Swearing: what’s REALLY in a word?

Swearing: what's really in a word?With the election for mayor coming up in Toronto, Canada on October 27th, there has been not only all the usual hype you would expect but even more of a brou-ha-ha caused by Rob Ford‘s (the incumbent) sad diagnosis of a colon tumor and his swift replacement by his brother, Doug.

Rob Ford is known for everything from doing crack cocaine to being a good mayor. He is also known to be very potty-mouthed, with brother Doug being seen as the older and more sober of the two.

But lo and behold, it seems our Doug likes to use the odd naughty word in comments, especially about the media. To quote from an article by Marcus Gee in the Toronto Globe and Mail

“It was Doug who led the Fords’ vindictive war on the media, calling them ‘sucky little kids,’ who ‘lie through their teeth’ and, later, ‘a bunch of pricks.’ He said he didn’t mean to offend anybody.” 

What’s really offensive? The words, or the thoughts?

Are we right to cringe in horror when someone lets out a four-letter word, purely because it’s a four-letter word? Is it really worse to call someone a a) “nasty, spiteful shit,” than to call them a b) “nasty, spiteful, monster?”

If you agree that b) is as forceful as a), that takes the wind right out of the sails of the so-called “swearword.” Of course, you may well then ask, why use the word shit when monster works just as well but doesn’t “offend” anyone? Good point.

But who decides which words are bad and which are not? Is there some unseen judiciary at work grading the severity of swearwords, just as experts grade tropical storms and earthquakes?

Take our range of euphemisms for faeces, for example

How should we grade these in ranks (1-10) of offensiveness? Here are some suggestions:

shit: 10

crap: 7

poop: 4

poo: 3

doo-doo: 3

dung: 2

manure: 1

droppings: 1

mess: 1

muck: 1

OK. Let’s suppose, now that a new hallucinatory drug was developed in some murky south American basement laboratory and it became known on the streets as “dung.” After a number of near deaths and severe addiction problems occurring in depressed suburbs all over the world, would the word “dung” become a number 10 on the scale of faeces-related severity?

Would we talk about “I really don’t need all this dung” or “he’s probably the nastiest little dung I’ve ever met” or “oh, dung! I forgot my mother’s birthday!” …?

Using asterisks to conceal offence … being kind or being chicken?

I am guilty of this and so are many other writers. Out of respect for my more sensitive readers, and also because I need to maximize my earning potential, I asterisk the key vowel out of most rude words I use … e.g. the strapline of my recent book “How To Write Brilliant Business Blogs – the no-bullsh*t guide to writing blogs that boost your brand, business and customer loyalty.”

Opinions are divided on this one. Some say using asterisks is being cowardly – if you want to swear, swear. Others say it’s a nice way of making the point without shoving it right up the reader’s nose. Personally I’d say the latter…

Should you dare to swear?

A great deal – if not everything, for that matter – depends on who your readers are and how they feel about such things.

This is how I handle it: someone in a recent business networking meeting asked me, rather bitchily, if I minded offending people when asterisking words like sh*t and f*ck in my blog posts.

Hoping to wipe the patronizing sneer off her face, I said, “no, I don’t mind at all, actually. The sort of people who would be offended by that are not the sort of people I want as readers.”

Sneer vanished. Effect was slightly spoiled though, by my colleague buddy on my other side who burst out laughing and shouted, “good answer!”

How do you feel about swearing? Please share your views.

And if you’re in Toronto, don’t forget the mayoral elections take place October 27th