Boring, Boring, Boring: Swear Words

When I was younger, linguistic ‘tics’ used to irritate me profoundly. Time was when every sentence I heard in France seemed to have a meaningless ‘si vous voulez’ tacked on to it. In Britain there was, and still is, the endless repetition of ‘like’ and its cousin ‘innit’. These, however, do not bore me in the way that profanity does. It seems that many people are now incapable of framing a sentence that does not contain a swear-word, most often the one that begins with ‘f’ and ends with ‘k’. It is used as a descriptive, as punctuation, as mere sound, but it is tedious in the extreme. Some people use it in the hope that we in the monastery will be shocked, not realising that it would take a lot more to shock nuns. More often, people use it unthinkingly, not realising how it weakens their argument precisely because it is obvious that it is used unthinkingly. Twitter is spattered with it; and one has only to walk down the nearest street to hear it spoken, sometimes by very young children.

Couldn’t we think a little more about the words we use, and try to find those that will express what we really want to say? There are many words we can no longer use without giving offence and most of us take care to avoid them. Why not take as much care to avoid those that are simply boring and ultimately devoid of meaning?

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Poetry and the Decline of Civility

Today is National Poetry Day. There are so many ‘days’ in the year that I tend to ignore them, but poetry will always be something I treasure. Indeed, if I were given the choice of becoming a saint or a poet, I might have a little difficulty deciding. Happily, I have no choice. I’m not a poet, and sanctity seems ever further off. (Cue wry smile.) This morning, however, I was struck by a thought that I shall mull over for the rest of the day. My (limited) experience suggests that fewer people now care about poetry than in my youth, when we all committed to memory huge quantities of verse which became lodged in our inner landscapes, even among the most unliterary. Not just words but the best words, as Keats would say, became part of our subconscious. Are they still? I have my doubts, judging by the language I read and hear around me.

One effect of this, I think — and it is only one and probably an arguable one at that — can be seen in the loss of the fine-tuning of our emotions and the decline of civility. When Lady Thatcher died, many who had not even lived during her premiership were gleeful and expressed their glee in ways I found  small-minded and brutal. I felt a similar revulsion when I read the Daily Mail article about Ralph Milliband. One simply doesn’t say such things — only it appears we do. You may have noticed that it is becoming more and more difficult to escape other people’s use of profanity and vulgarity in tweets and FB updates or even casual conversation. Fuddy-duddy I may be, but the effort to find the right word, to express what one thinks and feels as well as one can —something the poet achieves as no other — is an essential part of what it means to be human. It is closely linked to civility, which is, after all, itself linked to being a good citizen, with all that that implies.

Poetry and citizenship: perhaps today a little dipping into the Greek poets is in order, for they understood both.

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