Books: A Point of View: Bad Language |
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Bad Language : on standards in broadcasting

(S04E04, broadcast 21st and 23rd November 2008)

"Turning the air blue"
— swearing

Early this week I was in a supermarket stocking up on light bulbs, which I seldom replace until they all fail and I have to find my way out of my office by feeling the furniture, swearing all the way. But I wouldn’t swear if children were present. Perhaps I should. Swear words are only words, and a case can be made for children hearing as early as possible the language of the world they will grow up in. I wonder, though, if that case is very good. The young mother who was checking out in the next aisle to mine seemed to have no doubts on the matter.

She was no harridan. In fact she looked like a fashion model. But she had a trolley piled high with stuff, her two attendant children were behaving like children, and she told them off in roughly the following terms. ‘Stop something about or I’ll something leave you at home next time.’ The word ‘something’ was delivered several times with tremendous force, so that the light bulbs rattled in my trolley. I use the word ‘something’ instead of the word she used. The BBC has rules about using that word and I wouldn’t want to use it anyway if I didn’t know who was listening.

In private, when I do know who’s listening, I use it frequently, possibly too frequently: a question I’ll get to. But I can’t imagine myself using it in the presence of children. The young mother with the trolley couldn’t imagine anything else. It was clear that she used it all the time because the children didn’t bat an eye. You would think their lack of response might have tipped her off to a salient fact. The word can’t have any shock effect if you use it all the time. It is indeed only a word, but it isn’t even that if it’s done to death. Bad language can energize normal language, but bad language used all the time is no language at all. The only signal that it sends is that the user is in the grip of anger, or is nervous, or is a member of the male television cooking profession, or perhaps all three.

Or the constant user might be a comedian. Almost all stage comedians of the present day use swear words constantly. The comedian Frank Skinner, however, has just told us that for purposes of experiment, for a single night on his latest tour, he tried doing his stand-up act without any of his usual swear words, and that the act went surprisingly well. He didn’t say how much shorter it was, but apparently nobody complained. Nobody came up to him afterwards and said, ‘Your something act was twenty something minutes shorter than something usual and I’m really something disappointed.’ Everybody thought he was just as funny as ever.

Having made this discovery, Frank Skinner has transmitted it to us via the press, with the proviso that he still thought some parts of his act really needed the swear words, so he put them back in the next night. On the whole, though, he was amazed by the results of his bold venture. He had left most of the swear words out, and the audience had still laughed. He didn’t draw the conclusion that all the other comedians should follow his example and leave most of the swear words out, but he seemed to be asking for someone else to draw it for him, so let me be the one to try.

At this point I should hasten to say I made a big mistake last week when I conjured a fantasy of Hollywood action movies that left all the violence out in favour of reasoned discussion, and a version of Hamlet in which everyone took counselling instead of fighting with swords. I was joking, but some of the people who wrote in to the BBC website didn’t realize it. Perhaps I didn’t swear enough. Swearing has become the mark of comedy, but I really do think that comedians who swear a lot are hardly ever funny, and this time I’m not joking. People with a talent for comedy should watch their language, and people who can’t watch their language should cook food. There, I’ve something said it.

Stage comedy was already filthy well before the time of Shakespeare, and the Puritans who tried to clean it up were always more frightening than the poor clowns dishing out the verbal offal. When it comes to the stage, where nobody is exposed to the spectacle except people who buy a ticket, better the most depraved comedian than any censor. But on stage, the filth that works the trick has always depended more on the dirty idea than the dirty words. Max Miller, who dominated the music halls from the 1930s to the 1950s, dealt in a line of innuendo scurrilous beyond belief, but he never swore, he just conveyed insalubrious ideas. In fact he sometimes never even completed the idea. He let the audience complete it in their minds, and then accused them of being filthy.

Delighted, they agreed. They were all adults and they were on a night out away from the kids. The BBC banned him for a good reason: some of the kids might still be awake. In modern times, Lenny Bruce pushed comedy into forbidden areas, and those who thought that he was shining a necessary light on darkness were right to praise him. Later on Richard Pryor took it further, and people were right to praise him too. But always these liberating advances into a less squeamish awareness — a true and necessary breaking down of barriers — depended more on the picture conjured up than on the words employed, and trouble began to arrive when there were suddenly thousands of comedians who had no pictures to conjure up, but only bad language to distract the listener from their paucity of invention.

For a long while, television would not do what the stage did, but finally the argument began to win out that comedy has to have ‘edge’. Victoria Wood was the first comedian I ever heard who was brave enough to wonder aloud if ‘edge’ was a good thing in itself, but by now, I think, most comedians who actually know how to raise a genuine laugh are wondering seriously if their profession hasn’t been invaded by people who either aren’t working hard enough or have very little to work with. With no boundaries left to push, with no edge left unexposed, those comedians devoid of any real ideas will have no resort except to join all the swear words together, putting in nothing except what Frank Skinner left out.

Suppose they did so, would any grown-up get hurt? Well, probably not, even if they did it on television. Only words, swear words are barely words at all without an idea behind them. Mainly they’re just punctuation, and when we get a message that’s all punctuation we either wait for a real message, or, more likely, shut down the computer. The test is, can you say something interesting without the swear words? If you can, then you can always bung a few in to make what you say more effective in the right company. You might be trying to entertain your friends. If you’re a man you might be trying to impress a woman — very dangerous, that: she might be well brought up. Or you might just be telling someone to go away. But in that case, the person you are telling to something off had better be smaller than you are. Not so small, however, as to be a child.

Which is where we really come to the crunch. A child who grows up not knowing the difference between swearing and ordinary language will not be employed by anyone who does know the difference, and there are still quite a lot of people like that, although their number might be declining. And a child who grows up listening to swearing adults, and who in turn becomes an habitually swearing adult, has been deprived of one of the most precious features of the English language.

The English language has many levels, stretching from the mundane, the everyday, to the divine, the level of love, worship and poetry. Used with point and a sense of pace, the profane can reinforce all of them, but it is not a language level in itself, and anyone confined to using nothing else has effectively been deprived of speech. Luckily nobody has to stay that way. Anyone with any brains at all will eventually notice that most people are getting more said with fewer expletives, and will try to copy them, if only to land a job.

It’s a counsel of despair to say that we can’t get back to decent speech. Almost everybody gets back to it for at least part of the day. I myself swear too much in private company, and swear far too much when I am alone and the last light bulb goes out. But when I watch my words, I realize that I have fallen back on a swear word for effect only because I ran out of ideas for saying the same thing better. No, I don’t mean that all comedians should clean up their act. I just want them to be something funnier.

I don’t think Frank Skinner would have made his historic statement on this subject if he hadn’t been aware that the tide is on the turn. I hope the puritans aren’t trying to regain their lost ground, and if they are, I hope I’m not one of them. But I do think the time might have come to listen to the laughs more carefully. Comedians always listen to the laughs. Quite often they count them. But a wise comedian listens to the quality of the laugh. Is it that thin laugh that he gets when people are determined to have a good time and will laugh at anything flagged as funny? Or is it the solid laugh that they grant to something really funny? There’s all the something difference in the something world.


Perhaps I overdid my pitch. Now, listening to the broadcast, I sound peevishly out of date even to myself. Years before, I delivered a lecture to a television conference in which I contended that bad language would have a corrosive effect on comedy. Some of the executives present kindly looked concerned, as if I might have a point, but they went on doing nothing about it. Listening to the talent was their business, not listening to a critic, and the screen comedy writers went on writing it the way they wanted. The way got dirtier, but eventually it arrived at a masterpiece. I had to admit that The Thick of It made me laugh right along with my well-behaved family. We were creased. And the foul language was fundamental to the effect. But I noticed that in the episodes that worked best, the leading actor — the wonderful Peter Capaldi — had a monopoly of the putrescent talk. When another character was allowed a share of the scatology, the impact dropped away, sometimes to nothing.

The lesson was plain. Foul language needs a context in fair language. If foul language is all there is, the possibilities of expression are restricted rather than expanded. In private, if we are wise, we use dirty words only to add texture. Using them too often is a sign of self-assertion, which an astute interlocutor will quickly detect as weakness. The trouble with the foul-mouthed yob is that he’s asserting the only self he’s got. Sometimes I think I see that happening on screen. But had there been room, I would have admitted in the broadcast that there is such a thing as failing to keep up. It’s not the content that one fails to keep up with, so much as the style. I find Sara Silverman brilliantly funny, but I have listened for several hours on end to Russell Brand, watching his face carefully, and I have to say that I just don’t get it. Not that he swears a lot. But he does carry on as if uninterrupted insolence were the purpose of life.

If it were, it would be as boring as uninterrupted reverence. In the days when the mass media were censored, we could take comfort from the obvious signs that the censors were at least trying to throw us a bone. In my treasured early copy of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, the word ‘fugg’ occurred frequently. I was so young that I took a while to figure it out. Even today, the American TV networks still demand clean language. But in Battlestar Galactica the word ‘frak’ still gets through. I find it touching, as if something were being protected. The universe in which anything can be said is only a jump away from the universe in which nothing is worth hearing.