No Words but Obscenities

My daughters think their generation invented the “F word” but back in the 70s my world was full of Fucking Cunts [things were less PC then] and shitty dicks [not usually meant literally] and crappy twats [again, less PC and not literal] and, from what I’ve read, the 60s and even the 50s were fairly four-lettered too.

However, as in most middle class baby-boomer households, obscenities were unknown while I was growing up – Hell’s Bells, Darn it and the occasional Bloody [invariably followed by Excuse my language but really, it’s the absolute limit!] – and we genuinely  believed swearing was the sign of a poor vocabulary and a limited intellect.

After a brief period at Rhodes during which which a sentence wasn’t complete without the words ‘like’ and fuck’ and, to a lesser extent ‘you know’ [all courtesy the boyfriend] I reverted to my customary ‘jolly’ and ‘bother’ and – in extreme cases – ‘Botheration!’.

Some will aver they have heard the phrase ‘Bloody Hell’ leave my lips and I have certainly, very occasionally, had recourse to the expletive “Clucking Bell!” but generally my speech is so mild it bores even toddlers.

Words exist to be used however, and to avoid them unreasonably is to give them too much power: on the one hand we have speech that sheds blasphemies and obscenities like a chemotherapy patient sheds hair, and on the other hand we have an irritating mealy-mouthed prissiness combined with the new PC.

“Oh botheration – that’s not on! What a horrid man” indicates a poor vocabulary and a limited intellect when what is called for is “Oh Shit – that’s total crap! What a fucking wanker!” Sometimes, I fear, there are no words adequate to the circumstances other than obscenities. And I have had that sort of week.

Never mind that for now – my hobby horse today is language, good and bad. In Pre-Modern History [ i.e. the 70s] euphemisms were frowned upon as being overly ‘nice’  and frightfully lower class.

It started in nursery school [no Grade 0 or any such nonsense then: when you were ready you went to school, any age from four to seven years old, and continued until Matric, depending on what school you went to.

Now people ask for ‘the bathroom’ – as if your average restaurant has a bath for the use of customers who feel grubby. In my day the lower orders whispered about ‘the toilet’. In fact, many contemporaries still use that tek for lavatory but anyone who went to my school – or has read Nancy Mitford – knows how frightfully non-U and lower class ‘the toilet’ is.

The Loo or the Lav or even the WC is fine; The Ladies not so much. For men there’s the Pisser [or Pissoir if you want to be pretentious], the Bogs, the Jake, the John [both sexes use this], and The Shitter.

In Fairly Ancient English History – Tudor to 18th Century – even the prissy Protestants were fairly open about their needs: There was none of this  ‘make water’, and ‘bowel movement’ or ‘pass wind’ stuff: everyone pissed, crapped and farted and it was  not seen as cause for huge embarrassment.

Naturally, these are not functions one wishes to perform in company – although men appear to have no problem doing lots of stuff best kept private rather than out in the open – but until recently everyone happily accepted they were part of life.

However, if you never use the lavatory and only go to the bathroom, that’s your affair. But please just don’t tell me your dead uncle is ‘late’. And don’t tell me he ‘passed on’ or was ‘called away’. Or that he went to ‘his Reward’, or ‘was Gathered’.

He died. He is no longer, He is not ‘sleeping’ or ‘at rest’ – he’s dead. It’s probably healthier for you if you accept that simple fact of life because you have to accept he’s not coming back.

Of modern niceties, those surrounding sex are possibly the most irritating. Death, lavatorial functions and sexual relations are the most natural activities – essential in fact – yet they re the vwry ones mankind wishes to shroud in obfuscating verbiage.

Once Homo Sapiens lived in extended familial communities; I like to think of them in a big cave – guards sit around a fire at the entrance and the children sleep at the back. The adults lie together, near their children, having sex, giving birth, dying, even shitting and peeing when conditions are too hostile for them to go outside in the dark.

Today, the poor live in much the same environment, minus perhaps the fire and the guards. Children in squatter camps know babies are not bought by the stork or found under a cabbage – they see their mothers conciee, give birth, and all too often die.

Middle class South Africans know all about sex and procreation and sexuality and gender and prophylactics and STD s – Life Orientation is a compulsory subjct in all,schoold: yet teenage pregnancy and unprotected sex are a curse despite sex education, the free availability of condoms, and abortion on demand.

And how does this happen? People ‘sleep’ with each other. In my day people slept with each other, they shared a bed – male and female – but that did not mean they had Sex. Unwanted pregnancies and STDs were often the result of different sexes using the same lavtories [don’t even ask] but never from ‘sleeping together’.

I ‘slept’ with several boyfriends. We left the door open so my prowling father could check on us, and it was usually head to foot, but we slept. No-one gets pregnant that way: they get pregnant from  having sex. Having sex is not the same as ‘making love’. And making love does not always result in people having sex.

Impregnation generally involves penetration and ejaculation, forcible or voluntary: Making Love is another euphemism which means everything and nothing, depending on whether it represents a long lasting intellectual, spiritual and physical commitment, or  just a quick screw.

Have sex, sleep together, make love, screw, fuck – even the Middle English swyve – please don’t tell me that sleeping together will result in either pregnancy o venereal disease. Yikes – what exactly were you doing to that seat?

Euphemisms suck big time – and by ‘suck’ I am in no way referring to Fellatio.

‘Sleeping’ with someone you love who has ‘passed away’ is very different to having energetic sex with [ie fucking, screwing or swyving] a corpse. Not to mention that ‘sleeping’ with a dead person – Necrophilia- [read Browning’s My Last Duchess for the more romantic version]is not only illegal it is also, arguably, unnatural.

It’s a funny old world where blasphemy and explicit words for urine and excreta are bandied about quite freely. But God forbid you admit to having been to the lavatory, having had sex or, in extremis, having died.



6 thoughts on “No Words but Obscenities

  1. I caught myself asking for “the bathroom” the other day. As I uttered the words, I was already chastising myself for being so prissily American. Horrors! “Where’s the loo?” has always been sufficient.

    And talking of things American, I watched a segment of The Daily Show online yesterday. The powers-that-beep had censored his use of “fuck”, “shit”, and similar, but left in “pussy”, with reference to Der Trumpenfuhrer’s grab at those. Very odd, leaving in the language of assault, but not of Ye Regular Offensive English.


    1. My husband also works as a full time translator – waiters look at me blankly when I ask for a paper napkin or the lavatory. A losing battle perhaps but I shall always continue to fight!
      As fr the pussy/shit thing, I suspect it is all automated. Fuck and Crap are in the list of words the computer is told to bleep out but just in case you are a cat lover, Pussy is given the benefit of the doubt. “I love little Pussy, her coat is so warm, and if I don’t harm her she’ll do me no harm”.


  2. Ever been caught short?

    When I was growing up
    we had a bathroom and a separate loo
    which was very civilized –
    a nicety insisted on by Mother.
    You could always read a book
    in one convenience or the other.

    These days a master bedroom
    has its own ablution block
    and down the hall, the cloakroom
    with its bidet and pissoir
    impedes the gentle art of reading.
    Unless, of course, you’ve been raised in a manoir.

    Gleaming taps, state of the art, warmed seats –
    which would not permit a muffled fart.
    You’d hardly spend an hour in there
    on Dickens or on Proust –
    you’d never really get to know
    which author rules the roost.

    Yet more uncivilized and selfish in Dad’s considered view
    was reading at one’s leisure in the family’s only loo
    with time running out for the desperate in a queue.
    Maybe he was right, possibly even wrong –
    but who really cared about the cranky sibling throng?
    There was always the outside lavatory,
    half-neglected for hygiene,
    where you’d likely find a comic book or a fruity magazine.
    Goodness only knows what happens when you flush
    and the session is transported to the ocean in a rush.

    Grandfather still remembers the good old days when he
    sat down in the outhouse, then called a W.C.
    With squares of newsprint neatly cut
    around the margins, so as not
    to censor what he may have missed
    when he ambled down the garden path
    to have his morning piss.

    He swore it was uncivilized to do one’s business in the house –
    a garden shed was his response.
    And when the pit had ripened, rot he’d fill it up and grow a tree.
    Before he drove a sapling home he’d dig another hole –
    deployed two men, three days in all, then dismantle
    with his tools the wooden structure meant for stools
    and nail the planks together once again.

    Underneath a tarred tin roof
    for shelter from the wind and rain,
    the inside neatly painted,
    a lantern for the words,
    the oak seat fitting snug
    newsprint within easy reach – perfection.
    If only he hadn’t eaten that green peach.

    Down past the garage and workshop
    was a rare anomaly: a two-seater contraption.
    The intended purpose of a twin long drop
    was genre fiction, probably a mystery
    to be read aloud and savoured in tandem.
    A blind, when raised to admit the light,
    provided stunning views
    of pomegranate, loquat, orange,
    apricot and almond – and trellised catawbas
    sheltering a frolicking of birds.

    Still further down, below the grim fowl hock,
    a humble closet hosts the regal squat.
    With strategic placement outlines for the feet
    were pressed into clay,
    surrounding wall is built of vibracrete –
    without a trace of reading matter for the poor.
    Dust to dust has never been so real
    unbuckling for the crouch.
    No time or inclination for reading or extraneous thought –
    nothing so concentrates the mind.
    But fragrant Frangipanis anchored near the door
    serve a noble purpose of colour and perfume
    to ameliorate the severest dank and gloom.

    For Mother, another matter altogether,
    concerns the Ladies at a theatre.
    It is a cause of some amusement
    to the uncaring eye – those lines that stretch for miles,
    gaze averted – waiting for relief.
    And sometimes you’d find the unlucky few
    who’d scoff a suspect pre-curtain stew.
    If they make it to a cubicle in time
    and sit down on the pot, they’ll scan
    the opera programme, deftly powdering a nose
    to mask an ill-timed case of you-know-what.

    The bell has gone, the interval is done.
    The strings are ready tuned, the last act follows on.

    Hermanus, XXIII.V.2014


    1. I love this poem but I think I have read it before – where has it appeared?
      I grew up in old houses where one loo and a bathroom was considered sufficient, so I totally sympathise with “Dad’s considered view”. Except in our house Dad was the one who rose to the challenge of reading War and Peace in one sitting, on ‘the throne’.
      I have never had to use an outside loo. Not the long drop variety at any rate. Have you read the humorous short novella “The Specialist”? It was written many decades ago but proves that, essentially, human nature does not change.


  3. I use “restroom” in public venues. It’s a euphemism, but a reasonably honest one … It can be quite restful to go in there and sit peacefully by yourself, contemplating how quickly you can end the date and go home. “Toilet” bothers or confuses people, and anyway I can’t clear my mind of the knowledge that it originates from the French “toilette”, which has little to do with peeing or pooping. I object to “Ladies’/Mens’ room” since they are the reason for this STUPID uproar over which bathroom the minuscule transgender portion of our population gets to use – why the hell can’t we just have multi-gender public restrooms, with properly closed stalls, and I suppose a collection of urinals behind a wall somewhere? Other euphemisms are annoying and often too twee to bear, and vulgarity is freeing and amusing in theory, but in practice it can be obnoxious.

    As for PC-speak … my personal bugbears? N-word, K-word, F-word. PLEASE JUST SAY THE FUCKING WORD! Or not. I don’t care.


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