imagining it? Are people really more free with the f-word than they used to be? Or am I suffering from a selective memory?
One conclusion might be that now people use bigger swear words than I remember from my childhood. I recall my mum once calling Nicholas Parsons ‘that bloody man’ (although I can’t remember what he did to provoke that comment). At that time I felt very shocked at her colourful choice of adjective to describe the host of Sale of the Century. I also remember people at University saying ‘shite’ a lot (at first I thought it was a regional thing that hadn’t reached Stafford) but I don’t think I heard that biggest of all swear words (you know, the one that begins with the letter f) much.
I haven’t really felt much need to swear in my life except perhaps when someone is about to crash into my car or after I bump my head. Even then I only say what might be considered a relatively mild word – shite without the e. I can’t even type a bad word. Perhaps it is me that isn’t normal?
Psychologists will tell you that swearing is not only normal and commonplace, it is healthy. It provides a release of tension. It’s also definitely not a class issue: people from all creeds of life swear. Earlier this year, some clever psychologists at Keele University made a study of swearing and concluded that it is a coping mechanism, with no relation to IQ. They believe that swearing can make the swearer feel stronger.
Maybe if I swore more I wouldn’t be such a stress ball and I’d find this thing called life a little easier to bear.