Comedians Peter Cook (1937 - 1995, left) and Dudley Moore (1935 - 2002) as 'Derek and Clive' (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

In defence of traditional swearing

And against the cult of “cockwomble”

Artillery Row

Warning: this article features a number of words and terms which some readers may find offensive. 

As it happens, I have been offended frequently myself lately — by a growing trend for replacing traditional expressions of anger, aggression or exasperation with neologisms. 

The British Council really ought to step in

I am speaking of terms like fuckpuffin, spunktrumpet, shitgibbon, but, most of all, by the undisputed king of the new pseudo swear words, cockwomble.

Cockwomble’s origins are hard to pin down. There are earlier examples of compound swear words from overseas: the American dickwad, the (I think) Australian fuckwit. They weren’t a significant phenomenon here until around five years ago when cockwomble first began to circulate.

Since then its popularity has grown and grown. Just last week it was trending on Twitter, apparently in relation to Matt Hancock. In fairness, Hancock probably does embody the qualities suggested by the expression better than any other living person. 

That exception doesn’t excuse its proliferation: cockwomble has now begun to be picked up overseas and celebrated as an example of our native humour. The British Council really ought to step in and disassociate the nation from this awful expression.

My problem with cockwomble isn’t so much that it’s vulgar, but that it’s not vulgar enough. The addition of the completely innocuous womble to what is already one of our tamer core swear words, serves to neuter it to the point where it’s almost entirely inoffensive, even twee. The fictional furry creatures from Wimbledon have absolutely no place in meaningful swearing. Swearing shouldn’t be nice; it should be the preserve of the slightly scary: the docker, the builder, the fishwife, the public rather than saloon bar. Swearing should be a little bit dark, dangerous, even underground. It should certainly not be underground, overground. 

I recently read one of the later books in the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series, By The Shores of Silver Lake, in which a running theme is Ma’s concern at the salty language her girls might hear in the presence of navvies building a railroad across the West. This evokes what swearing is meant to achieve: it should be properly improper, unfit for well-brought-up ears. If you add wombles, puffins or trumpets, even if you liberally coat them in spunk, you still lose that sense at a stroke. 

Instead you are into the cutesy territory of Hugh Grant in Four Weddings saying “fuckety fuckety fuck, or Stephen Fry calling The Da Vinci Code “arse-gravy”. Even worse than this is making vulgarity whimsical. See Victoria Wood (I know she’s widely revered but, I’m sorry, it simply makes me cringe) singing: “Beat me on the bottom with a Woman’s Weekly”. 

These are words that no adult should ever utter

This stuff in turn is barely a notch up from the very worst words in the English language, infantilised offence-avoiders: “boobs”, “willy” and “poo”. These are words that no adult should ever utter, even to a toddler. 

I tell you who had it right: Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, as their characters Pete and Dud. In their classic “This bloke came up to me sketch, they used a veritable smorgasbord of swear words — all simple, classic, almost elegant. Not a womble in sight. 

In my younger days, I can remember a period when the forerunners of what we now call the woke made a concerted attempt to render cunt socially unacceptable. It was, the argument went, misogynistic to cite a female body part as something offensive. I felt some sympathy with this view, and I don’t think I used the word at all from about 1984–1993. Eventually I realised that I was apparently the only person left in Britain still complying and that even feminists seemed to be using it with abandon.

Just last year The Guardian printed a joke based on the term: “On Saturday you published a photo of the UK prime minister above a headline ‘A dangerous cult now runs Britain’,” wrote reader Tony Mabbott. “I was pleased to see that, despite the constant turmoil of the modern world, some things, such as The Guardian’s famed penchant for typos, never change.” A neat line, but one that would have been unthinkable forty years ago when the paper was leading the assault on the c-word. 

Fuck, the king of the English language swear words, perhaps the greatest word in the language, never had such problems, of course. It’s a supremely democratic word because anyone can fuck anyone else. We are also regularly encouraged to go and fuck ourseves, at least if we regularly drive or cycle. 

But back to wombles. I spoke to the greatest living authority on the loveable litter-pickers, Mike Batt, who wrote and performed the Wombles’ spin-off series of seventies pop hits. I thought I’d find an ally but, to my surprise, Mike turned out to be a fan of the cockwomble phenomenon. “I don’t know where it came from but I rather like it,” he told me. “I think calling someone a cock is a bit blunt; but if you add womble, it softens it and gives it a bit of wit. I don’t mind it at all.”

Mike and I must politely agree to disagree on this. Because my message to the new, cutesy swearers remains: you’re not a cockwomble, you’re just a soppy twat.

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