Since this post is somewhat topical, I thought I'd better get it out there before it became TOO passe.
So, Charlie Brooker wrote* a fantastic column** about the whole bloody Brand-Ross palaver, in which he wrote:
Friday's paper included a rundown of other "obscenities" broadcast by the Beeb, which the paper fearlessly "uncovered" by recording some TV shows and writing down some of the jokes. To protect readers' sensibilities, all the rude words were sprinkled with asterisks, although since the Mail's definition of "rude" extends to biological terms such as "penis", it was a bit like gazing at an ASCII representation of a snowstorm on a ZX Spectrum circa 1983. Perhaps next week it will produce a free sheet of asterisk stickers for readers to plaster over their own genitals, lest they catch sight of them in a mirror and indignantly vomit themselves into a coma.
And this brought out a visceral reaction in me. Because if there's one thing I HATE*** is the way newspapers star out swearwords. They should just print the damn thing, or not print the word at all. If a kid reads it, they're still going to ask what it means - or even more likely to, as my friend E pointed out. And what's so bad about a child learning what a "penis" is? It reminds me of the horrific story of the woman in America (of course) who complained to a theatre because they had THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES on the marquee, and she'd had to explain to her neice what it meant. (Although that's connected to the sex ed palaver and that's a rant for another day).
The way I see it, if people are matter of fact about things, the mystery goes out of it - and as E pointed out, if people aren't shocked then children won't use it as much. So if a kid says "fuck", you tell them that it is a historical term for sex and that it makes people uncomfortable to hear it and good manners means not making people uncomfortable so they shouldn't say it. You're teaching kids to be rational, that way, and to think of the consequences of their actions, and instilling in them an understanding of exactly what manners are. I'm a firm believer that you should always tell people WHY they shouldn't do something, which then takes away the urge to do it - they may still do it, but they might also think about it first.
Back in the day, when I used to post my writing on the tinty (don't ask), one of my stories received a comment about how the commenter didn't like the way two of the characters "cursed" so much. This grated with me, because I didn't see the swearing as gratuitous at all, and in fact it had been a deliberate piece of characterisation - the characters in question were two teenage boys who were trying to be macho and grown-up, and so the swearing was all part of their braggadoccio. it didn't make sense for them not to swear. Although am I right in thinking that swearing is a lot more acceptable than in America?
Or as in The History Boys, there's the stupendous exchange between Dakin and Irwin (one of the best scenes of theatre ever, in my opinion). Dakin has just asked Irwin - his history teacher - for a drink, and while he starts out joking, there is an electric moment when he finally drops the mask, and shouts "I don't understand this! Reckless; impulsive; immmoral ... how come there's such a difference between the way you teach and the way you live?"
Irwin, flustered, replies, "Actually, it's amoral", and Dakin whirls on him and says, forcefully, "Oh, is it FUCK". The swearing-phobic would say that was unnecessary; I'd say it definitely is necessary. The four words perfectly convey Dakin's frustration with Irwin's prevarication, and also probably Dakin's fear of rejection and annoyance at his own vulnerability, better than any other phrase that omits the swearword, as well as being in character (macho teenage boy again).
And where would the opening scene of Four Weddings and Funeral be without swearwords? NOWHERE, is the answer. RUINED.
Having said all that, though, there are times when swearing can be gratuitous and overused - but we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater, eh?
*two weeks ago
**When has he not? Also, I still can't spell "column"
*** OBVIOUSLY a lie, there are MANY things I hate