In a comment on “More about manners in the U.S. and U.K.,” Karen at Fill Your Own Glass [sorry, everybody; that’s almost the end of the links] wrote, “My impressions have been created solely by movies, but I have believed that people in the U.K. are less inhibited when it comes to cursing and talking about sex.” (She went on to say that it was an insightful post, but I wouldn’t want you to think I’m the kind of person who’d mention that.)
I haven’t a clue whether her impressions are true. What fascinates me about the comment is how you’d measure either.
Let’s say we want to compare how inhibited or uninhibited people are in talking about sex. I mean, I want to be scientific here. How do we compare passing references to serious what-I-did, what-I-didn’t-do, and how-I-feel-about-it conversations? Do we measure in frequency, in length, or in depth?
No puns, please. We’re being scientific here, so settle down in the back row.
If we’re talking about a serious cross-cultural comparison of swearing, how do we balance frequency against intensity? How do we measure the weight do various swear words carry?
People I know here (and it’s entirely possible that my friends swear more than the average Brit) say “bloody” fairly often. How often? Oh, you know, often enough. (You can see why I never became a scientist, right?) But how intense a swear word is bloody? I’d always heard that it’s religious—actually, sacrilegious—in origin and assumed that it packed quite a punch. But a Wikipedia entry raises several milder and way less interesting possibilities. My Dictionary of British Slang and Colloquial Expressions calls it simply “an intensifier,” which makes it sound mild to the point of insipidity. Of course, I once heard a linguist talk dispassionately about the way Americans use the word fucking as an insertion. In fact, he called it “the fucking insertion,” which both illustrated how it was used and cracked me up for weeks afterwards. From this I gather that linguists, like all scientists, whatever their passions, prefer to present a dispassionate surface.
I’ve heard bloody said often enough that it’s made itself a home in my head, and it’s trying to push its way into my speech. It wants to be said, and I want not to say it. Not because I don’t swear—I do, and without being immodest here, I do it well—but because I don’t have a sense of its proportion, its weight, its impact. I don’t like to throw things until I can gauge their impact.
Besides, with my accent it’ll sound very odd.
So there you are, folks. Comparative swearing. I look forward to hearing what you have to say on the subject.