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Page last updated at 16:57 GMT, Friday, 21 November 2008

Turning the air blue

Gordon Ramsay
Gordon Ramsay is famous for his cooking and his swearing


The odd expletive escapes most people's mouths in times of stress, but when we fall back on swear words just for effect have we really just run out of ideas, asks Clive James.

Early this week I was in a supermarket stocking up on light bulbs, which I seldom replace until they all fail and I have to find my way out of my office by feeling the furniture, swearing all the way.

But I wouldn't swear if children were present. Perhaps I should. Swear words are only words and a case can be made for children hearing as early as possible the language of the world they will grow up in.

Too many swear words have no effect

I wonder, though, if that case is very good. The young mother who was checking out in the next aisle to mine seemed to have no doubts on the matter. She was no harridan. In fact she looked like a fashion model. But she had a trolley piled high with stuff, her two attendant children were behaving like children, and she told them off in roughly the following terms. "Stop something about or I'll something leave you at home next time."

The word "something" was delivered several times with tremendous force, so that the light bulbs rattled in my trolley. I use the word "something" instead of the word she used. The BBC has rules about using that word and I wouldn't want to use it anyway if I didn't know who was listening.

In private, when I do know who's listening, I use it frequently, possibly too frequently - a question I'll get to. But I can't imagine myself using it in the presence of children. The young mother with the trolley couldn't imagine anything else. It was clear that she used it all the time because the children didn't bat an eye.

Energize language

You would think their lack of response might have tipped her off to a salient fact. The word can't have any shock effect if you use it all the time. It is indeed only a word, but it isn't even that if it's done to death. Bad language can energize normal language, but bad language used all the time is no language at all. The only signal that it sends is that the user is in the grip of anger, or is nervous, or is a member of the male television cooking profession, or perhaps all three.

Or the constant user might be a comedian. Almost all stage comedians of the present day use swear words constantly. The comedian Frank Skinner, however, has just told us that for purposes of experiment, for a single night on his latest tour, he tried doing his stand-up act without any of his usual swear words, and that the act went surprisingly well.

He didn't say how much shorter it was, but apparently nobody complained. Nobody came up to him afterwards and said: "Your something act was 20 something minutes shorter than something usual and I'm really something disappointed." Everybody thought he was just as funny as ever.

Clive James

Swear words are barely words at all without an idea behind them - mainly they're just punctuation

Having made this discovery, Frank Skinner has transmitted it to us via the press, with the proviso that he still thought some parts of his act really needed the swear words so he put them back in the next night. On the whole, though, he was amazed by the results of his bold venture. He had left most of the swear words out and the audience had still laughed.

He didn't draw the conclusion that all the other comedians should follow his example and leave most of the swear words out, but he seemed to be asking for someone else to draw it for him, so let me be the one to try.

At this point I should hasten to say I made a big mistake last week when I conjured a fantasy of Hollywood action movies that left all the violence out in favour of reasoned discussion. And a version of Hamlet in which everyone took counselling instead of fighting with swords. I was joking, but some of the people who wrote in to the BBC website didn't realise it.

Perhaps I didn't swear enough. Swearing has become the mark of comedy, but I really do think that comedians who swear a lot are hardly ever funny, and this time I'm not joking. People with a talent for comedy should watch their language and people who can't watch their language should cook food. There, I've "something" said it.


Stage comedy was already filthy well before the time of Shakespeare, and the puritans who tried to clean it up were always more frightening than the poor clowns dishing out the verbal offal. When it comes to the stage, where nobody is exposed to the spectacle except people who buy a ticket, better the most depraved comedian than any censor.

Frank Skinner
Skinner cut out all rude words for one show

But on stage, the filth that works the trick has always depended more on the dirty idea than the dirty words. Max Miller, who dominated the music halls from the 1930s to the 50s, dealt in a line of innuendo scurrilous beyond belief. But he never swore, he just conveyed insalubrious ideas. In fact he sometimes never even completed the idea. He let the audience complete it in their minds and then accused them of being filthy.

Delighted, they agreed. They were all adults and they were on a night out away from the kids. The BBC banned him for a good reason: some of the kids might still be awake. In modern times, Lenny Bruce pushed comedy into forbidden areas, and those who thought that he was shining a necessary light on darkness were right to praise him.

Later on Richard Pryor took it further and people were right to praise him too. But always these liberating advances into a less squeamish awareness - a true and necessary breaking down of barriers - depended more on the picture conjured up than on the words employed, and trouble began to arrive when there were suddenly thousands of comedians who had no pictures to conjure up, only bad language to distract the listener from their paucity of invention.

Most comedians who know how to raise a genuine laugh are wondering seriously if their profession hasn't been invaded by people who either aren't working hard enough or have very little to work with

For a long while, television would not do what the stage did, but finally the argument began to win out that comedy has to have "edge". Victoria Wood was the first comedian I ever heard who was brave enough to wonder aloud if "edge" was a good thing in itself.

But by now, I think, most comedians who actually know how to raise a genuine laugh are wondering seriously if their profession hasn't been invaded by people who either aren't working hard enough or have very little to work with. With no boundaries left to push, with no edge left unexposed, those comedians devoid of any real ideas will have no resort except to join all the swear words together, putting in nothing except what Frank Skinner left out.

Suppose they did so, would any grown-up get hurt? Well, probably not, even if they did it on television. Only words, swear words are barely words at all without an idea behind them. Mainly they're just punctuation and when we get a message that's all punctuation we either wait for a real message, or, more likely, shut down the computer.

Love, worship and poetry

The test is, can you say something interesting without the swear words? If you can, then you can always bung a few in to make what you say more effective in the right company. You might be trying to entertain your friends. If you're a man you might be trying to impress a woman. Very dangerous, that, she might be well brought up. Or you might just be telling someone to go away. But in that case, the person you are telling to "something" off had better be smaller than you are. Not so small, however, as to be a child.

Max Miller
Miller was a master of innuendo

Which is where we really come to the crunch. A child who grows up not knowing the difference between swearing and ordinary language will not be employed by anyone who does know the difference, and there are still quite a lot of people like that, although their number might be declining. And a child who grows up listening to swearing adults, and who in turn becomes an habitually swearing adult, has been deprived of one of the most precious features of the English language.

The English language has many levels, stretching from the mundane, the everyday, to the divine, the level of love, worship and poetry. Used with point and a sense of pace, the profane can reinforce all of them. But it is not a language level in itself, and anyone confined to using nothing else has effectively been deprived of speech.

Luckily nobody has to stay that way. Anyone with any brains at all will eventually notice that most people are getting more said with fewer expletives, and will try to copy them, if only to land a job.

It's a counsel of despair to say that we can't get back to decent speech. Almost everybody gets back to it for at least part of the day. I myself swear too much in private company and swear far too much when I am alone and the last lightbulb goes out.

But when I watch my words, I realise that I have fallen back on a swear word for effect only because I ran out of ideas for saying the same thing better. No, I don't mean that all comedians should clean up their act. I just want them to be something funnier.

I don't think Frank Skinner would have made his historic statement on this subject if he hadn't been aware that the tide is on the turn. I hope the puritans aren't trying to regain their lost ground, and if they are, I hope I'm not one of them. But I do think the time might have come to listen to the laughs more carefully.

Comedians always listen to the laughs. Quite often they count them. But a wise comedian listens to the quality of the laugh. Is it that thin laugh he gets when people are determined to have a good time and will laugh at anything flagged as funny? Or is it the solid laugh that they grant to something really funny? There's all the something difference in the something world.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I often use swear words at work whilst talking to my colleagues, and after reading the article, sat and thought about whether they are truly necessary. Yes, if telling a joke to people you know well and if it requires that explosive factor. On the other hand, it can most times be replaced with another word with just as much impact. So now my New Year's resolution (I'm going to start practising right away) will be to stop the unnecessary use of swear words. There, thank "something" for that!
Tara Billingham, Brierley Hill, West Midlands

I remember reading once on the walls of AA that "Profanity is the weapon that the simple mind uses to aggressively assert itself."
Lee W, Strumica, Macedonia

Max Miller was fantastic - the way he built a relationship with the audience was fantastic. I'm 20 and yet can see a greater merit in that style of comedy than most comedians on the circuit today. My favourite Max Miller ditty was "I like the girls that do, I like the girls that don't, I hate the girl who says she will and then she says she won't. But the girl I like the best of all, I think you'll say I'm right, is the girl who says she never will, but look as though she... Now then!" Classic.
Ash, Leeds

I remember being quite shocked in my late teens to discover that my father used the f-word and gradually I discovered that he did it quite easily with his male friends, but not habitually and not in mixed company. Because of my late introduction to the idea that normal people sometimes use it I am still shocked when I hear it and it really does offend me. I hate that so many people cannot form a complete articulate sentence to express themselves without it. Apparently this has always been the case in so many arenas - eg the Army. It is my opinion that television is of course the gateway to The Norm and gives permission to the masses to emulate. Right or wrong? Clive, we have to conclude that it's a generational thing - turning back the clock is a nice dream but will it come true?
Fran Davis, West Chiltington, West Sussex, UK

This strikes just the right balance between the admission of the sort of swearing we are all guilty of in our everyday private life, and the appropriateness of it in specific situations. In fact, at the end of the programme, I found myself muttering aloud that it was "Something brilliant."
Stephen Murphy, Bromley, UK

Beautifully put and I hope you are right that the tide is turning. Do some young people think that swearing is a sign of adulthood, a "right"? A few years ago while we were waiting for our order in a take-away, my (large, male) companion asked some teens to stop swearing. The response? A gesture towards the television: "It's after nine o'clock, mate".
Maria, Nottingham

I am far too guilty of swearing, and do try to catch myself as I am aware it can be offensive to many. But what I found really interesting was the point about Frank Skinner. One of the funniest men in the world, in my opinion, is Billy Connolly, and I don't really mind his constant swearing. But the best and funniest performance I ever saw from him was in the mid-80s on BBC Scotland. The audience were all teenagers, they were there to ask him questions. He went on long after the programme ended (a specially extended version was shown later) and was absolutely brilliant - and due to the age of his audience, didn't swear once. I don't think I've ever seen him perform better, before or since, and I'm sure that it was because he had to be so much more inventive in his language.
Susan, Glasgow, Scotland

You're entitled to your opinion and I to mine, which as far as comedy goes is a long way from yours. Billy Connelly, in my and many other peoples opinions, is the funniest man alive and lets be honest, if he didn't swear he just wouldn't be our Billy. Get over it Clive!
Mark, Canada

One of my mother's favourite sayings is "bad language is never funny" and (possibly because I am quickly morphing into her) I agree. There is usually a much more articulate way of expressing your feelings if you can be bothered. However by suggesting this I am usually met with a look kindly requesting I remove myself from the vicinity.
Andi, Manchester

I recently saw Michael McIntyre and he barely swears, yet still manages to be the funniest comedian around (in my opinion). As a 21-year-old, I swear terribly but I feel that my generation view swear words as just another word, but a passionate one none the less. I will be glad when everyone else realises this.
Nikki, Stratford-upon-Avon

One of the funniest acts around, Bill Bailey, never uses swear words. I think he would be less funny if he did, but comedians like Billy Connolly is a master class in how to make swearing funny. Gordon Ramsay just swears and is boring as a result.
Peter Jones, Forres, UK

I am no puritan but I do swear too much and for no good reason. It's just lazy and poor use of the English language.
Donna, Dover, England

I used to swear - in fact it almost became competitive thing - how many swear words could you squeeze into one sentence. But for the past 10 years and since having kids, I don't, I find it a total turn off. Comedy programmes, comedians and yes, even chefs, are so much better without swearing - people will remember Gordon Ramsey not as a brilliant chef, but as the chef who swears all the time. How sad is that?
Celia, Dubai, UAE

I was 12 when I first heard a new swear word at school and the next time my mother got angry I told her to f-off. I still remember my mother's reaction, and action, and I never swore in front of her again. But she pointed out a truth I never forgot; when you have to resort to swearing you have lost the ability to argue your position. I don't swear on a day to day basis now, but when I rarely do swear, everybody knows that I have passed over that line in the sand. Times have changed though, from my experiences of driving a school bus kids learn to swear in grade one. Nodody will ever convince me that's a good thing.
John Stevenson, Cairns, Australia

It was Clive James who taught me an important lesson. He was writing about how much better the duo called 20th Century Coyote - Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson - were than their contemporaries, and he was writing at the time of their appearance on the comedy scene. The lesson? A sword is kept sharpest when kept mostly in its scabbard.
Dom Romeo, Sydney, Australia

I believe English is one of the best languages in the world to swear in...the range and sophistication of terms astonishes my Dutch and French friends. It adds to the richness of the language rather than detracts from it.
Lee Brown, Thornhill, Dumfriesshire

When, as kids, my brothers & I started experimenting with swear words, our Dad decided that we could, justifiably, use words we would hear our parents occasionally use, but not gratuitously. Thus if a toe was stubbed a "sod it" or some such was allowed, but not otherwise. The forbidden quality/frisson of the words died a fairly quick death. Those who punctuate their everyday conversation should be aware that their efforts at communication are immediately devalued - after a time, all the listener does is count the swear words. And why are the same rude words used repeatedly? The repertoire of expletives is delightfully much more varied and creative than that - or are we dumbing down even here?
Judith, Mucat, Oman

Our teachers admirably demonstrated how to express their frustrations without swearing. I remember our class teacher at junior school telling us off about something and in the middle of it she lowered her voice and fixed us with a steely stare and said in a whisper "You little binds!" with huge emphasis on the last word. We learned a valuable lesson. You didn't need to use a swear word to make your feelings known.
Frankie Howard was far funnier than some of today's comedians - he mastered the art of innuendo and a raised eyebrow. I think the rot set in with Til Death Do Us Part. It started out being funny - we all knew what Alf Garnet meant when he called his long suffering wife a "silly moo". But as the series progressed so did the liberal use of crude, lewd language. This detracted from the humour until the programme became unfunny. The BBC must take a lot of blame for the deterioration of everyday speech. In my youth I thought Mary Whitehouse a self-opinionated prude, but now I think a champion of moral standards is needed to hound the media into enforcement of morally acceptable programme content. Bring back the censor.
David Jones, Burton on Trent, UK

Our language and our BBC were two things that Britain could be proud of and seemed unalterable, but in the last few years it seems they both have been sabotaged. This is so sad as we have precious few things left. No industry, few skills and very little pride. This was a golden opportunity to turn things around once more but yet again the powers that be did not listen to the people and we know that self-interest was at the root of it all. Yes, I know the licence payers like different things and should be catered for, but can't they sort out the channels so risque comedy could be on later and/or on Radio 1. It can't be that difficult to please all.
Juliet, Truro, Cornwall

A point worth remembering: Matthew 15 v11: Not that which goeth into the mouth defilieth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.
M Vesco, Penicuik, Midlothian, Scotland

I think it's the context that has more effect than the words themselves. For some folk using eff-this, eff-that is their normal pattern of speech. I had a colleague who used to interject the f-word into every sentence. Folks who didn't know him were shocked to the core. The rest of us simply regarded it as normal. It was never used with malice. In some cases it's an alternative to those hums and hahs that provide the short pause while your brain catches up with your mouth.
Dougie Lawson, Basingstoke, UK

I teach teenagers, and over the past 10 years, the air in the school has grown filthier and filthier. Once was a time when a student would curse in front of me and apologise. Okay. Lately, they string them together and demand to know what I'm looking at when I freeze and stare at them in disbelief. I routinely advise them to choose another adjective from a list of thousands, but they are so accustomed to hearing "something" on television and at home, they barely register that they are firing "somethings" off in inappropriate places. Some days, I feel like the air around me is poisoned.
Shelley, Ontario, Canada

Genuine humour, or even decent conversation, can always leave room for the odd swear word. It can add something. But if it's just a cover for lack of ideas, or an attempt to make the banal sound interesting, then it fails. I watched one of Eddie Murphy's stand-up routines a while ago. But not for long. It was too much like hard work trying to figure out where the jokes were in amongst the torrent of foul language.
Dave, Stamford

The times I generally restrict swearing to is when an inanimate object doesn't do what I expect it to do, such as when my PC freezes up for no apparent reason, or a hammer chooses to hit my thumb instead of a nail. The curious thing about not given to swearing in day-to-day language is that people who do swear a lot will sometimes apologise to me for their swearing. It can be difficult to explain to them that I am not shocked or bothered by other people's swearing. The reason I don't swear too much is because I think every word has its weight within language and that weight is lost with over use.
Tony, Bristol

Something awesome article! Swear words can be effective when used correctly - and sparingly. I think it's getting to the point where a lot of people are losing their patience with swear words filling in for proper conversation. This can be seen in the supermarkets, where people will give a person in the middle of a swear-a-thon a look that basically says "give it a rest".
Jamie, Tadley

Plenty of good stuff here; but I particularly like Clive's closing observation about quality of laughter. I have noticed this myself while attending the local comedy club. The thin laugh obtained by the comedian who doesn't bother to develop proper material but instead hits a drearily predictable sequence of blue top (or rather bottom) notes is usually decorated by an incredibly prominent dirty female cackle. This starts a full quaver before the general chorus and is often sustained, latterly as a solo performance, half the distance to the next chortling place. This laugh is so uncannily consistent and omnipresent that I suspect that it is of electronic origin, possibly a foot-operated device. Indifferent comedians, realising that their material is so poor that it is at risk of not provoking even a sympathy chuckle, purchase these gizmos and conceal them by strapping them to their ankles. Thus they are able to avoid encountering the stony silence that their efforts surely deserve.
Will Watts, London

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