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”.