When is swearing OK? 6



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In 1969 when I was a young trainee ABC journalist, I was sent to cover the Magistrate’s Court on Saturday mornings and there were very few real news stories – just a sad bunch of drink drivers nursing hangovers, louts who had been in fights and often bearing the signs and sundry others whose cases were hardly likely to elicit any sympathy much less interest.

One case stood out memorably. I was very proud that my coverage of it got me my very first national news item.

In the dock was a confused somewhat resentful sailor from some eastern European country whose ship had docked the previous day. He was anxious to explore what delights Brisbane had in those days so one of his shipmates who did speak English gave him a handy phrase to use if he became lost and wanted to ask a copper the way back to the ship.

Unfortunately for him, the phrase was something like, “Get f****d”

And yes, he did get lost; and, yes, he did go up to one of Queensland’s finest and yes, he did utter what he thought was a polite inquiry.

He was instantly frogmarched to the Watch House, charged with using obscene language and banged up for the night. The Magistrate – who I hope went on to higher judicial office – immediately realised that Sergei or whatever his name was couldn’t speak English at all. This had escaped the notice of the Watch House coppers.

I cannot recall but it would be quite something is the only swearing that poor sailor did was in Court on the Bible to tell the truth and nothing but.

There was a happy outcome. The Immigration Department was contacted, a translator found and the sailor discharged without any conviction. The Magistrate, who had a wonderful sense of irony and justice, ordered the coppers to drive him back to his ship.

I was reminded of this by a recent about how a parrot in India was arrested by police for verbally abusing an old lady. Yes, a parrot.

Hariyal, the naughty parrot, pecked off more than he could chew when he let go a foul-mouthed rant against the woman who happens to be Hariyal’s owner’s step-mother.

“On seeing me, the parrot uses bad language and foul words. That is why I have complained thrice in the last two years,” she told local media.

The owner, her step-mother and Hariyal were taken to the local cop shop for interrogation but the coppers were unable to make the parrot squawk so all three were sent home.

Presumably Hariyal can continue his abuse of the old lady now immune from the fear of prosecution. The old lady might decide to visit less frequently and that may have been the outcome hoped for by whoever taught Hariyal.

And what about those poor folks afflicted with Tourette Syndrome?

One of the unfortunate effects of this syndrome is an involuntary use of very crude language. They simply have no control over their outbursts which, to say the least, could be very socially embarrassing. Certainly, it would tend to restrict their career opportunities although politics as a profession would certainly be very open.

There have even been cases of deaf sufferers swearing in sign language.

I recall seeing a cartoon which showed a large building with a sign, “The f***k**g Tourette Syndrome Research Centre”. It was an American publication and we all know how bloody obscene and unfeeling they can be.

The involuntary use of crude swear words is called “coprolalia” from the Greek “kopros” meaning “feces” and “lalein” meaning “to talk” which means that mummy is more or less spot on when she calls rude words “toilet talk”. It is amazing that I have waited until now to learn that she was a Greek language scholar; she certainly kept that quiet.

The Bible is very firm on the subject. Ephesians 4:29 states, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths…” while similar strictures against those for a penchant for profanity appear in 1 Peter 3:10 and James 3: 9-12.

Can sufferers of Tourette Syndrome get into heaven? Could sufferers be ordained as members of the clergy? I could imagine that the Archbishop would get a torrent of complaints from parishioners who objected to their new priest starting the sermon with “Now listen you sh*theads, today’s f***k**g lesson comes from…”

And what is profanity in one language is not necessarily rude in another.

A workers’ union in Sweden is called a “fack” which is pronounced “f**k” while the Japanese car maker Honda lost a buck load of money when it introduced the new “Fitta” to Sweden.

Oh dear, “fitta” in Swedish means “pussy”.


Tell us, do you get offended by swearing? When is it not OK?

Russell Grenning

Russell Grenning is a Brisbane-based former journalist and retired political adviser who began his career with the ABC in 1968 in Brisbane and subsequently worked on the Brisbane afternoon daily, "The Telegraph" and later as a columnist for "The Courier Mail" and "The Australian". He worked for a string of senior Ministers in the Federal, Victorian and Queensland Governments as well as in senior executive public relations positions, including Assistant Federal Director, Public Relations, for Australia Post, Public Relations Manager for the Queensland Department of Main Roads and Principal Adviser, Corporate Relations, for the Queensland Law Society.

  1. The use of the “F” word and others in this vein are never acceptable to me.It shows lack of education if you can’t express yourself without using such words. It also shows disrespect especially to the older generation.

  2. Having been in the navy from age 15 to 35 swearing doesn’t bother me even slightly. I wouldn’t do it in front of my grandmother when she was alive out of respect, however when you are being shot at by some bast**d who means it, and you’ve realised that prayers are the most useless things ever thought up, and worse they waste valuable shooting-back time, then swearing doesn’t half feel good as your shots hit home. Nasty? yes but true nevertheless.

  3. I am a 65 year old woman and do not find swearing objectionable in private or amongst friends.I find it quite cathartic.Sometimes only a swear word will do.In fact I quite enjoy using the F word when I think its needed.

    1 REPLY
  4. Thanks for my laugh of the day, Russell. I call myself a lady, but have indeed used the F word on occasion! Sometimes, only an expletive will do.

  5. I remember reading somewhere, years ago, that doctors had found that swearing during painful procedures did help to reduce pain responses.

    I must admit that I do find excessive swearing to be annoying – or even threatening – in certain situations. I am sorry for people who find it necessary to use frequent swear words because their brain is too slow and they must fill the gaps.

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