I was born in inner SE London before World War Two broke out in 1939. Then people owned radios but telephones, TVs and computers had yet to take up the role in the populace which they occupy today. In those days the impact of America on British media was negligible and in any case domestic radio broadcasting was heavily censored by the BBC. We youngsters of London grew up learning two languages: namely formal literate English and everyday common slang which included the ‘swear words’. Then to swear as a part of everyday use was a coarse sin, seen to be committed by the lower working classes, who by definition had limited intellectual knowledge and who seemed to revert to swearing in order to make their point. For a young boy studying at a good quality school to be caught swearing in public would have resulted in detention and perhaps painful corporal punishment such as caning.
Back in those days an individual’s status in society could be judged by knowing where he lived, how he dressed, the sound of his voice and what his father did for a living. Girls, young and old, working class or middle class, simply did not swear but washer women or female factory hands might. Some of the swear words were in common use by the lower working class orders - many of whom were only semi-literate.
The word ‘buggar’ had a specific application and generally referred to ‘gay’ men. Back then homo sexuality was illegal and punishable by a jail sentence. It was often associated inappropriately with the practice of paedophilia. There were numerous derogatory terms used to describe an active homosexual, most of which have since fallen into disuse in more enlightened times.
The old ‘Sod‘ hinted that the man in question was a down and out drunkard.
‘Prozzy‘ was an immoral woman who plied her trade on the street corner in return for money.
A ‘bastard’ was any child who was born out of wedlock - which was a sin because it implied the practice of sex before marriage, then almost seen to be a mortal sin. Single motherhood was frowned upon in an era before the pill. A ‘back street’ abortion was probably always available but invariably the risk of infection or other health risks from the procedure were preferable to the stigma which illegitimacy conveyed on the ‘offspring‘.
A mild swearword was a ‘bleeder’ - who could be lucky as well as unlucky.
Back in those days, an individual would give away to strangers his class ranking by his choice of language. As a general rule if one aspired to move up through the social classes in everyday society, then one should not be heard to swear. One never wrote down swear words, merely to include them in an article was almost an obscenity in itself.
By the time WW2 had come to an end, the British Isles had been invaded and occupied by allied soldiers from across the world. Americans were but just one breed of the relatively benign invaders who had sailed across the oceans so as to combat the evil dictator Herr Hitler. Common soldiers back in those days were demeaned by NCOs as a matter of routine as part of the training procedure.
After the war the British Empire was disbanded, so steadily was the class system through which it had been managed. The post war United Kingdom was to be a very different country from pre war Great Britain.
The words ‘f**k’ & c**t’ slowly came into regular everyday use and perhaps the two words have survived to hold the top rated expression for foul language (as warrants my use of astericks). Somehow ’shag’ has not managed to take its place as the most favoured word of foul expression. Gradually, as the media has intruded into everyday life, the barriers against using such swearwords has fallen away. Maybe if the American film industry had not been so successful in penetrating the programming of British television, then the process might have taken longer. Other factors have perhaps helped accelerate the process, such as the decline of the influence of the Church of England in everyday life in Britain The expression ‘Oh my God’ would once have been seen as blasphemy, nowadays it is commonly used even by classy women. My wife’s favourite expression is ’for goodness sake’ and only rarely and then in extreme cases, does she revert to ‘f**k it’. (I duck when she is in that mood) Maybe the British have become less formal in their approach to language, probably because of the wider ethnic diversity of the population, especially in London and some other of the bigger cities.
A local man whom I know has created a dictionary of swear words. He once remarked to me that most swearwords have a connection to sexual practices both deviant and natural, to the sexual organs and to defecation. Whatever, the use of swear words in general speech has become a matter of common practice.
But arguably the interesting development is that some very common words which once could be used openly now have an unacceptable connotation and cannot be used at all even in polite company. It appears that what has changed over time is the definition of obscenity.
I can still remember my Grandmother, who was born around 1899, calling me a ’young buggaro’ as a term of affection and when my Mother, born in 1918, who reserved as an angry outburst of anger for when I had done something wrong, called me a:’little bleeder’.
Interestingly there are nowadays still some words which I must neither mouth or write for fear of retribution from the authorities or society. I could perhaps have got away with the use of the ‘f’’ word and the ‘c’ word in this article but I would not dare to use in modern parlance some of the words which once, in the days of my youth, had an every day usage but which in modern parlance are strictly forbidden because of their connotation with prejudice.
It is funny how times change, as is reflected in day to day language, but it is very important that I, and other writers, recognise the changes,