In praise of profanities


Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

View more articles from Alecia Simmonds

The F Word

The F Word Photo: Martin Lladó

Last Thursday millions of Anglophones around the world dropped the F-bomb. For some it was a physiological reaction to pain (Phaaaark!); for others it was a hearty expression of agreement (Absof___inglutely!); it could have been amorous (fancy a f__?); it could have been aggressive (go f__ your hand); or a statement of resignation (I am officially non-f__ giving about that). But for one expletive hurler it was political. Upon being pummelled to the ground by riot police at a protest at Sydney University, this person yawped: ‘what the fuck? What are you doing you shit’. Unlike the millions of other four-letter-word-mutterers that day this person was hand-cuffed, tossed in a paddy wagon and dragged to the police station where they were charged with offensive language.

There are many questions we could ask of this incident beginning with what on earth riot police were doing at a lawful protest against poor labour conditions. But leaving aside violations of free speech, I’d like to know what that person did wrong. What was it about their four letter word that made it so different from the swearing of private school kids on the train platform, or from the dialogue of most films showing in the cinema? Or from anyone else who said f__k publicly that day? Should s/he have been arrested? Are these laws one of the last barriers preventing our slide into foul-mouthed barbarity? Or do they just permit discriminatory policing?

"Offensive language laws halt our descent into a Hobbesian state of nature where we gnaw each other’s legs while gnashing obscenities." 

Let’s start with the arguments in favour of criminalising offensive language. Writer Boneata Bell has argued that swearing has an ‘unavoidable link with violence’ and that in normalising swearing we could be ‘creating a naturally more violent race of human beings.’ Like other people with delicate sensibilities, Bell says that it’s natural to want to protect children from this language and from swearing’s sexually explicit content.  As the law provides the foundation for civilised society it is normal for law to police civility and to ensure that we comport ourselves with restraint and reason.  In short, offensive language laws halt our descent into a Hobbesian state of nature where we gnaw each other’s legs while gnashing obscenities.

On one level Bell is correct. Swearing is often about violence. Specifically swear words invoke powerful forces like God, sex and excrement. Swearing, as historian Ashley Montagu argues, is where the sacred and the profane combine. Think about our classic exclamation of surprise: ‘Bugger me!’ Historically this comes from a long tradition of self-immolating oaths very fashionable in the medieval period where God is invoked to do all sorts of dastardly deeds, in this case to sodomise us. Our very tame expression ‘Drat!’ is short for ‘God rot your eyes’ which in early colonial Australia would have earned you a few dozen lashes. ‘F__k’ does not, as pop-etymology would tell you, come from the sovereign command during the plague to ‘fornicate under command of the king’ but most probably comes from either German ‘ficken’ meaning to strike (charming!) or French ‘foutre’ meaning to have sex or Old Norse ‘fukja’ meaning to drive found in the Scottish word ‘fucksail’ or windsail. But I digress. The point is that like the deity, sex is seen as an unruly force whose power was maintained through making it taboo. You could only invoke the deity in certain contexts (at church and in prayer) lest familiarity breeds contempt. Similarly, sex was for bedrooms, at night, in private. Whenever you see a taboo, you’ll see a swear word and a law prohibiting its utterance. This is about law’s relationship to morality and about law’s intolerance of powers greater than itself.


But does this make it right? In a context where very few of us could pass the day without hearing someone swear, should we really have laws criminalising the habitual?  Or are they our last defence against a violent, expletive-filled hell that we’re hurtling towards faster than any generation before?

To the latter, I’d say f__k no. We are no worse swearers than our ancestors and laws have never done anything to cleanse our foul mouths. Montagu says that from ye olde Palaeolithic days we have always had a desire to express ourselves forcefully. For as long as we have stubbed toes, we have blamed God with vulgar tongues. Ancient Greek law references swearing, medieval medical text books are filled with ‘c_nts’ and Chaucer is bursting with naughty words. Medieval streets were named things like ‘Gropecuntlane’ and ‘Pissingalley’ and Queen Elizabeth I was famous for ‘swearing like a man’. The argument that our frequent obscenities are a sign of civilization in decline just don’t stand up to history. In fact, relative to the medieval period we’re a bunch of pacifists, albeit filthy-mouthed.

The main difference is that we now have a belief in the rule of law: the idea that laws are not enforced arbitrarily, that law and morality are separate and that we’re all equal under the law. All of these ideas are offended by the flagrant arbitrariness of offensive language laws. The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics has released a report demonstrating that racial minorities, particularly Indigenous people are overwhelmingly targeted by police through offensive language laws, (not white private school children).  In a different context, the Sydney Uni protestor claims that his arrest was motivated by the fact that police had seen him in other protests and were using the offensive language provision to silence him. All other protestors without a protest history were released. The hypocrisy was also glaring. The protestor informed me that while being charged he overheard police officers abusing a person in a nearby cell with the words: ‘you f__ child’, which makes you wonder why police would be so criminally alarmed by someone calling them ‘a sh_t’.

The good news is that the Sydney Uni protestor will almost definitely get off at his hearing. The judiciary have had some wonderful things to say about the matter. Magistrate Helipern in the NSW local Court mused: ‘The word f__k is extremely commonplace now… In court I am regularly confronted by witnesses who seem physical unable to speak without using the word in every sentence… I have had witnesses who when asked their name answer ‘John f__king Smith…one would have to live in an excessively cloistered existence… not to have become somewhat immune…’

When District Court Judge Justice Phelan had a matter concerning the word shit, he said: ‘the District Court is not here to protect those who have not yet travelled through their anal sensitivities.’

The protestor could also argue that swearing is part of his Constitutional right to political communication, or free speech. And he could use Justice Kirby to back him up:  'One might wish for more rationality, less superficiality, diminished invective and increased logic and persuasion in political discourse. But those of that view must find another homeland. From its earliest history, Australian politics has regularly included insult and emotion, calumny and invective in its armoury of persuasion. They are part and parcel of the struggle of ideas.'

This, to me, is an excellent reason why we should decriminalise swearing and also why we should develop it into an art form – with more imagination, word-play and wit. At its base swearing is a deeply pleasurable response to life’s adversities, a blissful form of catharsis and, for women, a powerful affront to tedious norms of feminine purity and docility.