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Colourful Words

Warning—contains strong       language!

I’m interested in swearing.  After all nothing is as satisfying as a good old   expletive when the situation warrants it and you don’t offend.

We live in times where anything goes (almost) and as always swearing is an expression of our cultural norms as well as a means of communicating emotions and a safety valve for stress.

Of course context is all.  To some people, and in some situations, the slightest hint of an expletive is completely out of bounds and could cause grave offence or discomfort.  This of course must be respected, but the phenomenon of swearing as such is fascinating.  There are so many ways you can pick swearing to pieces; Historical metamorphis of language, Sociological expression of group behaviour and bonding, Neurophysiological manifestation of the limbic system, Arbiter of the religious or secular in society.

It’s all so bloody complex!

My swearing is fairly low key really.  I often make words up and there are still some words I don’t use though even these are becoming less “toxic” as familiarity reduces their ability to shock.

Mass media has acculturated us to such a saturated level of bawdy, ribald, double meaning’d visually arresting and provocative language that we now have programs such as “Up Schitts creek”, political slogans such as Queensland’s   National Party  Flick’em (the graphics arranged so it looks like “F” em) and we all remember the first time we saw fashion label fcuk don’t we….well I do anyway… I thought I was seeing things.

The emotional clout of an expletive is diminished by its everyday use in completely non-confrontational and every day contexts.  A ride on a busy train in school peak hour elicits such a tirade of sh’s f’s c’s from kids in such casual and fun contexts that it’s as if all meaning has vanished.

And there are few words which can be noun, verb, present and past participle, adjective, adverb and pronoun as the word “f”.  Based on Germanic origins and once completely banned from all civilised discourse it is the success story of the   libertine and heard so frequently that it barely registers.

I remember when I was 10 or 11 Mum telling me that this was an unforgivable word to use.  Over the decades even she seemed to go with the flow and I was very amused when she dropped a few ‘f’ bombs in her eighties, a tiny dash of dementia helps with the social secretary on leave upstairs.

Our cohort of elderly at Fairway is really quite ‘with it’ in terms of modern language.  Like my mother they grew up in times where “Damn!” would have been fairly risqué and to utter “God” may have been seen as quite blasphemous.

But in our Culture Vulture movies and in literature groups as well as in many other contexts, our folk see and understand the modern world in all of its raw and honest expressions.  They are seemingly not offended, nor confronted.  Most – in fact probably all – choose not to use many of the words they hear but in media and print such language is everywhere.

Staff are always respectful in the way they communicate with our residents.  I have never had occasion to hear about any unsuitable language used, nor offence taken.

Now this may beg the question of what is ‘unsuitable’ in terms of use of language.  When I worked for Uniting Care two decades ago I had discussions with a synod member who wrote a piece on “The Sanctity of Swearing’.

He was an amazing man – tall, elegant and very modern in approach.  I remember the hand carved dove of peace he wore around his neck – which may seem irrelevant when discussing swearing but actually he had the creative and intellectual gift of fusing his spiritual belief with an accessibility to the modern world; the peace dove is the logo of the Uniting Church – we see it as a brand on bill boards and buildings but around his neck this quite large and beautifully worked piece was as arresting as the man it adorned.

The central tenet of this man’s essay was that language; words and how we use them have inestimable importance in moments that can convey and facilitate true connection.

As a pastor of the Church he saw people in illness, crisis, turmoil and tragedy.  He said that he had learnt that formal approaches and courtesies really did nothing to help healing but when he would allow his own emotions to play out and if he held people and often wept with them, saying whatever automatically came to him about how ‘shitful’ the situation was, he could immediately feel the bond strengthen.  He fused an earthiness with a spiritual support in a way which I am quite sure, was hugely meaningful.

In her book ‘Swearing is good for you’ Emma Byrne has produced a hugely interesting collection of thoughts and facts on the matter.  I’ve only read excerpts but must admit I had no idea that when we use normal language it emanates from the cerebral cortex near the surface of the brain but when we swear or utter an expletive it comes from a far deeper place in the right hemisphere; we actually swear from a more primal but none the less essential centre of human emotion, memory and arousal known as the limbic system.

Recently I had an amazing day where within several hours I had two interesting discussions on swearing.  The first was paying for coffee at a cafe in Sandringham.  At the counter the barista, a lovely brunette lass, was laughing with her Aussie colleague about an ironic and highly colourful comment a customer had made – she had never heard the expression “Flat out like a lizard drinking”, we chatted, and my fellow Aussie and I had her in fits with some more examples of Oz humour.  I then turned to the barista and guessing she was from Italy showed off some of my excellent Italian swearing.  She was dumbfounded!  I explained to her colleague that what I was saying was mystifying to us Aussies because we swear as secular societies do – more to do with bodily functions or reproductive acts(!)  But in Italy and other religious cultures swearing is far more to do with blasphemy – this really packs a punch but to us expressions which translate as The Lord with acne or Mary with VD or God with horns are ludicrous; Devoid of meaning as the context is lost on us (when you have lived as I have with an Italian for 18 years the colourful and passionately expressed swearing is easily learnt to the shock or amusement of any new Italian person you practise upon!)

After coffee I went over the road to have my nails done.  It’s always a huge dilemma to choose the colour of nail varnish.  The myriad hues are intoxicating and the names absolute gems – how about “MacArthur Park after Dark”, “Don’t make me Wine”, “Sashay my Way”, “Topless and bare foot”, “Gobsmacked”, “A Good Mandarin is hard to find”.  My last choice was “It’s raining men”… It wasn’t.

One lady nearby said “I swear by “Malaga wine”, it brings back memories as I’ve been there when we went to Spain– and it matches everything”. “Gosh” I said…“You wouldn’t want to pronounce it “Malaka” wine would you?!”- and I informed all and sundry that Malaka is Greek for “Wanker” (lest I bore all with my acumen in international swearing I was to have my comeuppance …) the beautiful and wide eyed Vietnamese girl doing my nails stopped and in her sing song accent said “What means the word wanker?”

The Salon went quiet and for a moment so did I.

A combination of sign language, biological explanation and inane bluster clearly left her all the more confused.

I decided to call it a day with swearing.

As I do now, and resisting the urge to be a little naughty I will not be “going forth to multiply” but will say with great joy that, its POETS day today and amen to that.

Cheers to all




*POETS day is great Aussie slang…if you haven’t heard of it ask a mate or a lizard drinking.






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