Monday, October 05, 2009

Something beginning with F

Back at boarding school, around 1982, we had an intemperate deputy headmaster known as JA (Not only because those were his initials, but Dallas was on the telly back then so the nickname seemed right). I was a regular in JA's office. I collected the full set of corporal punishment for the times; the whip, the Roman sandal, the slipper, the shoe. Everything but the jam spoon, which had been phased out by the time I arrived.

One moment that shines brightly is the time I got caught telling another kid to bugger off. JA had me in his office under potent cross-examination.

"What did you mean when you told X to bugger off?"
"I wanted him to go away."

JA handed me a dictionary and told me to look up bugger. The dictionary in question was something from halfway around the world, a Concise Oxford or a Collins. No Kiwi slang in this book. It primly described bugger as sodomy. JA had me read out the alleged meaning.

"But that's not what I meant," I defended. "It also means go away."
"Does it mention this definition in the dictionary?" JA's left eyebrow enquired.
"No, sir. But everyone knows what bugger off means."

Common usage be damned, I was duly punished.

But the one time JA really lost his rag was with a kid known as Beans. This intermediate kid had written a colourful love letter to a girl he fancied through a fellow student go-between. The girl, horrified by the lack of poetry, showed the letter to her parents, who then called the school. All hell broke loose.

The whole school was called into the chapel. Twice in one day in the chapel and not a Sunday, it was a bad omen. The usually rather pallid JA was a ripe beetroot colour behind the pulpit, steaming furiously as he watched us all file in and fill up the pews. Once we had all sat down, the doors were shut, lest the matrons hear what came forth.

JA read out the letter in full. "Dear Y, Beans wants to F-U-C-K you," JA began. The word fuck appeared quite often throughout the explicit epistle, and each time the offending word popped up, JA spelled it. It was as if it were somehow sacrilegious to say that four-lettered one syllable word in the chapel.

Now where did us kids get such earthy language? As Brian Edwards points out in his brief history of fuck, we didn't get it from the radio or TV. A brief flick through the history of censorship in NZ broadcasting over the period will put the truth to that point.

The truth did not come from radio. Everything that could be aired on radio had to be strained through the authoritarian muslin. It was pirate radio stations such as Radio Hauraki that had to break that monocone of transmission.

The truth did not come on TV until late in the day. UK TV programs referred to piss and shit as poos and wees. The US had their own form of infantile censorship. Married With Children had a problem with censors over a classic early episode A Period Piece. Al, Peg, Bud, Marcy and Steve go camping and all three women have their period. It leads Al to say:
Well, the cast of Bambi is out there now. And in here we have some of the seven dwarves. Puffy, Crabby and Horny. So, I'd say it's safe to say that this day is shot.

MwC still couldn't say "panties" on national TV. Strangely enough, wanker wasn't considered offensive in the US and featured in later seasons as the home county of Peg's family. That was as good as it got until the late 90s.

The truth did come from comedy LPs. Brian Edwards points to Ben Elton, Billy Connolly and Mike King (all very respectable talents in their days) as harbingers of offensive language. It is tricky to point the finger too narrowly. I found Kevin Bloody Wilson to be grossly hilarious. Same with Austen Tayshus. The most sophisticated swearing LP out there was Hywel Bennett's The English Language.

The truth sort of came from books. Emma Hart at Public Address has a nice backgrounder on that story. I'm amazed at how many gardening books are banned in NZ even now. But we're still a whole lot freer than those crazy Americans. From the age of 12, I've never had a problem getting hold of The Chocolate War, Tropic of Cancer or American Psycho here.

There was truth to be found in the video store. Eddie Murphy's Raw was loosely punctuated with some well-timed fucks. Monty Python's movies were also masters of selective swearing. Withnail & I set the gold standard for the perfect curse with:

"Monty, you terrible cunt!"

But by and large, we got our swearing from our peers, our elders. Swearing is the poor man's medicine after all. Lighten up or bugger off.