The Courier-Mail – 7 October 1939
A MEMBER of the House of Commons has been asking the Secretary of State for War (Mr. Hore-Belisha) whether he is “aware of the immoderate use of foul language by noncommissioned officers during instruction in certain militia units.”
It has always been a puzzle why the drill sergeant should be allowed greater freedom of speech than other persons in positions of authority.
The theory is, I suppose, that some people can be got to do their best work only if they are belaboured into obedience with bad language.
This theory was put forward a few years ago by a builder’s foreman in Hungary, where swearing had just been forbidden by law.
Applying to the police for a licence “to pronounce oaths and curses,” he declared that he was “unable to get any work out of his men without using strong language.”
If bad Ianguage is so effective a stimulus to work as this suggests, it seems to me that its use should be extended beyond the Army and the building trade.
Why, for example, should school masters not adopt it as a means of encouraging their pupils to scale the heights of learning?
Oaths might take the place of the birch as an instrument of education, and it might be made a part of the training of a teacher that he should learn to swear like a rum-maddened pirate.
If swearing is a promoter of virtue, again, clergymen should surely be encouraged to swear at their congregations from the pulpit. Clergymen sometimes complain of the listlessness of churchgoers. There would be no listlessness among churchgoers, I imagine, if the clergy began to tell them exactly what they thought of them in the most sanguinary language possible.
SUPPOSE, for example, that a clergyman were to address his hearers with the same abusive exuberance as Kipling’s Ortheris addressing a batch of new recruits.
“Well,” said Ortheris, “you are a holy set of bean-fed beggars, YOU are.” “Squidgy, ham-shanked beggars,” he called them, and again, “Bat’s-eyed beggars” and “keb-‘untin’, penny-toy, bootlace, baggage-tout, ‘orse-‘oldin’, sandwich-backed sewerss.”
Is there any reason to believe that language of this kind—and Kipling has made it much milder than the language Ortheris would have used in real life—would be less effective in church than in the barrack-square as a means of bringing home to human beings a sense of their imperfection?
There is, however, a widespread prejudice, reasonable or unreasonable, against the use of strong language. When I was in Toledo several years ago there was, if I remember right, a notice on the city gates: “Begging and blasphemy prohibited.”
Swearing has been forbidden in Lithuania under a penalty of £33 or hree months’ imprisonment. It is said hat the Lithuanians had some remarkable vituperative phrases which had reached them from Russia after having been translated from the Chinese.
There has also been a campaign against swearing in Italy; and it is not many years since the Commander in Chief of the United States Fleet issued m order “that all commanding officers take immediate steps to eradicate the undesirable habit of profane language.”
BAD language is waning, indeed, even in England. There are bargees who declare that in the course of their work they haven’t heard for years a word that would be out of place in a milk bar.
In Billingsgate business is now carried on in language that wouldn’t have brought a blush to the cheek of a Victorian schoolmistress.
Commenting a while ago on the decline of bad language in the Anglo-Saxon world an American Professor of English declared that what was needed was “bigger and better swear words.” “All the swear words now in use,” he remarked gloomily, “are antiquated. Used rarely, and consequently with great effect by Chaucer, they have through frequent use in the last decade become ineffective.”
But the professor, I am afraid, has begun his campaign too late. Bad language was doomed from the moment when writers took it up, and Mr. Bernard Shaw, following the example of Mr. Lennox Robinson, popularised on the stage a word that a generation before would have filled polite ears with horror.
Then the novelists began to sprinkle their pages with bad language, and readers became so used to it that, seeing it in print, they no longer felt he old thrill of the Victorian days when oaths were represented by blanks and villains all talked in blanks like “By G— “ and “— you.”
In those days an oath had a scarcity value. It curdled the blood of the young. But, after the war, swearing became so general that it was said even to have invaded the hockey field.
Whether bad language will ever entirely disappear it is impossible to foretell. It seems likely enough to survive, if the explanation which a doctor has suggested of the cause of swearing s the true one. “Swearing is very interesting psychologically,” he said. “It is often due to shyness. You will find that the man who is given to persistent violent language is nearly always timid.”
I HAD never thought of this explanation before reading it, but—if, as I ‘say, it is true—the best thing for a new recruit in the Militia to do, on hearing himself and his fellow-recruits assailed by a particularly lurid stream of language from the drill-sergeant, would be to say to him quietly: “There’s no need to be so shy, sergeant, we’re only a lot of boys. Don’t be so — scared of us.”
I wonder what the reply of the sergeant would be. Anyhow, I trust that Mr. Hore-Belisha will do all in his power to discourage shyness in non-commissioned officers.
If bargees and Billingsgate porters have ceased to be shy, why should not drill-sergeants be equally successful in overcoming their bashfulness?
After all, even, for those who have leased to be shy there are plenty of words left in the dictionary. I have no doubt the drill sergeants will discover the pick of them.