Roisin Gorman’s Open Letter… on swearing

‘In the presence of the overtly religious, I’ve been reduced to ‘jeepers’ and ‘goodness’ — but I was thinking in Tarantino’

Father Ted’s Fr Jack Hackett, played by the late Frank Kelly, is famed for his sweary outbursts

Sunday World

Swearing is good for you. It just flipping is, and that wasn’t nearly as satisfying as the meatier alternative.

Expletives aren’t just a scientifically backed emotional release which has pain-relieving effects and can improve your physical performance, they’re also a linguistic treasure trove.

The interest in why it’s not always bad to curse the universe to hell and back was ignited with a recent research paper published in Lingua, which provided a bit of scholarly support for anyone who’s ever let an expletive slip.

In a dessert trolley of facts, it revealed that swearing in your first language is much more powerful for the multi-lingual, although the French f-word is so poetic it doesn’t have the same heft as our Anglo-Saxon.

A sweary mantra can increase power and strength in grip exercises and people holding their hand in iced water can do it for longer if they’re swearing. There’s always the option not to hold your hand in iced water, but this is science.

Letting rip can be emotionally freeing, and although we’re still not quite sure why that works, it could be because of aversive classical conditioning or getting told off when you’re a kid.

With a heightened regard for bad language, I discovered that people who can insert a swear word into a perfectly good word are using expletive infixation, and minced oaths are for people who just don’t have the courage to go for it, so we get fork and shoot.

The powerfully Irish ‘feck’ is also a source of fascination, since it can be used liberally on mainstream TV by Fr Jack Hackett, and by your twinkly-eyed grandmother, who’ll then cuff your ear if you use the real thing in her presence.

Where and when to swear are the most personal of judgements. While I can speak in fluent asterisk in the comfort of my own kitchen, in public and professional settings I (try to) keep it buttoned. I didn’t swear at all in front of the kids for years. But you can’t always account for other people.

In the car one day with my angelic toddler daughter safely strapped in the back, I had to brake suddenly to avoid a collision. Her little voice piped up, ‘Mummy, you didn’t say f**k.’ My husband was subjected to a little bit of aversive classical conditioning that night.

Years ago, I interviewed the comedian Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown, famous for dropping expletives like confetti on stage, who explained how he disapproved of potty mouth off stage. First, I had to check I wasn’t four and he’d actually said ‘potty mouth’, then doublecheck his fame for dropping c-bombs. It was like Johnny Depp giving advice on a happy marriage.

Opinion is divided on that particular bomb, and whether it’s reclaiming a derogatory term for a woman’s lady garden — expletives are generally divided into religious terms, sexual body parts and excretions — or using misogynistic language. I just think it’s too much of a mouthful to explain ‘I’m reclaiming this for womankind’, so it’s usually avoided.

In the presence of the overtly religious who regard ‘hell’, ‘damn’, and ‘swear to God’ as blasphemy led astray by expletives, I’ve been reduced to ‘jeepers’ and ‘goodness’, like Barbara Bush at a church meeting — and hated myself for it. But I was thinking in Quentin Tarantino.

And unless someone is kidnapping your first born, swearing at anyone is never acceptable. Well, not while they can hear you, anyway.


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