02 November 2021

What's in a word? Is swearing ever acceptable in communications?

Account Director, Max Jewell, shares his thoughts on whether it is ever OK to swear in corporate communications.

The abundance of human excrement was one of the notable features of the First World War. With the average soldier producing almost three pounds of the stuff daily, an ample provision of latrines was vital to prevent the spread of dysentery.

Occasionally, however, the front line troops would find themselves slightly too pre-occupied to dig the make-shift lavatories, leading a certain Major General Shute to 'exclaim with a horrified shout', as A.P. Herbert memorably wrote, that he refused 'to command a division / which leaves its excreta about.'

Those subject to Shute's wrath, the poem continued, 'made haste to reply to his words / advising that his staff of advisers / consisted entirely of turds'. Herbert, who would go on to serve as MP, rounded off the poem with the emphatic refrain, which also captured the feelings of the division:

'For shit may be shot at odd corners

And paper supplied there to suit,

But a shit would be shot without mourners

If somebody shot that shit Shute.'

Though his audience - many of which, like Shute himself, would have clung to Victorian social mores - may likely have blanched at his use of profanity, the presence of 'shit' captures the author's irritation at the Major General with an emphatic economy. The poem would plainly have been diminished, both as a piece of literature and as a reply to Shute, had Herbert replaced the profanity with a more Parliamentary alternative. The cadence would disappear and the lampoon would miss its target.

Whether swearing is acceptable in modern communications is a debate that still rages. Whilst in-post as the deputy editor of The Telegraph, Simon Heffer forbade profanity; David Marsh at The Guardian, however, argued that his readers were adults, and so the sparing use of expletives could be tolerated. That said, a 2012 study found a certain word starting with 'F' graced the pages of the paper 808 times that year.

Both arguments have their merits: swear words clearly incite such profound reactions that they should be used carefully, though this does also allow them to express a strength of feeling often with a single word. They are also universal. As the noted Scottish philosopher Billy Connolly once observed, inviting someone to 'f*** off' transcends borders to an extent that even a monoglot Monk, fiddling with the speaker's bags in Lassi airport, would know exactly where to go when greeted with that 'beautiful pair of words'.

The human interest in verbal transgression is similarly universal, transcending cultural and historical boundaries. Upon completing his famous dictionary, Dr Johnson was visited by a 'group of respectable ladies' who commended him for not having debased himself by including any profanity in his work, only to complimented themselves for having looked them all up. Those excavating Pompei, meanwhile, where perhaps depressed to discover that the graffiti that daubed the walls of the ruined city was, to a letter, profane. Swearing, it might be assumed though, sounds slightly classier in Latin.

Comedian Lenny Bruce certainly did, even trying to evade the censors by performing the more lewd elements of his set in Latin. Bruce made an interesting point, and one that functions as the inverse of Connolly's, namely that swear words - or any words, for that matter - have no essential meaning. Rather, offence was imbued by the hearer, rather than the speaker, a view broadly shared by Derrida. This was not the only thing both men shared, with both being gaoled for their use of transgressive words, though one for his philosophical refusal to stop committing intellectual heresy, and the other for his philosophically refusal to stop saying 'cocksucker' on the radio.

But if Bruce is to be believed, and swear words have no natural meaning, this is actually a strong argument to avoid their use: the power of interpretation is being taken out of the writer's hands and placed into that of the reader. What might have been meant as harmless joke could quickly become a career ending faux pas. Gerald Ratner discovered as much when he compared his company's cut-glass sherry decanters to a pile of manure. And, of course, if Connolly is to be believed, then the universal strength of feeling clearly means that the words should be avoided.

In truth, there are few instances in professional communications where it is permissible to swear, outside of reported speech. Considering audience and tone, as any writer should before setting pen to paper, will reveal few occasions where swearing will add to the piece. Herbert's use of profanity, it must be noted, worked so effectively because, in insulting his commanding officer, he was deliberately transgressing social and military norms. Corporate communications, by contrast, is not intended to have the same effect.

That said, it might not always be the case. As was recently written in Quartz, certain swear words now effectively function as nouns: in Germany, arse has been shorn of its more offensive connotations and is now widely used as a prefix to express pressure (albeit informally). Somewhere ages and ages hence this might become standard for the words we recoil at today, but until we arrive at this point it's best to keep the profanity for the weekend.

Image credit: Adriaen Brouwer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons