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Sunday, 12 April 2015


I have read several articles about the use of ‘bad’ language recently and thought some of the points worth passing on; and acknowledge Nicholas Butler’s article in North and South February 2015.

Late last year Andrew Little, newly elected leader of Labour, challenged the prime minister in parliament to ‘cut the crap and apologise’ after it became apparent John Key had lied about his association with blogger Cameron Slater.
The general public are accustomed to politicians lying, but they are not accustomed to politicians swearing and speaking so bluntly. Rather than provoking any criticism, Andrew Little’s comments were repeated with relish by the media and he was admired for ‘saying it like it is’.

There has been research in many areas about the use and effectiveness of swearing. MRI’s have been used to measure changes in blood flow, and hence brain activity as subjects were presented with neutral, negative and arousing words. The scans indicated that emotionally arousing words, like obscenities, travel via a different pathway to non-emotional words, a pathway that starts in the amygdala deep in the ancient limbic regions of our brain. Vulgar language activates our primal, emotional brain, cutting out our more rational cortex. Our brain unconsciously registers the depth of the speaker’s feeling, even if we reject their choice of words.  For that reason ‘cathartic swearing’ (when hammer hits thumb) really does reduce the pain more than an ordinary expression might.
Interestingly, although Maori has contributed various words to our local vernacular, it hasn’t contributed any common swear words. In fact Maori is one of the few languages reputed to have no swear words, perhaps because early dictionaries were compiled by missionaries. Some people believe the succinct ‘fuckwit’ is a home grown New Zealand swear word but that is not certain. However, apparently the expression ‘shit oh dear’ with its combination of bluntness and understatement is definitely Kiwi.

What constitutes swearing or offensive language has changed. In the early 20th century, calling someone a twerp was considered sufficiently offensive to warrant a prison sentence; nowadays it is regarded so inoffensive as to be almost a term of endearment. I grew up believing calling someone ‘a dirty, rotten, filthy, stinking miserable so and so’ was as bad as it got, because that was the worst thing my father ever said about bad drivers who cut in on us.  But if someone shouted that as we drove down Queen Street these days, we’d probably giggle.  In the 1960’s permissiveness turned dirty words into good clean fun and as people cared less and less about God, religious swearing lost its sting. Nowadays a new trend is emerging. Racial and other derogatory epithets like ‘nigger’, ‘retard’ and ‘faggot’ are growing more offensive, and offensive to more people.
For many writers using bad language is simply unacceptable. Swearing is still stigmatised; seen as a sign of lax morals, lack of refinement, impoverished vocabulary. About the only thing missing is the suggestion that swearing makes you fat. And yet people still let rip and when it comes from an unexpected source as it did with Andrew Little, the infectious informality finds plenty of support. Because swear words communicate emotions in a way that normal language cannot.

Erin McKechnie


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