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Is it something I said? Scurrilous or taboo language

By Jack H C Dean, on 25 June 2014

The penultimate event of UCL’s One Day in the City saw John Sutherland (Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at UCL) chair a debate on scurrilous or taboo language with Will Self, Tim Clare and Melanie Abrahams, who stood in for the absent Sunday Times writer, India Knight.

one day in the city

Sutherland began by introducing Will Self as “a novelist and presenter”, to which Self replied: “Presenter? What the fuck are you talking about?”

Sutherland continued, suggesting that we are “rediscovering linguistic taboo” and that Freud had written that all language begins with it: “It is uncanny and unclean”.

He explained that during his lifetime – Sutherland was born in 1938 – the diachronic alteration of language had been dramatic, but that it was also vital to look at language synchronically. Diachronic change being linguistic alteration over time and synchronic, meaning the study of language at one point in history.

The end of the 1930s, for example, saw the publication of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Niggers a title that was synchronically acceptable. By the 1970s, this had changed to And then there were none…, which alluded to a nursery rhyme in the novel. This was a notable diachronic change.

Sutherland asked why was it that the Times censors swearing but The Guardian does not. Why, indeed, was Sutherland asked to remove “nutter” from a piece he’d written for the Guardian in the early 2000s, but Rod Liddle can use it on a weekly basis in his column for the Sunday Times. Linguistic taboo fluctuates over time, in situation and within context. It is “fascinating and fluid”.

Tim Clare was the first to take the stand and present his argument. He opened with some schtick about making the audience as anxious as he was before he began. He was in performance mode but this didn’t feel like the right arena.

He moved his arms up and down with the rigidity of a man struggling to learn the locomotion, he paced the floor and spoke like someone had slipped a benzedrine in his coffee. Was this part of the act?

The audience sniggered. Will Self propped his feet up on the table. Melanie remained silent. Sutherland stared into his notes.

Clare explained that, for him, swearing has a potency that should only be reserved for the appropriate occasion. Why else would “fuck” be referred to as “dropping the f-bomb”.

“I remember the first time I heard my Dad swear… I was 26.”

He wasn’t joking. What followed was an every-second-sentence-a-simile anecdote that provided some background to his father’s inauguration into the realm of the profane.

It was the admission to his father that he would like to end his life that provoked it. They were both in the car at the time. His father disagreed that this was the right decision and pressed his foot on the accelerator, driving towards a wall:”If you want to die, let’s fucking die together”. Clare said, even in this time of crisis, he found this excruciating: “Dad, don’t,” was his reply.

The baton of blasphemy was then handed to Will Self . He spoke with elegance and authority.  “The writing of the past was bounded with class issues”, he said, and this meant that swearing and sex had no place in pre-19th and early 20th century literature. The publication of James Joyce’s Dubliners, for example, was delayed for 10 years because it referred to Queen Victoria as Edward’s “bloody ‘owl mother”.

Self paraphrased Jack London’s People of the Abyss (1903), an account of life in the East End of London: “There’s one fantastic aside in it where this cockney is talking and says something like, ‘He uses the worst epithet that there is. It is the most commonly used by the cockneys. It is the one they use as a verb, a noun and as an adjective.’” 

Self, therefore, assumed that cockneys, at the time, were liberally spouting “fuck this, fuck that, fuck, fuck, fuck” and so applied this to his latest novel Umbrella when attempting to accurately portray the parlance of the period.

In literature, he said, “Huckleberry Finn is unreadable with nigger excised, just as, in Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Deadthe replacement of fuck with fug ruins the book”. Taboo language is necessary within the right context.

He went on to say that the experience of two world wars taught people to swear. Postwar, scurrilous language transcended class boundaries. Self believes that “you can say anything now and no one listens”, no one is flustered by a bit of effing and blinding.

What he suggested has replaced taboo language is nonce phrases “…at the end of the day. To be honest”.  “Don’t be honest, lie, it’s more interesting”, he argued. With the increasing banalisation of the vernacular he said that by engaging with nonce phrases you are “being taken in to your interlocutors confidence”.

What ensued was a bit of a non debate. So effective had Will Self’s position been on the use of taboo language that Tim Clare,  said he had agreed with everything the author had put forward.

However, to play devil’s advocate he said he would not shift from his position of not using certain words because he’s “white and middle class”. Melanie Abrahams, a life coach, who had not yet spoken, suggested that swearing made her uncomfortable and she cannot bring herself to do it. The novelist replied that “life coach” made him uncomfortable.

Abrahams did say, however, that she didn’t mind others using the odd obscenity. She then said that when she and her black girlfriends would meet, one, a South African, would refer to the group as “niggers”.

This, she said, was a source of discomfort to her, but she understood that there was a cultural difference in the use of the word. What followed was an interesting discussion on the re-appropriation of the word by members of the black community. Some, like Clare, insisted that it should only ever be referred to as “the n-word”.

I would tend to agree with Will Self, that all language is acceptable as long as it’s within the right context. Leaving the event, I was glad to step back into a world that exists beyond linguistic taboo. So as long as you’re speaking contextually, ffs don’t censor yourself.

 

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