3rd September 2012 TATLER NEWS
MIND YOUR LANGUAGE
Unless you're in church or, perhaps, a kindergarten, these days nobody ought to be offended by swearing.
Look - FUCK. And the world still turns. There is swearing, though, and swearing. As every writer knows, a profanity written has a kick many times that of one merely said. The same is true of one said in an accent that ought to know better. If, say, Bob Geldof told you he'd got a fucking puncture, you'd only be thinking about his tyres. If the Duke of Edinburgh did, he'd sound so cross that you'd wonder if he'd had the driver shot. Frankly, it's a bugger in this day and age, but such is the burden of breeding. If you talk proper, you've got to swear proper too.
First, and most importantly, swear only in description. Never in exclamation or in insult. The house is shagged, the dog has shit for brains, this phone contract is a shitting wreath of fucking arse-bunting - all fine. Even some phrases that sound pretty damn insulting - Clive is a wanker; Daisy is a whore; that dickhead Meredith walks like she's sat in a shite, etc - are actually just insulting descriptions, and they are perfectly acceptable in almost any company, provided they are uttered calmly. The big danger with swearing is not causing offence but being boorish. Never shout. For the most part, except in some particular circumstances, you should never swear at somebody. If you feel you must, then it should be done with all the brutal efficiency of conversational thermonuclear war. Imagine Dame Maggie Smith calling a footman a c ***, or Brian Sewell telling a traffic warden that he's a shabby little fucktard. This is the effect you are going for.
It's all about deliberation. The words are important, so you need to know precisely what they mean. When David Cameron said the word 'twat' on the radio, he sounded foolish not because he had sworn, but because he clearly didn't realise it meant vagina. You need to be on top of this stuff. 'Arse' isn't swearing any more. Your arse is just your arse. 'Shit' remains a bit sweary, but has mainly become a perfectly routine term for either 'not good' or actual faeces. If you want to keep it properly rude, add the Celtic e and make it 'shite'. 'Shite' remains a great word. 'Fucked' means broken, or otherwise damaged. That is all. Even if something is broken as a result of actual sex (a bed, say), this is mere coincidence; there are no such connotations.
Beware, though, of losing that essential sense of lofty detachment. Your car may be fucked, your head may be fucked, even your job. But your marriage should never be fucked. If anything, it should be shagged. Be inventive, mainly by adding ing or ly where it isn't expected. Shitting, arseing, twatting - these are the marks of a thoughtful maestro. Where posh swearing really struggles is with affection. With a regional accent, you can swear at your friends, and fondly. In cut-glass tones that's hard to do. Even if you pull it off, it sounds a bit rugby club. Avoid.
Swearing with your friends, however, is vital. Done deftly, it can be the first sign of friendship, the first intimate crack in a chilly facade. A boss who swears at you is a tyrant, but if he swears with you, then it should feel like he's bought you a drink. It's all about whether you feel comfortable enough to swear back. Unexpected swearing from a beautiful woman is like a tiny glimpse of her underwear. If you weren't supposed to see it, it can seem uncouth. But if you think you were...
Swear with your mother-in-law, but only if she does first. When that happens, you've bonded for life. The same sort of rule applies in job interviews, or with bishops. There's nothing better than a sweary bishop. And if you must test the water, do it robustly. Always sound like you mean to swear. Never sound like you can't help it. Don't swear with a headmaster, but always swear with a head boy. Don't swear in shops, unless they're very posh shops, in which case - go for your fucking life. I hope you're getting this down.
By Hugo Rifkind, also a writer for The Times