The Guardian published a four-page article last Monday about the way in which we have taken to sending each other greetings cards with obscene, insulting or merely vulgar messages. Apparently we sent more than two million of them last year .
There were illustrations of a dozen or so examples, monotonous in their lack of wit or originality (the online version doesn't show these). Apparently the recipients are rarely shocked by them, so what's the point?
The writer takes a fairly indulgent view, quoting executives from some of the firms who make the things explaining why they have become acceptable: "our confidence with swearwords is all about our communications skills improving"... "The success of rude cards reflects the average British person's growing ease with loose, informal communication"... "Sharing swearwords almost means that people think highly of you"... "It's just how people speak to their friends"... "Between two men, they're just expressions of affection"... "that passion, that naughtiness, that boldness of expression—it shows that we're proud of our madness, as well as our flaws and faults"... and so on.
Yes, well, they would say that, wouldn't they? It's all bollocks, of course: a card with a message consisting of a four-letter word repeated fifty times is boring and infantile. Unlike the old smutty postcards, which featured mostly willy/bum/tit jokes but relied on innuendo and were rarely explicit, hardly any of this new kind are funny.
But it is true that we have become accustomed to the wide and frequent use of what used to be called bad language; this is very sad, because we need swearwords for special occasions, and using them constantly just for emphasis or even merely for punctuation or for no reason at all robs us of a valuable tool.
I raised this point once with a barrack-room acquaintance. It is not easy to have a reputation as a foulmouth among soldiers, but he did; most of his converse consisted entirely of obscenities, with whole sentences—noun, adjective, verb and adverb—constructed from them. He was a decent man; he didn't mean anything by it, he had just acquired this habit.
I put it to him that it seemed such a waste to use these five or six powerful words all the time and then have nothing different to say when he was really angry, or contemptuous, or wanted to shock: how would anyone know? I suppose I might have guessed what his response would be: "Fuck off!", he said, and added his favourite four-letter epithet.