Go wash your fucking mouth out

April 29, 2011 by · 2 Comments 

Filthy English: The How, Why, When and What of Everyday Swearing. Peter Silverton; $19.95 paper 978-1-84627-169-4, 314 pp., Portobello Books.

It has long been a contention of mine that the vibrancy of any given language can be measured by the number and creativity of its swear words. By that metric, Russian must be one of the most robust languages going. Actually a precursor to modern Russian, the mat dialect dates back to the Middle Ages. Generally associated with the curse yob tvoyu mat’ (“fuck your mother”), the linguistic variant is derived exclusively from four obscene words: khuy (“penis”), blyad’ (“whore”), pizda (“vagina”), and yebat’ (“having sex,” or more properly, “fucking”). By adding suffixes and prefixes to these four words, speakers can alter the part of speech, tense, or gender, and can in effect carry on entire conversations. As Peter Silverton writes in his entertaining and illuminating study of dirty words, Filthy English, “A talented, inventive mat-speaker can use this protean plasticity to produce whole speeches from one basic word, improvising around and with it much the way Charlie Parker could alto sax his way with and around the briefest snatch of the most clichéd show tune.”

Silverton’s use of the word “snatch” may be innocent, although perhaps not, since the author is clearly aware of its coarser meaning. In his chapter on “Vulvas, Vaginas and Breasts,” he points out that the term is not related to vagina dentata – “the fear at the core of Freud’s theory of castration anxiety, the idea that in some (or even all) men’s imaginations is the belief that the vagina has teeth which will bite off any inserted penis” – but probably derives from the 17th-century term for a quick fuck (“i.e. something snatched”). The more polite term, “vagina,” in fact comes from the Latin word meaning “sheath.” On the masculine side, “cock” is the word for a male chicken, which is why when Mick Jagger sings about being a “little red rooster on the prowl,” you can be pretty sure it’s not barnyard animals he’s referencing. Similarly, the word “faucet” was a Puritan substitution for the more common British term for a below-stairs tap: a “stop-cock.”

If a reader finds the preceding discussion at all offensive, said reader is advised to steer well clear of Silverton’s book (and should in all probability stop reading this review right now). If, however, the history and etymology of naughty, obscene, or derogatory language is a subject of fascination, Filthy English will surely provide much to delight in. Silverton – whose parents felt they had to move out of their Hertfordshire neighbourhood after their four-year-old son bashed his thumb with a hammer and shouted, “Fuck!” – begins his investigation with the moment he feels dirty language “jumped out of the shadows it had inhabited pretty much all its previous life and began its journey toward the light.” That moment, for Silverton, occurred in December 1976, when Steve Jones, guitarist for the punk band Sex Pistols, called interviewer Bill Grundy a “dirty fucker” on a live television chat show. (Jones and his bandmates would cause a similar commotion the following year when their album Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols began appearing in record store windows: the eight-letter word for “testicles” or “balls” on the album jacket provoked attempts to have the record banned in England.) From there, the author dips into the past to investigate the way sexually based swearing took over from blasphemy as the most offensive type of cursing in Western culture and surveys the linguistic landscape to address matters involving bodily function, the evolution of derogatory terms for homosexuals and ethnic minorities, and censorship.

Along the way, we learn that the Guardian, Britain’s left-leaning broadsheet, “has printed more fucks and cunts than any other paper in the world.” The latter term, which is subjected to one of Silverton’s most detailed etymological examinations, is isolated as “the most unacceptable word in the language,” even edging out “nigger.” When Chaucer had the Wife of Bath say, “Is it for ye would have my queynte alone,” the word was not so charged; by Shakespeare’s time it had begun to take on the corrosive connotations applied to it today. It was (in)famously one of the words that made D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover the subject of a landmark obscenity trial in 1960. And it was one of George Carlin’s “heavy seven,” the seven words you could never say on television (at least in 1972, when Carlin included the now-classic routine on his Class Clown album).

“Writing about this stuff and thinking about it so much, you start to see sex everywhere,” Silverton says. “Religion, too.” Indeed, one of the strains that runs throughout the book involves the Puritan influence on cleansing the English language of its perceived iniquities. But Silverton does not confine himself to sex and religion, also examining popular culture, especially music, the history of lexicography, and swearing in other languages. He matches erudition with a healthily off-colour sense of humour and provides all kinds of interesting tidbits that cast everyday terms in provocative new lights. Did you know, for example, that the word “bumf,” as in the PR material that publishers use to market their books, is derived from the English term “bum fodder,” meaning toilet paper?