When exasperated, my Dad would merely utter an oddly benign plea against British colonialism. "Lord save Ireland" was his invariable reaction to whacking his fingers with a hammer or dropping an armful of wood. In the swearing department, I have overcompensated for Dad's abstinence.
Growing up in Tasmania, the most offensive insults were not conventional swear words at all. They were in fact much more insensitive epithets. Boys with no skill for team sports were tagged as "girls". Calling someone a "fool" was an insult so heinous as to place you at risk of hell's fires. The first folk I heard characterised as "bastards" were Pommies, in a rueful appraisal of the English nation by Barry Humphries' early creation, Barry McKenzie.
The generation before mine was taught to swear, and smoke, in the army. Many were never cured of either habit. My apprenticeship was postponed until I worked for four years in Old Parliament House. There, unexpectedly, a few of the most grievous insults still did not include swear words. Ridiculing or provoking somebody could be done by addressing animal anatomy or bodily functions. Describing someone as unreliable or untrustworthy involved working out how often they were "in and out of the cat's arse". A Pooh-bah once menaced me by suggesting that he wanted "to rip out [my] eyes and piss in the holes".
Nonetheless, swearing was a badge of tribal loyalty and peer group honour within Old Parliament House. I never heard anyone use the F word as adjective, noun and verb in the one short sentence, as a military truck driver did when advising a general that "the f---ing f---er's f---ed". Frequently, though, people would use that word without any logical thought, humorous intent or grammatical sense The more linguistically gifted among us could deploy "f---" between syllables or as a punctuation mark.
Bad habits still die hard. My son swears volubly and creatively, albeit with one word off-limits. Before he even went to school, Tom announced to his family that he knew the C word. We collectively stamped on him, insisting - sincerely - that that word was taboo in our household. Asked what he thought it was, Tom sheepishly replied: "cheeses and all the bad words". Jesus' name had not been taken in vain, more taken and transmogrified in error.
Gifted mimics and incorrigibly naughty, my grandsons have learned too much from my dirty mouth. At any reunion, the first screen time which they request is always the wonderfully light-hearted New Zealand "bugger" ads. The mongrel dog flicking mud onto a washing line, the tree stump smashing through an outdoor toilet, steers in a stolen ute tartly advising a ram to clear out of their way, all those are certain winners, however often repeated, however tired or distracted the kids.
A linear connection might be drawn between those bugger ads and the grandsons' proclivity for adding "bugger" to the middle of a phrase - sometimes as a point of emphasis, sometimes as an indicator of surprise, and occasionally even as a mark of admiration. A train might sound "too bugger loud", while a school project might take "too bugger long" or prove "too bugger hard". That usage is harmless enough; "too bugger" might be transcribed innocuously as "very".
Surely the coronavirus pandemic obliges us to cut the youngsters some slack. If the sudden, unexpected death of hundreds of thousands of innocent people does not vindicate swearing, what on Earth could? Frustration and anxiety demand an outlet. To encourage creativity, swearing contests could replace poetry slams. The limerick would be the fitting literary form, a brass mug engraved "Bugger Me" the sole prize.
- Mark Thomas is a Canberra-based writer.