Saturday, 19 May 2007

Bad words

When I was in the army I encountered a sergeant called Foulmouth O'Houlihan; for a soldier to to acquire such a soubriquet was exceptional, for among us there were many whose normal speech pattern was based on sentences in which obscenities provided adjectives, nouns, adverbs and verbs.

He was a kindly man, and he had a little dog which he adored, though he never addressed it except in terms of the vilest abuse: C'm 'ere, ye * *, or I'll tear yer * balls off, he would say, affectionately. Then one day the dog was run over, and he was a broken man; he still swore, of course, but his heart wasn't in it.

I thought of him the other day when I was reading a compilation of supposedly outstanding blog posts. Several of them contained swearwords used in a way which suggested that the writer knew of no other way of emphasising a point or expressing contempt, or had never realised that they are best used sparingly rather than as mere garnish.

What a terrible waste of a powerful weapon that is! If swearwords are part of your normal vocabulary, sprinkled throughout your prose, what can you say when you are really angry or appalled or want to shock?

I like swearing but recognise that the effectiveness of the top three or four swearwords soon disappears if you use them often. So I do not say them to strangers, rarely in print, and only occasionally to (never at) my nearest and dearest. On these occasions it becomes apparent, because they know me, that I feel strongly about the matter under discussion, or else that it is for comic effect. Happily, most of them have a similar approach to the use of such words.

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