Photo by Dimitri Otis / Getty

Don’t mind your language

There is bugger-all to celebrate. So create a rich vocabulary of despondency

Fuck it — the fucking fucker’s fucking fucked the fucker.”


Anthony Burgess claimed to have heard this alliterative jewel issue from the gob of a squaddie working on a Jeep. He further claimed to have used it as a teaching tool in the Army Education Corps. Interjection. Adjective. Subject noun. Adverb. Past participle. Object noun.

Paul Fussell had it from a Canadian folklorist who said he had heard an aircraft mechanic in full flow. He sprayed on local colour: a Wellington bomber, a magneto, a misty Scottish airfield. His “Fuck it — the fucking fucker’s fucking fucked” evidently has a different, objectless meaning. The magneto is fucked.

In Burgess’s version the first fucker is the Grease Monkey who has fucked the second fucker, which is the magneto or carburettor or solenoid. Given Burgess’s protean imagination, the precise composition was fluid. Burgess and Fussell took in earnest what the lexicographer Eric Partridge rather primly called “unconventional English”.  The speakers whom they record, or maybe invent, spout words rather than analyse them.

All are at war, users and analysts. The former don’t think before they speak and are enjoined to continue not to think — for every curse, every invocation of genitalia, every fervid expression of blasphemy, every racial denigration, every calumnisation of the collective other (sex, creed, cult, party, colour) is the raw material of scholarship, grist to lexicographic and polemical mills.

War is especially propitious. It foments joyously expressed disgust: “the syphilitic prick of the British grenadier”, a disgust which is tainted with threat. It mocks the niceties of hierarchy: GOPWO for instance (Grossly Overpromoted Warrant Officer).

It prompts such constructions as “officers’ groundsheet” — jocular 75 years ago, probably criminally sexist and misogynistic today. It produces such knowing euphemisms as “vivandière”. The many expressions, neologisms and nonce words born of belligerence and press-ganged subsistence are linked by a lack of the mandatory balm of this thin-skinned age — “respect”, which means taking everyone at his own estimate and tolerating the intolerable. Jonathon Green, who has long since superseded Partridge, not least because he is unsqueamishly gung-ho, writes in the introduction to his Sounds & Furies that slang is not “woke”. Since this engrossing doorstop was published some months before the corona lorry driver was revealed to have a scythe in the cab he wasn’t obliged to consider how “wokeness” would be affected by what Emmanuel Macron dubiously calls “war” and the controls it inflicts.

War has hitherto spelt enforced collectivity, enforced proximity, the ill-matched platoon where the brawn bullies the bookish: Sartre’s “l’enfer, c’est les autres”. But not so fast. What he intended was that the hellish thing about others is that their conception of ourselves infects our own conception of ourselves. We are dependent on others, we live through others. And can’t do much about it, although we should.

Pascal: “All human misery comes from a single cause — not knowing how to exist peacefully in our room.” We’re going to have to get a grip even if this particular thought is a bit sweeping. The misery comes from not being able to get out of that room. I wonder if he really found taking pleasure in solitude incomprehensible: for most writers it’s a condition of the job.

A profound, ever distending gamut of frustrations is going to creep up on millions of disgruntled people obediently suffering cabin fever whilst waiting to discover if they are to be selected for Deep Anaesthesia. It’s akin to prison without hard drugs and the robust loving of your new multi-gendered multiply-pierced friend from the neighbouring cell. Among the expressions of those frustrations will be numberless coinages that will, out of shared experience, comprise a lexicon of desperation, self-preoccupation, self-abuse, research into ourselves, of making inventories of the minutiae of our surrounds.

The censorious piety of “wokeness” will very likely wither. “Wokeness” is exaggeratedly utopian. It’s a prescriptive attempt at fairness, equity, perfection and optimism: so it’s doomed to fail. It doesn’t acknowledge that the world is not made that way. “Wokeness” does not represent what exists. It posits an ideal which, ipso facto, is unattainable. The lexical store of the actual (always far from ideal one way or another) will be augmented by the verbal creativity of the state’s prisoners.

Banged up together, persons of both sexes (there are no others) will discover, as Green and his partner Susie Ford demonstrate, that low-level verbal creation is actually not low-level and is, further, an area of endeavour which is not exclusive to “those animals called men” (as Jeff Bernard called us, sans quotes). Bints, chicks, dollymops, molls, heifers and hundreds of other appellations were at it too, boasting: mouths are made for more than plating, apparently.

The circumstances of this war, whose protagonist is as untouchable as miasma and whose deuteragonists are suffering once again the life of teens seething because they’re CB (formerly Confined to Barracks, more recently Confined to Bedroom), are likely not to be repeated in this century. There is bugger-all to celebrate. So create a rich ripe vocabulary of despondency, loneliness, circumscription and sexual equality as potent as that of World War Two and share it as it is made.

Use the virtual, don’t succumb to it. And remember that that which is anointed as vulgarly ephemeral will last for decades if not centuries. It will certainly outlive the constraints placed up on it by Modern Bowdlers. Language endures because it is vital, not because it is moral.

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