“Mary is a bich”. These words were daubed on the gable wall of an end-terrace house where I used to live. Sprayed in small, hesitant lettering, it was the kind of thing one could easily miss. In fact, I think the only reason I saw it was that I going round the back alleyway, bringing the wheelie-bin in through the back yard following collection day. “Did you see the gable wall?” I asked K. when I got inside. “What, Mary is a bich?” he said giggling, “it’s been there for weeks”. There is nothing quite like a bit of mindless, misspelt graffiti – as long as it is harmless. I suggested that maybe it was a statement of love, and the graffiti ‘artist’ actually thought Mary was a ‘dish’. Maybe the messenger had consonant dyslexia. K. told me there wasn’t such a thing as consonant dyslexia, he was pretty certain that poor Mary wasn’t popular around these parts. It got me wondering, how you can come to use a swear word and yet not be able to spell it. I’ve concluded that the answer is: quite easily.
L. told me about her 2 year-old grand niece who came to stay. Little S. is beautiful, energetic, effervescent, and sponges up words with the vigour of a Dyson V8 sucking up dog hair. L. was in the kitchen, door open, while the little angel was in the adjacent room, supposedly playing with her toys. Suddenly L. heard a spirited two year-old voice clearly articulate the words, “Oh F… it!”. L. paused, and continued to unload the dishwasher, in denial. “Oh F… it!” came the sweet tones of exasperation again. L. slipped into the room to find the child pointing the remote control at the television, pressing the buttons, but unable able to switch it on, and discharging a perfectly timed profanity. She had learned the perfect response for non-responsive technology…… the perfect response for a jaded forty-something!
Then there is a little boy I know in Donegal. He was swearing fluently by the age of four. His parents were not overly concerned, he was going to get there eventually, they told themselves, but he’d just reached a level of linguistic effortlessness a few years too early. His father suggested a particularly offensive swear word might be substituted with the word ‘bungalow’. Never had I head the word bungalow brandished about with such venom! “How come he knows the f-word and its precise application and yet he’s never come across the word bungalow?” I asked his father. “Don’t know. It’s working though, so just leave it.”
Swearing is cultural in Donegal, I’m told. Acceptable, to a degree, in many other parts of Ireland too. When I first worked in Dublin, 15 years ago, I was aghast at the profligate use of swearing around meeting tables. I soon learned the rule; as long as it was not angry swearing, it was quite alright. Rule of thumb: use the F-word in humour, for emphasis in a story, even to express admiration – but never, ever should it be used in anger or to belittle.
And so, back to my friend L. and the two year-old sailor-in-training. She was genuinely perplexed as to how the child could have expanded her vocabulary in this direction. “Well, she didn’t get it off the back stone”, I told her. “I don’t even know what that means,” she sighed at me, “but it doesn’t sound particularly helpful.” No, I suppose it wasn’t. What I meant was, that her parents must have been reading poetry to one another, probably one by sweary Philip Larkin, whose parents clearly dropped a few choice words in front of him in his youth.
‘This Be The Verse’, by Philip Larkin
“They f*** you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.”