Classic Ellis: On Swearing, 1999

Kenneth Whalley, an Adelaide headmaster, will hereafter suspend pupils who swear, he says, for two weeks, if they do so ‘with aggressive intent.’

He does not name the languages they may not swear in. Clearly an aggrieved boy bodylined at cricket saying ‘thy mother mated with a camel’ in his own Kurdish dialect would go unpunished and this, I think, is unfair.

So too is the whole idea. For it presupposes that some words have evil, magical properties while other words, describing the same things, do not. ‘Fornicate’ and ‘vagina’, for instance, will not be removed from this article, though two vivider synonyms would be, though they have peppered the ordinary speech for over a thousand years of over a billion ordinary people.

Yet they are still thought to be magic and malign and anyone who uses them in John Piery Secondary School will have his education interrupted now and his whole life, therefore, possibly wrecked. He may have arrived at school exhausted after listening to his parents fighting all night because his father was made redundant and he may have lashed out at someone who mocked his untidy sad appearance, and now he may miss his mid-term exams, and may leave school, and not get to university, and so on.

This is amazingly unjust. For swearing is one of the few consolations the wretcheder classes have for lives that are hard to bear. It gets them through bad times – with intractable machines, or down coal mines, or digging roads, or failing interviews. It is a suspiration of fraught feelings, a way to get through the minute, and the hour, and the day. Its very forbiddenness, and its verbal violence, is what endows it with power to salve ills and soothe wounds. Like alcohol and marital sex and, yes, masturbation it is one of the reasons we are not all murderers. Prove that I lie.

And Mr Whalley would take it away. What a monster of rectitude he is. A Malvolio at large in the twenty-first century, attacking modern misery and its pressures by shooting the messenger, the local English dialect, and its eloquence. How dare he.

In the mid twentieth century, when I was at school, the words you couldn’t – or shouldn’t – say included ‘blasted’, ‘flaming’, ‘bum’, ‘God’, ‘hell’ and ‘damn’, and the impact of ‘bloody’ and ‘bugger’ and ‘bastard’ and ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ is now hard to describe. When at the end of Gone With The Wind Clark Gable said, ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’, the audible shock was world-wide, and any other studio head but Selznick would have fearfully changed ‘damn’ to ‘darn’. And I recall the amazed laughter of my high school class when the words ‘bloody deeds’ were read out by the teacher in a Shakespeare lesson.

Things change, in short, and Mr Whalley will be seen soon, quite soon, as we now would see a headmaster who in 1951 expelled a boy for saying ‘damn and blast it all to hell’ after dropping a shot-putt on his foot – as a very foolish man, a petty tyrant, and one the boy could now sue for damages in millions, probably – and Mr Whalley should therefore watch it.

The f-word and, lately, in Woody Allen films, the c-word, are common now in cinema seen by teenagers, and used by heroes and villains alike. The idea that Bruce Willis and Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder can use words on screen that their young fans may not use contradicts the entire history of hero-worship, and the whole notion of free speech.

In previous eras ‘gee’, a contraction of ‘Jesus’, ‘gee whiz’, a contraction of ‘Jesus’ wisdom’, ‘blimey’, a contraction of ‘God blight me’, ‘gosh’, a variant on ‘God’, ‘by Jove’, a variant on ‘by Jehovah’, ‘Marry’, a mispronunciation of ‘Mary’, and ‘bloody’, a contraction of ‘by Our Lady’, were thought to threaten the speaker with hellfire, though the f-word and the c-word did not.

So things change, and languages evolve, and should evolve, and often what happens to them is political. William Tindale was burnt at the stake for daring to print the Bible in English when it was well known that Latin was the only fit language for God’s book to be in. English itself then, like Kurdish now, was a mortal sin, and men died for it.

In Adelaide they get suspended for it, and eventually expelled for it maybe, or some of it, by Mr Kenneth Whalley, a foolish man, a petty Cromwellian tyrant who does not know, probably, the evil he stands for and propounds.

He would not dare do so had there not been in the past ten years the long fierce pyrrhic battle for political correctness in human speech by the feminists and humanists and multiculturalists who believed that some words incite violence and so should be banned, and are in the end as misguided as he.

For freedom of speech is indivisible or it is not freedom, and either you believe every copy of Mein Kampf should be burned in the public square of every city of the world because it incites and justifies anti-Semitism, or you do not. And if you believe, and then declare, that anyone should be able to read, if they want to, Mein Kampf in a public library, or take it home from the library and read it aloud to a group of friends, then you cannot simultaneously believe and declare that certain abusive words about other religions and nationalities cannot be said aloud. You must either burn all books that incite violence (and the Bible must be on the list of such books, for it urges its readers to slaughter without mercy the men, women and children of rival nations and religions groups, and the speeches of Winston Churchill, who urges bombing raids and bloody mayhem on what he calls ‘the Hun’), or you must allow anything to be said, and said out loud.

Bazza Holds His Own, a fine funny film, is full of abusive national stereotypes – Australians are drunks who suffer impotence and urinate everywhere, the Poms are unwashed pillow-biters, the French conniving lechers, and all East Europeans Communist vampires – and were it written now it would never have been funded, and this would be a pity. For its freshness of language (‘he’d root the hair on a barbershop floor’) and the vigour of its humorous abuse (‘dry as a Pom’s towel’) show us how much innocent hope and freedom of speech we have lost since 1974 to the constipated fashions of our times, to this new Orwellian watchfulness that hides behind ‘inciting violence’ and ‘demeaning women’ and the like, a desire to frighten and punish young people for their energy and humour and their ordinary verbal exuberance.

Words do not have magical properties, I believe. And it was therefore wrong for church elders in Jesus’ time to stone to death anyone who said ‘Jehovah’ aloud. And it was wrong in our time for certain Muslims to try to murder Salman Rushdie – and successfully murder two of his translators – for a less than funny joke about Mahomet in his dreary book. And wrong in my lifetime for certain Russians to be sent to rot in the Gulag for telling jokes about Stalin, and for Lenny Bruce to be gaoled in America for talking to paying customers in a nightclub about oral sex, and so on.

It is wrong to punish speech, for anything it says. It is not wrong to argue back with countervailing speech. That is democracy. That is discussion. That is debate. That is freedom. What is proposed by Mr Whalley is tyranny; or tyranny based on boon dock superstition. What we used to call the heathens behave like this. We should not.

And if words do have magical power, they are losing it, and gaining it, restlessly, unpredictably, all the time. ‘Dago’ is no longer harmless, and ‘wog’ somehow more acceptable than it was. ‘Bugger’ is now innocuous, though it describes a hurtful, intrusive, sometimes violent and sometimes fatal act, one thought by the ancient Romans to cause earthquakes. ‘Wanker’, once an appalling libel, is now an amiable greeting. ‘Bastard’ is positively affectionate. ‘Arse’, once a loathsome thing to say, is now frequently (surprisingly) broadcast (as in ‘smartarse’ or ‘arse-kicker’ or ‘up to our arses in’), though not yet, I think, entirely acceptable. ‘Arselicker’ still seems magical and malign, ‘arse-kisser’ less so; and so on. ‘Bum’, as in ‘bums on seats’ or ‘Fergie’s bum’ has none of the startling impact it had when used for shock effect in 1958 in the cheery kids’ film Smiley. The f-word appears now in the respectable English magazines The Spectator, The Literary Review and The London Review of Books but has not yet made The Times or The Daily Telegraph except in the theatre advertisements. And after years on Triple J it has now, amazingly, lately, unofficially, been banned – in fear, I am told, of Richard Alston, who is himself in fear of Brian Harradine. And ‘pansy’ and ‘poofter’, except when used ironically by a practising homosexual, are absolutely blacklisted, though ‘queen’ and ‘queer’ are somehow acceptable again, and even ‘faggot’ and ‘pussy’. ‘Nigger’ is not, except when used by black American men as a form of amiable greeting. ‘Black’, once insulting, is now universally acceptable. ‘Abo’ is not. ‘Kike’ is not. ‘Tyke’ is. ‘Dyke’ is not, quite. ‘Bike’, as in ‘town bike’, is not. An Aborigine may not speak the names of the dead. An Anglo-Saxon is obliged to, but always favourably. In certain suburbs you had best not call anyone ‘towel-head’.

The effect on you of the above paragraph is a measure of the varying power to move and stir us English words have, and so is any episode of Good News Week or any performance by Barry Humphries or Gerry Connolly or Gerry Adams or Paul Keating or Nelson Mandela or Gough Whitlam or Hung Le. But this is the medium we as human beings are in, and are born to live in, and the faculty that makes us better intellectually than most of the animals. And to censor that faculty, or squeeze it, is like banning certain musical notes from the piano or strings from the violin, like cutting vocal chords or perforating eardrums to limit what is heard. We must hear it all, and be able to say it all, to ring all the notes of its beauty and vulgarity, or we are not fully human or fully alive.

Mr Whalley’s pupils should tell him to go root his boot. I will debate him on the subject anytime, anywhere.

Leave a comment ?


  1. An article for wider consumption one may suppose, ironically enough fearing censorship if the very words in question, fuck and cunt, were used in the text.

    So it goes.

  2. George Carlin had aa view on this topic:

    7 Dirty Words.

    • tickjavascript:grin(‘:grin:’)

    • Onya Dali, you’ve stolen my favourite bit.

      All that’s left is to quote Lenny Bruce, “If you can’t say Fuck, you can’t say Fuck the government.”

      I think given the current state of affairs a few Aussies and most Americans may well have use for that phraseology.

      • Soon, nearly all Aussies.

        I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.
        :sad: :???: :cry: :???: :lol:

      • thanks for mentioning Mr Bruce hg. There was a man the right had to silence, because his ‘obscenity’ was a weapon, not an intemperate use of foul language.

        The wannabe Bruces here, seasoning their bile with ‘fucks’ and ‘cunts’ are poor imitations, posing as the rational bulwarks against wowserism and censorship, when they’re just boys behaving badly without knowing the are ultimately boring.

        • Is it possible to hold dual citizenship - a wannabe Bruce and the village idiot?

          Abbot’s Green Army could morph into the Swearing Police.

          I wannabe be the village idiot.

        • I thoroughly agree. Bruce was the real deal when it came to being subversive. Carlin took a lifetime and accomplished much before I think he even began to approach that level of critique towards American society.

          Don’t get me wrong I think Carlin was the better comedian and a far better communicator of ideas but he drew his audience into the proscenium of the comedy performance before using that permission to mess with their heads a little. Bruce just took permission without asking.

          The only person I’ve seen come somewhere close to doing that was Bill Hicks.

  3. These days the greatest target of censorship is smoking. It is illegal to publish anything anywhere remotely positive about smoking. It is also illegal to point out that it is illegal (to publish anything anywhere remotely positive about smoking).

    Why is this type of censorship, the close cousin of brainwashing, now acceptable?

  4. The Man in the Stream

    I suspect Mr Whalley would have apoplexy if he gave a few minutes thought to what was actually being said in this extract from Hamlet.

    Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
    Ophelia: No, my lord.
    Hamlet: I mean, my head upon your lap?
    Ophelia: Ay, my lord.
    Hamlet: Do you think I meant country matters?

  5. Good news Bob!

    I expect the MSM and all the Right Wing bloggers will devote as much space to this as they did to the destruction of Thomson’s life.

    Peter Wicks deserves an enormous amount of credit for his pursuit of the truth in this matter. His Jacksonville series over at Independent Australia is far more worthy of a Walkley than anything Kate McClymont ever cobbled together in her efforts to deceitfully find Thomson guilty.

  6. All very salient points. Just one thing - is “the wretcheder classes” how you see people from blue-collar homes?

    • Tim Winton made some interesting points in an interview last night - that he had left the lower classes and was now not even middle class. He did not explicitly say so but he has found himself now in the class where he does what he likes when he likes.

      The class that used to call its males “gentlemen” in the sense that they did not work nor have to work at all.

      Upper class if you will. Australia does not have many of them; the children and grandchildren of the likes of the Fairfaxes, the Murdochs, the Myers, the Holmes a Courts. But the 1% and perhaps the next 2% are definitely in that class, call it what you will.

      “The wretcheder classes” include everyone else!

  7. I think I knew that Whalley, in fact several of them. One of them, a deputy head and follower of Jesus Christ at Yankalilla District Primary School, grabbed my second son, then about 7 years old, in a head-lock and then dragged him into the toilets and crammed his mouth full of soap for saying “cock.” He rang me up all apologetic before my shell-shocked son had come home on the bus to Rapid Bay. He went on stress leave (gutless cunt) the next day and I finished up having it out with the headmaster and connected teachers a few days later. I felt like suing them, boy were they shitting themselves when they had me and the missus to deal with. Just one of several examples actually.

  8. Thank God for Ellis, sanity in the world of fucking pure madness.

    • Possibly the only genuinely ‘free’ site left on the net. One of the reasons I gave Crikey the arse was because of their morbid ‘moderation’ policy.

      • It not so much the site but the participants. This site is getting infested with ” wowsers wankers, over the top feminists, the mentally fucking deranged, and other assorted fuck heads that far up themselves their shoe laces hang out their arse, that think going to university, gives them the right to lecture others on what is acceptable language.

        Not to mention trying to curb peoples free fucking speech. One of the quirks of a democracy is people that disagree with you should be allowed to use the language, sarcasm, abuse, taking the piss, as much bullshit they can get away with, yes that’s right there’s plenty of that on this blog, or anything else in their debating armoury as they see fit.

  9. Muggins: “I got here as quick as I could Oracle.”

    Oracle: “Well done, Muggins. I need an independent guinea pig to try out my new swearing converter. Think up a few choice words and say them into this mike.”

    Muggins: “Shit.”

    Swearing Converter: “Faeces.”

    Oracle: Well “shit” appears to be working OK. Try another one.

    Muggins: “Cunt.”

    Swearing Converter: “Abbott.”

    Oracle: “Cripes, looks like I’ve got some work to do, thanks for coming Muggins.”

  10. Bob, You devilish ratbag are you blocking my comments on this piece?

    • He’s not blocking me. Not yet. :cool:

      Just thought I’d slip this one in undetected. Under the radar, so to speak.

      I hope Phill doesn’t see this as he may no longer talk to me or be my best mate!

      A little Frank carpet bomb that is so hard for me to resist…


      “MORE than 550 would-be asylum-seekers have been stopped from getting on boats in Indonesia since the federal election as a result of cooperation with Jakarta.”

      Fancy that? No fanfare. No rushing for the microphone. Just effective diplomacy. That my friend’s is how adults run the show. Look and Learn Labor.

      Abbott Is The Man! I always said so. I have excellent political judgement.

      You guys all form a neat row. Shit sandwiches will shortly be served. Cold.

      • “A little Frank carpet bomb that is so hard for me to resist…”

        Frank……….don’t confuse carpet bombing with a damp squib on cracker night.

        ( Another thing the do gooders denied us) a debate for another time mayhaps?

        Frank….. quoting the Australian is about the equivalent in propaganda value as the ” Little Red Book ”

        Frank….. Your mob won the election, be happy while it lasts.

        But don’t go waxing lyrically about Abbott so much. He is on borrowed time..

        This man is an embarrassment to our country, at least be genuine Frank, you know he is a wanker and I know you know.

        He’ll be lucky if he doesn’t end up doing porridge. Your party will off load this tosser, that my friend, is money in the bank.

        • Ha Ha Ha! Fair enough Phill, Thats why I like Phill. The only genuine man here amongst a bunch of girls- in blouses!
          We should start a discussion on how the do-gooders stole cracker night from us. The bombs we used to make as boys- would have us all in detention today!

      • Comprehension is sadly lacking again, Frank. Any reduction in the first month of Abbottabad will be due entirely to the Gillard/Rudd PNG solution, implemented after months of negotiation.

        The only carpet you bomb is the one next to your favourite biting-pillow.


  11. Dual Citizenship no;
    Duel Citizenship yes.

  12. I normally do not read or respond to Frank’s childish posts, but the latest one, which contained a number of eye-catching caps, prompts me to ask him a question.

    Everyone knows that ‘stop the boats’ is a rather unpleasant euphemism for ‘keep the brown bastards out of ‘Straya’. Variations have been used throughout our political history. I believe Frank knows this, so my question to him/her is: what causes you to rejoice and gloat over the successful manipulation of people’s xenophobia? And why is human suffering a source of mirth and satisfaction to you?

  13. Swearing is like belching of farting. I agree that sometimes it just comes out. Especially when stressed.

    Context is everything. In some situations it’s not appropriate. In others it’s natural. Sometimes profound. In others again it can be joyously juvenile and funny. A fabulous punctuation to an absurd frustrating situation.

    It’s not appropriate to swear “down” at someone. Just as it can be empowering to swear “up”.

    This principal was talking about aggressive swearing with intent. I read that as abusive swearing.

    I’d be happy for my kids to understand the difference. It’s part of their socialisation to understand what is appropriate in different contexts.

    Does swearing prevent murder? Well since Principal Whatever’s charges would now be in their thirties I think we would have seen a creative murder defence run along the lines of “The aggressive swearing ban made me do it, your Honour.” A decade and a half later and we are still waiting. I think the little tykes survived fairly unscathed.

    What this piece is really about is what words are acceptable in common currency. The standard used to be what the average man would find acceptable in a certain situation.

    That definition has now broadened. That always requires some uncomfortable readjustment. Now it’s not just the average man whose sensibilities are taken into account but the feminists (women), multiculturalists (spiks, yids, fishheads, coons etc) and the humanists ( soft Lefties, poofers and faggots).

    English is a gluttons feast for words. Compare the size of an English dictionary to a French one. Some words fall out of favour. Some die a slow agonising death. Some slink away. Others revived. The world turns and language with it.

    It’s crowded and a pain in the arse but sometimes it’s better to wait until you get home to fart.

    • Having your own opinion is a lovely thing. It’s just as lovely for some bastard to tell you it’s lovely horse shit.

      • It sure is!
        And being able to voice it historically and culturally is still rare for women in large parts of the world.
        We bag this country and its political system a lot. But it offers me, as a woman, unprecedented freedoms.
        I’m fully aware that you, you old grump, have been a part of ensuring that for me.

        • Thank you, at last we understand each other.

          But I think you always did.

          For what it is worth, the way women are treated in some countries, is nothing short of disgusting.

          Countries like Saudi Arabia we should not even trade with. I remember a few years ago they beheaded a young girl in public, I thought at the time, My God!!! These people still live in the stone age.

          I remember nearly passing out with rage when I saw two gay men in Iran hanging off the end of a crane. In 2013 one would think this not possible anymore.

          I now know why, the West/Israel are petrified of these abject nutters, getting the bomb.

          The young girl just recently getting shot in the head by monkeys wearing night clothes, sound racist? I give a shit.

          And this is the context I am talking about. When a nut case shoots some young girl in the head, calling him a cad, misunderstood, a victim, just don’t cut it.

          He/she is, a homicidal fucking arse wipe.

  14. Just catching up on some reading.

    Great point about Lenny Bruce, Dali.
    I remember being a school girl in my demure tunic and blazer sitting in a girlfriend’s bedroom listening to a contraband record of Bruce.

    He was a revelation. At the time, as much a revelation as Shakespeare was to me!

    He ripped the veil of society’s hypocrisy with foul eloquence. He was never swore as a reactionary protest. He wasn’t trying to prop up some atrophied notion of masculinity. He did not enforce the dominant paradigm he deconstructed it.

    God, that brings back memories, thank you.

  15. Yes, those nervous days, where the war-hardened parents began to observe the rise of changes they weren’t sure of.

    Even Norman Mailer had to use the word ‘fug’ t get his work past the publishers.

    And thank you for bringing back memories of girls in demure tunics and blazers!

    • My pleasure. Meet you on the oval behind the blue light disco. You bring your dad’s hip flask and I’ll bring the flogged durries.

  16. Hiawatha goes to the Bluelight

    Spread out on the grass at the centre of the oval, looking up at the stars and waiting for Sputnik 2 to slide across one more time, wondering out loud if Laika was still alive up there (and silently whether he had ever been more alive down here.)

    Muffled sounds of Bombora from the pavilion, and giggles from the shadows, as he rolls over to try a kiss, only to be caught in the sweep of headlights as a car arrives to rescue a daughter from a fate.

    Settling for another slug of Johnnie Walker to warm them up against the chill, and a Stuyvesant to turn the conversation into foggy smoke signals.

  17. A gentle western wind cools the warm summer air. A flashlight, a cough. Brother Pearl-Feather’s inky shape hovers like an apparition. An ear pulled, contraband confiscated, to be later enjoyed. Minnehaha looks back longingly from the back seat of her dad’s HR. And she dreams and she dreams of cigarette infused lips.

  18. wonderful KB

    Running Bear returns to the Wigwam

    And he lets his mind wander on the long walk home, singing “Long Tall Sally” under his whiskey scented breath and dragging his steps on the dirt for percussion.

    He improvises a detailed confession for Brother P-F for all the things he’d wished they’d done, if she had known what to say and he’d known what to do.

    After school tomorrow, he will take his Lenny Bruce LP round to her place before the mothers get back from the cannery.

    • In grease proof paper, she has preserved one. She takes it from her port and adds it to the two she had planted behind the bottles of Tooths.

      “I need to use the stereogram. I’m turning off Temptation when I’m ready. You want this coconut ice?”

      Cheaply bought.

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