The Spike: or, Victoria University College Review, June 1924
That Effective Word
That Effective Word
I have never been able to understand the attitude of the English-man towards swearing. Naturally open-minded, he indulges in it with the furtive appearance of a detected criminal. We are an honest race; why, then, this prudishness?—this stuffing of cotton-wool into our ears and talk of "protecting the public"? There seems no edict so absurd to me as this which holds it an offence to allow a policeman to hear what four-fifths of the population are saying every day of the week. Swearing is a relief to the feelings by the use of words sufficiently strong to meet the case. That these words mainly consist of adjectives and nouns is explained by the fact that most strong language is abusive. In the Elizabethan era, at once the most vigorous and vitriolic age in our history, all strong language was abusive. It is conceded that a man may swear to his heart's content, so long as nobody hears him. This is a stupidity worthy of the Saxon. Swearing, like singing, has its pleasure intensified by an appreciative audience. And many men find a keen delight, or at least a humorous wonder, at listening to a really fluent flow of bad language. Anyhow, all of us, solicitor and sergeant-major, swear at times, regardless of policemen.
In literature the movement is towards an intenser life. The Victorian publisher, entrenched behind the barriers of good form, printed D—and H—only when he couldn't avoid it altogether. Now, who in creation ever heard of "H—"? Yet, in Dickens and Thackeray this is amplified over and over again. Mr. Mantalini temporises with "dem," and humbles himself profoundly on the one occasion when he uses the honest English equivalent. And this prudishness is carried over into our own day. Walpole and Henry James would not sully their plays with a really genuine curse-word, more's the pity. But the tradition is dying, though dying hard. "Damn" and "Hell" are not merely spelt out by our younger writers; they are woven into an embroidery of abuse.
Sylvia Scarlett's "Blast the whole bloody world" has its parallel in many passages of modern literature. It is inevitable, for realism is in the air. When Compton Mackenzie delights in introducing us to a landlady whose husband was attendant at an urinal and George Moore must describe his sweetheart in the bath, it is not to be expected that they will stick at niceties of language. Nor have we any right to complain. For if fiction is to be worth the writing, it must give us an approximation of life, and not the sugared imitation of the Victorians. And one of the myths to be destroyed is the language bogey, the notion that men speak as they are made to in Wilde's plays, or that the adjectives "wretched" or "rotten" ever came to a man's lips if his vocabulary included the expression" Bloody awful!"
Alec Waugh has done much towards destroying the schoolboy myth of "bounder" and "blighter," and his "bloodies" and "damn silly little scugs" are much nearer the mark. It is a remarkable thing that most literature concerned with the two sources of bad language—schools and the sea—has been so tame. Marryat, Fenimore Cooper, and Dana have evaded coming to grips with the real issues of their theme. They have striven to obtain their atmosphere by the dexterous use of sails, cordage, and storms, and the page 45 skilful employment of technical terms. Which is as if we could get a prose portrait of a man by elaborating the wallpaper on which he gazed from bed of a morning. One real oath is worth fifty "Main topgallant stay-s'Is."Perhaps Joseph Conrad has been the precursor of the movement towards sincerity of style."The Nigger of the Narcissus" (1897), his third book, abounds in forcible language vividly presented. And the result is a work which consigns Dana and his disciples to the dust-bin.
As for the schools, Dickens' "Dotheboys'" has led to a legion of papers, from the pre-war "halfpenny wonder" to that eminently respectable journal in which Stevenson published his "Treasure Island" and the general impression of the writers seems to be that our college youth does not indulge in swearing at all. This is rubbish, as every old collegian knows. The ordinary language in the college is only one degree removed from the training-camp.
Much might be written of the feminine influence upon our youth, and freed from the peril of the petticoat the lad is in no mood to choose his terms. Even if he arrives a fairly mild youth, he is soon infected by the atmosphere of swear-words and smutty yarns. I neither condemn nor condone him. These things are facts; and it is not the realist's duty to palliate, but to present.
It is in the literature of the realities of military life that we would have sought an approach to the actual, and with the war we have had it. Those products of the five years, "Sapper," Robert Nichols, and Siegfried Sassoon have not been schooled in the niceties of language, and were in no mood to mince matters in the "terrible teens." Sassoon's
"Oh Jesus, send me a wound to-day,
And I'll believe in your bread and wine.
And get my bloody old sins washed white"
is a fair specimen of his frankness. He has not been popular with the authorities in consequence, and the printing by a newspaper of the poem from which I have made this extract led to a prosecution for blasphemous libel. Nichols," the arduous and endurious one," and Robert Graves, the author of" Over the Brazier" and of u Fairies and Fusiliers," are blunt, but scarcely approach the brutal bluntness of Sassoon.
It is characteristic of Kipling that with all his Army jargon and violent language he has not given us one every-day expression of the modern u Tommy."Masefield has been more honest—too honest some people thought before the war years upset all our standards. In the light of more recent writing, the fires of "The Everlasting Mercy" seem to have burned pretty low."You closhy put" is a term of endearment after some of Thomas Burke's Chinatown Tales. Still, all these men have been busy in verse, and it is to the novel that we must turn for our full emancipation. Poetry can but pave the way at best.
The movement now in progress is not merely a revolt against established conventions, it is a plea for plain speech, for a return to truthful and not temporised expressions.
The Elizabethans, overflowing with vitality, have spoken more freely than any other age—in those days there were no policemen. And always a period of national vitality has been reflected in our literature. Our younger men are not afraid to pen a word which would echo in the drawing-rooms. Perhaps the fact dates back to page 46 the lead given by Hubert Crackanthorpe and John Davidson in the early days of the revolt against the meaningless mediaevalism of the Pre-Raphaelites.
"I am a woman as well as yourself and no she-dog," cries Betty, the chambermaid, under the assaults of Mrs. Tow-Wowse, and the scene might be taken as a model by many moderns. Smollett has pointed the way, and I look to such of our younger writers as have not yet been initiated by their elders, and have realised that for the artist there can be no such thing as" good form."