Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Swearing and 'Conventional Susceptibilities'

Much has been written lately about post-watershed swearing on television. It is mostly nonsense, because David Jones's preface to his sui generis masterpiece, In Parenthesis, has already made the unanswerable case:

I have been hampered by the convention of not using impious and impolite words, because the whole shape of our discourse was conditioned by the use of such words. The very repetition of them made them seem liturgical, certainly deprived them of malice, and occasionally, when skilfully disposed, and used according to established but flexible tradition, gave a kind of significance, and even at moments a dignity, to our speech. Sometimes their juxtaposition in a sentence, and when expressed under poignant circumstances, reached real poetry. Because of publication, it has been necessary to consider conventional susceptibilities.

That reference to 'conventional susceptibilities' finishes off the opposition: who would willingly sign up to such a convention? Thanks to scholars like Brophy and Partridge, we know how soldiers spoke. It is a shameful irony, though, that a nation which obliged its young men to fight and die amidst the most horrific conditions should have felt the need to protect itself from their language.

P.S. My youth was misspent editing Thumbscrew, which in early issues published essays by Craig Raine and Charles Simic about swearing.


  1. To stand to at dusk with an entire rifle company in U-formation and hear Sgt. Maj. give orders for tomorrow's live-fire ex., with his machine gun mastery of the amazingly flexible "fuck" (ed, ing, er, less, whit, job, etc.) used as every second word, to describe action, situation, person, place, thing... is pure poetry.

  2. and that's the bleedin' troof, that is!

  3. I am reminded of the fate of American writer John Dos Passos WWI novel, Three Soldiers. Dos Passos was in the front line at Verdun and later served in the Army Medical Corps. He experienced the worst of war and saw it as "a vast killing machine...utter damned nonesense - a vast cancer spread by lies and self-seeking malignity on the part of those who don't do the fighting". When it came to telling his story of war, Dos Passos went for reality and used the strong language of soldiers.

    He completed Three Soldiers in 1920 and after 13 rejections finally landed a publisher in George Doran & Co. However, Doran was extremely uncomfortable by many passages using the actual speech of soldiers and insisted that they be cut or tempered into what he believed was more acceptable language - not the "common language of the degenerate" as he called it. Dos Passos made the changes and the book was published in 1921 to commercial success.

    Even with the sanitized lanuage, critics, some of whom had served in the war, attempted to shred Dos Passos' achievement,claiming the book was "untrue" and an "insult" to the nation and those who had served. They labeled it a "dastardly denial of the splendid chivalry which carried many a youth to a soldier's death" and a "Textbook and Bible for Slackers and Coward" (a headline in a Chicago newspaper). Unfortunately the original manuscript appears to be lost, a pity because a publisher today might well have welcomed the opportunity to present this intriguing book as Dos Passos intended it.


  4. Old post yet I found this very interesting and savoured the comments, especially the "troof of it"!! Thanks for sharin.