Monday, 19 March 2012

Profanity and Nuptials, or, Get Your Hands Off My Language

Mr J has been researching World War I this week. One of the things which has given him most grief is trying to ascertain authentic swear-words from the trenches. We have such a pleasing range today meaning you can take your pick from the blasphemous (“Jesus Christ”) to the whimsically old-fashioned, and thus relatively unimpactful (“bloody thing”). Confusion really arises when you consider our best swearwords (those Anglo-Saxons must have hammered their thumbs a lot). Words like “fuck” and “cunt” can be either deeply offensive or even incredibly amiable, depending entirely upon context.

Paterfamlias J came partially to the rescue with a recording from Old Uncle Harry, made in the ‘70s. On this recording, Uncle Harry had rather quaintly caught himself saying “bloody” and asked if swearing was OK. We took that to mean that, to an essentially Edwardian man like Uncle Harry, “bloody” was quite a rude word.

As an aside, poor Uncle Harry had been frustrated in his chief ambition of shooting his superior officer in the head by a fellow soldier who had jumped in and threatened to do it first. His verbal self-censorship was the only blip in a fully-flowing narrative involving plentiful accounts of gassing, carnage and death, so it wasn’t that he lacked the stomach for grim reality.

Some suggest the origin of the adjective “bloody”, used in an expletive context, is a corruption of ‘By Our Lady” which would make it blasphemous. It certainly seems that at religious times, invocations of God and his cohorts were the most serious variety of verbal outburst.

Conversely, Mr J. says it seems that the word “fuck” was used so casually in the trenches that it was only its omission which panicked people. If you were told to pick up your gun, you knew that someone was short of the time to get the intensifier “fucking” in there, and that the situation was formal and serious.

So we can see that words have changed over the years, and that this trend is intimately connected with the zeitgeist – the ‘concept-soup’ in which we mentally swim; our intellectual, emotional, cultural agar.

Blasphemous swears have become less serious for many of us, because religion does not have the same influence over our lives.

English is a pervasive language in the world. This is, no doubt, because of the country’s ardour for empire at a certain critical point in history. I’m sure there are good and bad things to be said for this spread of the language (and I can take neither blame nor credit, having sprouted from the gene pool, but not having been actually there).

But I’d propose that having English as your first or second language is a cool thing because it’s so avowedly and proudly evolving. We do not have the equivalent of L'Académie Française (whose pronouncements are not, and cannot be, binding in any case), standing like an etymological Cnut against a tide of reality. If you don’t know that “wicked” can mean cool, awesome or impressive, you’re just either old or you don’t get out enough.

In short, if enough people use it in a certain way, it gets into the dictionary. The rules are dictated by the useage, and the useage changes. This is a good thing.

Take the word “marriage” as another example. In medieval times, Canon law accepted that people could be married by their declaration towards each other. In practice, the landed and wealthy needed firmer contracts than that because of the money and power at stake. But no doubt, many simpler folk simply took up with each other, sans clergy or witnesses to bless their arrangement. ‘Common Law Marriage’ a.k.a. staying together ‘til you’re too exhausted to escape, was common throughout Europe.

This changed during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation where both sides seemed to want things formalised. The Catholic Church required that a priest and witnesses be present for a legal marriage, This was during one of the meetings of the interminable Council of Trent (nearly two decades, in case you were wondering – I think they let people out for sandwiches and the loo). In England, we had Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act which did a similar thing about a century later.

Today, marriage also doesn’t have to be a religious ceremony. In the UK, the marriage must be conducted by a person, or in the presence of a person, authorised to register marriages.

In practice, this means that if you go to the local Anglican Church, the vicar may have the relevant certificate; if you go the registry office, you’ve definitely got a one-stop-shop; if you go the local Wiccan group you’ll need a space blanket for later (those people keep taking their kits off in the moonlight) and a visit to the registry office to make it all official. At my brother’s wedding they had the Catholic priest to do the religious bit and the registrar to do the official paperwork bit.

The practice of marriage, as well as the formalities validating its creation, has changed a great deal. In medieval times, people married very young, no doubt so they could produce children before they expired of pillage, plague or starvation (or childbirth, paradoxically). One of my favourite historical characters, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was first married at the ago of 13 or 15 – both under-age by current reckoning. Plenty married younger.

A cursory look at the dynastic marriages of the nobility also shows that a woman’s consent was not particularly necessary. Aristocrats and social climbers would throw their daughters at men higher above them in the social hierarchy. Girls weren’t encouraged to think that they had a say in the matter. Because they didn’t.

This is another reason I like Eleanor of Aquitaine. She managed to get an annulment from her first (and unhappy) marriage to the King of France and arrange a new one with a bloke she fancied – the man who would become Henry II. The physical journey after her divorce and before her new marriage, incidentally, speaks of a woman flying like the wind to avoid dynastic rapists, men who would have grabbed her and violated her in order to be the new master of her lands, possession being nine-tenths of the law and all that.

Which leads on to another massively changed nuance of marriage: in most places, marriage meant that a man could force his spouse to have sex with him. Rape within marriage was a contradiction-in-terms. The phrase “irrevocable consent” was often used in this context (it has other legal applications too).

Famously, Sir Matthew Hale pronounced in 1736 that a “husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract”.

So we can see that words change over time and that that is a useful thing. We can also see, with even a cursory look (and this is just stuff I can think of off the top of my head – perhaps you can tell), that the concept of marriage itself has changed considerably. I haven’t even gone into all the historical invocations not to marry for love or lust, the increasing romanticism during the 18th and 19th centuries.

So, we’re happy with words that evolve. We’re also happy with the many, many changes that history has brought to our meaning of marriage (anyone for the legal rape of a 12 year old, given by her father to a thirty-year old? – thought not).

So why are so many people distressed that the term may now come to encompass the union of gay couples? The government’s plans to legalise gay marriage has met with howls of protest from religious groups, religious groups who are trying to both determine useage of a word that belongs to us all, and to claim that “marriage” has meant one thing since its inception.

Religious bodies will not be required to provide gay marriages. They are not the legal authorities over marriage except in countries like Saudi Arabia. Neither do they have provenance over the way we use our words.

It is inhumane to deny gay couples equality. I never want to hear another religous apologist tell me that their beliefs are primarily about ethics ever again.