04 October 2009

Sweary pants

According to Ritula Shah on Radio 4 last week, a new survey has revealed that only five per cent of adults make it through the day without hearing a swearword. (Poor people, they must lead particularly sheltered lives - forget battling along a binge-drunk high street on a Friday night or bunfighting over cheap Chinese jeans in Primark on a Saturday afternoon; you only have to turn on the telly for a torrent of abusive language and obscene words to sully your world. Hell, I'm sure even The Archers plays host to the odd slightly less offensive colloquialism every now and again if you listen carefully when those young'uns are on the Old Rosie in The Bull!)

Regular readers will probably have already recognised that I am quite a fan of, er, colourful language, so given the opportunity to hear an intellectual discussion on the subject, I was obviously all ears.

The main topic up for debate was whether swearing has lost its potency as we all vomit forth crudeities and blaspheme our way through modern life.

John Ayto, lexicographer and co-editor of Stone The Crows: Oxford Dictionary Of Modern Slang (OUP Oxford, 2008, £10.99), said that if it's used as filler, cussing may indeed be less potent, but that when used in anger, it can still carry "quite a hefty whack". John admitted that his main concern is that we're "losing some of our swearwords as they become common currency and create less of a frisson", citing the example of "bloody", a word many people would have found shocking 50 years ago, but which, nowadays, "most people wouldn't turn a hair at".

His wife, Jean Aitchison, Professor of Language And Communication at the University Of Oxford, also made a few points, but she gave too many quotes using actual profanities, so a large part of her contribution was bleeped out. Shame.

But I digress. Point is, if we're starting to run short on swearwords, we need to tackle this problem head on before it becomes a major social issue not so far into the future from now. I therefore propose that we have a competition to come up with some new swearwords. Perhaps we could even get the winners into Mr Ayto's Oxford Dictionary Of Modern Slang.

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