I have always been fascinated by swear words – the way they feel inside your mouth, the reaction they inspire once they leave your mouth – and made it a point to discover the profanities of any new language I have attempted to learn. Swearing is one of the best ways to understand a nation’s psyche. Forget complex anthropological studies, just drop something heavy on a man’s foot and see what comes out of his mouth.
My father has a fantastic inability to judge headroom, with the result that growing up I would regularly hear a distant bang – ‘shit!’ or, bang – ‘fuck!’ in the house. I noticed however that equivalent personal injury to my mother would merely prompt a ‘yeeee-EE’ or an ufff. When I asked my mother how people swear in Egyptian Arabic she informed me that no swearwords exist. I think that she might actually have believed this, she being the woman who has managed to live in England for over 30 years without learning the meaning of blow job, bless her.
Needless to say when I escaped the clutch of the family in Egypt, cousin Mildred and her cohorts quickly exploded my mother’s naivety with a platter of profanities which made my head spin. Not directed at me you understand, but sprinkled liberally all over their conversation. I was particularly impressed with a7a, the 7 of which seems to me to convey more disgust than a thousand bloody hells. Then of course there are the more complex compound swear words in which Arabic excels, consisting of various pejorative epithets for parents. I was particularly delighted when I discovered that these parent bashing insults could be made more florid by the addition of a numeral – ‘he is the son of 60 dogs!’ etc which seems to have an almost Shakespearian ring to it. It was when I translated swearwords for non-Arabic speaking friends that I realised just how much swearwords embody the language and the culture which created them. British friends simply could not appreciate the impact that ‘son of a dog’ has in Arabic – perhaps because parents don’t have the same hallowed status in Britain which they enjoy in Arab culture, or, more likely because there are virtually no taboos left in Britain to break.
In my swearing days I used to sound like Goodfellas on speed, I blush now even to think of it. Even the most innocent of objects had to be prefixed with an obscenity – “Shit I’ve left my fucking coat in the friggin bastard car etc” I allowed the odd Arabic expletive to escape at work, obviously not in front of the boss, but amongst people of my own age, and good lord! It was as if I’d offered to lap-dance them. The female reaction was best: “Amnesiac, we don’t use language like that” they informed me demurely. Charlotte Bronte eat your heart out. I eventually learnt that Girls Don’t Swear, but my experiment did reveal a kindred spirit in Lion, a female colleague who likes to expound on the copious amount of bedan in life, but does so with wit.
I gave up swearing for last Ramadan and for a week or so was virtually unable to produce a sentence such was my addiction to obscenities. I also made the dramatic discovery that huge amounts of Anglo-Saxon profanities actually sound ugly, especially the C word which I can’t even bring myself to write, but whose better-mannered cousin is twat.
Anyway the reason I’m banging on about swearing is that I came across this interesting article about British attitudes to swearing http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,1889732,00.html The author points out that in Denmark there is no such thing as a forbidden word while in Britain a fuck uttered before 9 p.m. on telly will land you in serious hot water. It always seemed rather anomalous that a documentary about transsexual prostitutes who like to film themselves having group sex should be preceded by a surely superfluous warning that ‘this programme contains strong language’ (fuck) or ‘very strong language’ (C word). But then the Brits are an odd people who like to simultaneously convince themselves that they are the guardians of Victorian manners and modesty in a degenerate world, while losing themselves in an orgy of sex, drugs and swearing.
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