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25 June 2017 07:10 (South Africa)
Opinionista Rebecca Davis

In defence of sweary women

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

Why is there a special taboo against women who swear? Whenever I use a swearword on a public forum, there is always some gentleman at hand to speedily remind me that this verbal behaviour is unladylike. Swearing, it appears, is a BOYZ ONLY zone. This is pure sexism cloaking itself in the discourse of respectability. I’ve had enough.

I haven’t been closely following the gruesome Griekwastad murder case, which saw farmer Deon Steenkamp, his wife Christel and his daughter Marthella shot dead on their farm in April last year. Marthella was raped prior to her death.

Late last week, the youth convicted of the murders and rape could finally be named by the media, as he has turned 18. With morbid fascination I read that his name is Don Steenkamp – and that he is, in fact, the son and brother of the murdered Steenkamps.

“So [Don Steenkamp] raped his own sister?” I tweeted. “Fucking hell.”

There are occasions in life when we are presented with evidence of ineffable darkness in some human souls. On such occasions, language often seems a clumsy, inadequate tool with which to express deeply-felt horror. There are occasions on which we gaze into the abyss, and all that can be mustered is a despairing expletive. FUCKING HELL.

No sooner had I tweeted that paltry, but earnest, lament, than I was chided by a stranger for swearing. The stranger, as usual, expressed absolutely no disapproval of the man who raped his sister. A woman swearing, on the other hand, apparently cannot be allowed to slip by without a public shaming.

I should have expected it. I don’t think there has been a single occasion on which I have used a swearword in a tweet and not been instantly reprimanded. Almost invariably, this linguistic dressing-down has been delivered by older men whom I have never met.

The precise form the censure takes varies, but the essence is always the same. In choosing to swear on a public platform, you reveal yourself not to be a “lady”. You betray a fundamental lack of “class”. You expose a vocabulary so deficient that you lack non-sweary alternatives. You encourage observers to lose all respect for you.

This is complete and utter horseshit.

The idea that the use of swearwords is tantamount to the declaration of an impoverished vocabulary is horseshit.

I myself, like many of the most foul-mouthed people I know, can legitimately lay claim to a rich and extensive vocabulary; a bounteous lexical storehouse stacked high and deep with sufficient entries to convey countless shades of meaning and nuances of emotion. I know loads of words. I know so many words that I know “horseshit” is by no means my only option to express repugnance.

I could have said that it’s egregious, deplorable nonsense. But I made the choice to deploy a swearword instead because its very use conveys an additionally forceful element of disgust. Profanity is part of my rhetorical armoury.

The idea that swearing betrays a fundamental lack of class is also horseshit. Linguistic research undertaken in Britain suggests that swearing is most common at the top and bottom of the social strata. Those least likely to swear are the “Hyacinth Buckets of the British class system”: members of the lower middle class who are preoccupied with pretending to be of a higher social standing than they really are.

Prince William, who the kind of people who think swearing is “un-classy” probably look up to as a paragon of classiness, apparently swears so much that observers of his football matches have previously wondered if His Royal Highness might have Tourette’s.

It might seem counter-intuitive that I am fighting the pro-swearword corner, as I have previously argued on this forum that certain metaphors should be avoided on public platforms due to their potential to cause harm or offence. I believe, deeply, that language matters.

So let me be clear: if there are people for whom hearing or reading a swearword is just intrinsically upsetting, regardless of who’s swearing, then I would apologise and urge them to simply avoid the social media presence of sweary folk like me, as is easily done.

I confess I do not totally understand why swearwords should be upsetting, at least when employed in an exclamatory or emphatic fashion rather than to insult. Swearing is universal, democratic and as old as time. But there are Biblical prohibitions against blasphemous language, of course, which are the likely source of the anxiety towards “bad words” that prevails in some quarters today.

It is my experience, however, that the same men who jump to rebuke me for swearing do not seem remotely disturbed by the swearing of my male counterparts, which suggests that their delicate sense of offence is extremely selective.

When women swear, it seems to mean something different, and more sinister, than when men use the same words. “Surely you can be one of the boys some other way,” one of the critics of my swearing tweeted. This same man authored a badly-written blog post last year singling out City Press journalist Carien du Plessis for special opprobrium for having used the word “crap” on Twitter. I wasn’t even aware that “crap” counted as a swearword, which shows how far beyond the pale I really am.

That suggestion – “surely you can be one of the boys some other way” – is deeply telling. It reveals that swearing is the rightful linguistic domain of men, and that women who dare step into this territory need to be reminded of the fact, lest they grow confused about how women are supposed to behave, and start wearing trousers and demanding political representation.

Dictating how women are supposed to speak might seem at first blush to be far less harmful than, for example, dictating how women are supposed to dress. But both types of diktat fall along the same spectrum of policing female behaviour. These red herrings about “class” or “vocabulary” are just that. The real issue is that women must not start thinking they are entitled to behave like men, or else the whole patriarchal house of cards might topple in on itself.

“When angry, count to four; when very angry, swear,” wrote Mark Twain. When it comes to men telling me how I should express myself, I’m fucking angry. DM

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

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