A Crisis In British Swearing.

As I am not a Brit, I can only have an outsider’s uninformed opinion on Tom Nicholson’s Esquire jeremiad, but I do have one, and it is that he is correct:

There’s a growing crisis in swearing in this country. After centuries during which everyone was happy to call each other bastards, pricks and wankers, there’s a renewed enthusiasm for faux-archaic compound insults. ‘Cockwomble’ is the breakout star, but jump into any Brexit-adjacent Twitter thread and you’ll see them. ‘Wankpuffin’. ‘Nobsocket’. ‘Shitflute’. ‘Spunktrumpet’. […]

Despite the apparent coarseness, this ‘inventive’ swearing is on the same continuum as swing dancing and having Live Laugh Love wall decals in your kitchen, suitable only for New European readers who really, really, really like Blackadder and call each other ‘sir’ on Twitter.

It’s not clear where the urge to formulate swearwords which sound like surnames of minor Harry Potter characters came from, but it’s been leapt on as a really easy way to make yourself sound a bit witty. Pick a swear word, add a slightly unexpected noun, launch it at Dominic Raab and hey – you’re a Radio 4 quiz show panellist. […]

The idea that this kind of linguistic cut-and-shut job automatically puts whoever uses it in the same literary lineage as Dickens, Carroll and Wodehouse is a fallacy. Crucially, it’s also a case of reinventing the wheel. A solid, agricultural English insult has an implicit poetry of its own, and they do their jobs perfectly. To take one example: a prick is a prick. Drop it at the right time and the insult lands like a hand grenade, and that’s because you know what it means without necessarily being able to fully articulate it. It means you’re a prick, mate – end of. […]

If you use these words, you’re turning your back on the rich history of earthy, brutish, egalitarian British swearing to evoke some bizarre Thorpe Park fantasy Britain set somewhere between 1928 and 1954. It’s not that there’s no room for innovation in swearing, but the forsaking our national inheritance – your everyday fucks, shits and bastards – for smug, self-consciously quirksome insults is a travesty which must be stopped.

Hear, hear! (From Wordshore’s MetaFilter post, where you will find more sweary links; warning: in “10 Old English swear words,” the phrase “Old English” means “English before my time,” as is distressingly common. Yours, Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.)

Comments

  1. > jump into any Brexit-adjacent Twitter thread

    There, you see, is the problem. Nobody actually says any of this shit.

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    Yep, it’s all bollocks.

  3. A load of codswallop.

  4. Nobody actually says any of this shit.

    Well, quite. But they should stop pretending they do.

  5. Poor old Codd, he must have had the worst wallop (beer) going.

  6. Poor old Codd, he must have had the worst wallop (beer) going.

  7. J.W. Brewer says:

    Does the perfectly good 19th-century Americanism (with Algonquin etymology) “mugwump” really belong on the proscribed list here? It doesn’t sound Harry-Potterish or Wodehousian to me.

  8. I’d had an idea, obviously wrong, that only cockneys and Glaswegians swore.

  9. I agree with the main point that those are a bit precious, but I understand why they caught on.

    I think in addition to the Dickensian whimsy of most of the words involved, there’s something quite satisfying about the three-syllable meter of most of those examples… is it dactylic? And I don’t think that’s a new thing. Just think of old classics like “bootlicker”, “turdburglar”, “butt-nugget” or “c*cksucker”.

  10. Keep calm and swear on…

  11. Stu Clayton says:

    the three-syllable meter of most of those examples

    Not so variously instantiated, although more frequent, there’s also the peter-meter of motherf*cker. This is trochaic, as in the Song of Hiawatha.

  12. The best swearing I have ever heard was a Sydney taxi driver’s simple, perfectly-delivered, utterly just, DICKHEAD. Sometimes the classics are the best.

  13. Electric Dragon says:

    The venerable British image board B3ta says this about swearing in its FAQ ( https://www.b3ta.com/features/faq/#swear ):
    “How do I fucking swear?
    While swearing is permitted on the boards, we prefer more creative forms of profanity:

    Portmanteau: twat + cunt = twunt. Can you think of your own?

    Animal combos: cock-badger and kitten-flaps have been found to be most effective.

    Reversal: by reversing “fuck” and “cock” you can substantially improve your swearing. EG: “Cock off you cocking fucksucker.”
    Stand out from the crowd and find your own swearing style. Maybe yours will catch on.”

  14. David Marjanović says:

    Shitgibbon compounds! ^_^ LLog has a whole category for them.

    suitable only for New European readers who really, really, really like Blackadder and call each other ‘sir’ on Twitter.

    Pish and tosh, sir.

    This is trochaic, as in the Song of Hiawatha.

    …where it’s taken, interestingly enough, from the Kalevala. Vaka vanha Väinämöinen!

  15. As a rule, everything in Esquire is wrong, and this is no exception. The idea that English swearing has been happily unimaginative for ages until it was overrun by a bunch of pretentiously retro fashion victims (but not the bunch of pretentiously retro fashion victims who read Esquire, of course; a different bunch) simply does not survive contact with reality. English swearing has been inventive and complex for centuries.

  16. Does the perfectly good 19th-century Americanism (with Algonquin etymology) “mugwump” really belong on the proscribed list here?

    I, too, thought the example was out of place in the article. A famous politician using an uncommon, but well-established and decidedly non-obscene, word for memorable rhetorical effect is a rather different kettle of fish from inventing comical, semi-obscene portmanteaus to liven up one’s Twitter feed. B. Johnson’s “mutton-headed mugwump” was more in the tradition of “nattering nabobs of negativity.”

    I also call to mind that the first time my younger brother registered to vote, he registered as a “Mugwump,” much to the consternation of the volunteer registering new voters.

  17. I suspect the American origins of “mugwump” are unknown to most Brits and it feels like it fits into this category.

  18. I don’t see how its American origin is at all relevant one way or another. It’s a word found in every reputable dictionary of the English language. Therefore, mugwump is in an entirely different category than cockwomble, which hasn’t earned that distinction, though it may one day.

  19. Jeffry House says:

    My candidate for the ur-moment in this wave of creative insults: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=QSo0duY7-9s

  20. squiffy-marie von bladet says:

    Wonder, (as the Pearl poet probably sighed), at this wankpuffin’s world-weary woe!
    A specious spunktrumpet, splenetically spreading his spittle!
    Comic coinages churlishly chastised by this lately-come curmudgeon
    Shutting up shitgibbons, shrilly shouting them down…

  21. “Portmanteau: twat + cunt = twunt. Can you think of your own?”

    I am seeing “Trunt” start to appear all over, like crocus in the spring.

    “Nobsocket” sounds pretty slut-shaming.

  22. Negativism, laowai, not negativity. It’s like a philosophy or a political movement.

  23. Stu Clayton says:

    Not the same as nihilism, I suppose, which doesn’t trouble itself with the Vorzeichen.

  24. Or Nilism, which if it existed would involve worship of the Nile.

  25. Or Niallism, which if it existed would be a heresy in the Irish Church.

  26. January First-of-May says:

    Does the perfectly good 19th-century Americanism (with Algonquin etymology) “mugwump” really belong on the proscribed list here? It doesn’t sound Harry-Potterish or Wodehousian to me.

    As it happens, the word does show up in Harry Potter, but only as part of one of Dumbledore’s titles.

  27. Negativism, laowai, not negativity.

    Oof. Of course! My bad. Mr. Safire has probably only this one quotable quote still widely known to posterity and I managed to muff it. (So, not so memorable after all?)

    In context, “negativism” seems to mean “fake news,” so perhaps it was a Nostradamus-like shout-out to our current era.

  28. Not fake news as such, but rather a pessimistic attitude toward the news. A non-alliterating synonym would be doom-crying. The opposite of “You’ve got to accentuate the positive / Eliminate the negative / Latch on to the affirmative / Don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”

  29. Not fake news as such, but rather a pessimistic attitude toward the news. A non-alliterating synonym would be doom-crying. The opposite of “You’ve got to accentuate the positive / Eliminate the negative / Latch on to the affirmative / Don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”

  30. Shitbeard

    Was twittered at David Baddiel. It was in the Guardian.

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