3 Jan 2022

A brief history of slang and swearing

We’ve been consulting our Victorian etiquette bible, Routledge’s Shilling Manual of Etiquette, published in 1875, on the subject of slang and swearing.

Women who use slang come in for a great deal of opprobrium:

“We know many ladies who pride themselves on the saucy chique with which they adopt certain Americanisms, and other cant phrases of the day. Such habits cannot be too severely reprehended. They lower the tone of society and the standard of thought. It is a great mistake to suppose that slang is in any way a substitute for wit.”

And the sanction also applies to gentlemen, who are advised “all ‘slang’ is vulgar. It has become of late unfortunately prevalent…”

We imagine the writers of this etiquette guide would be completely astonished by the infinite capacity of the English language to absorb new phrases and words – from anti-vaxxer, doom scroller, and eco-warrior to gig economy, sofa surfer and fat-shamer.

These neologisms reflect a rapidly changing and evolving society, where new ideas and innovative language is disseminated through all types of media, from streaming services and news sites to myriad social media outlets. In today’s world, it is very hard to follow Routledge’s advice and avoid slang altogether, but it is worth noting that a too-willing tendency to adopt every new phrase and word that is flying around the ether might indeed indicate a lowering of the ‘standard of thought’. Pause a little first, make sure that you know exactly what the word or phrase means and see if you can find a more creative alternative. You don’t want to be condemned as someone who talks in hackneyed phrases and clichés.

Routledge is censorious about slang, but it does not even broach the subject of swearing, presumably because swearing in society was a horrifying solecism, which would earn the perpetrator eternal condemnation.

How much has changed… Today, the line between a profane curse and an acceptable expletive has become blurred, and words like ‘damn’ and ‘bloody hell’ are seamlessly part of the argot where once they were fearsome expletives. Everyday speech is peppered with vivid swear words of the Anglo-Saxon variety, and the F word abounds on post-watershed television. Once shocking, it has now become a meaningless filler, comparable to ‘like’, ‘basically’ and ‘you know’. Increasingly, swearing has become a way of bonding with peers, and creating a group identity. It is often simply a habit, which is no longer used in extremis to ease physical pain or reduce stress levels.

Swearing has very little to do with good manners. Suppressing, or at the very least controlling, your worst language will have many benefits: you won’t cause offence to others, particularly members of the older generation, who may still be shocked by swearing; you will be a better example to your children; you may even dream up some more linguistically creative ways of expressing rage and so on. Be aware of your swearing and keep your worst insults for life’s most challenging situations – if every sentence is clogged with obscenities what will happen when you feel truly vituperative? Words will literally fail you…


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