Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The 'F-word'

There are a few words that I'm not comfortable with. The 'N-word' for example. I don't see any reason to tolerate, still less use, racist abuse. I'd find it hard to say, even in the context of reported speech, and I'd draw my own (unflattering) conclusions about anybody using such language (with exceptions for the victims of racial abuse reclaiming such words, or the simple reporting of racist language from the past - you can't learn from history by censoring it).

I don't have such any such principled objections to swearing, but I'm still uncomfortable with it. Just a personal preference and the way I was brought up, I suppose. Obscenities will come out, under extreme provocation but, mostly, I do without. Apart from anything else, endless repetition robs the words of their power and leaves you with nothing in reserve for those, mercifully rare, occasions when a volley of unrestrained swearing really is the only adequate response to some really outrageous situation.

Another of the fringe benefits of of restrained swearing is pain relief. Recent studies suggest that swearing may give relief  from physical pain. But you do have to ration your swearing - the more you swear in everyday life, the less emotionally charged the words become and the less effective swearwords are in reducing pain. I saw somebody demonstrate this effect on telly, in an experiment featuring Brian Blessed and a bucket of iced water, so it must be true.

There's one F-word that I've never, ever been able to force myself to say, though - fiancée. I got engaged a while ago and, all being well, will be married this summer. I'm quite happy with the situation, but the first time I had to refer to my significant other after our engagement, I just couldn't say the F-word and found myself falling back on the tried and tested "partner". I've never yet been able to refer with a straight face - or indeed refer at all - to "my fiancée".

It's not surprising in my case. Self and partner are both well on in our fourth decade, have a school-aged child and have been cohabiting for years, so the term sits a bit oddly, rather like "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" when applied to people beyond a certain age. But even for younger people the word has an odd, archaic ring to it.

First off, it just sounds too la-di-da, like calling a napkin a "serviette". Damn your French fads! At least "partner", sounds practical and down-to-earth. Come to think of it, Peugeot make a van called the Partner, but even the French would have to draw the line at making a commercial vehicle called the Peugeot Fiancée.

Second, The Glums. Post-Second World War Austerity Britain entertained itself by tuning in to Take It From Here, a radio comedy show written by a couple of young iconoclasts called Frank Muir and Denis Norden. The most popular part of Take It From Here was a sketch called The Glums, featuring the misadventures of the desperately perky Eth (June Whitfield) and her gormless fiancé, Ron (Dick Bentley). The Pismotality blog cites David Nathan's book The Laughtermakers: Quest for Comedy to highlight how the show reflected and mocked what was happening to the institution of engagement at the time:

It was about an engaged couple, sending up the relentlessly cheerful families then prevalent on radio, possibly a hangover from the wartime need to maintain morale. The comedy was fairly broad ... but with an undercurrent of reality, reflecting those times when long engagements were a matter of economic necessity.

Sexual intercourse may have begun in 1963, as "Chuckles" Larkin maintained, but accordin' to Norden ... there had already been stirrings in the undergrowth:

 What we ... did … was to send up … family relationships, things that were fairly sacrosanct at the time.

Ron and Eth started from a sketch we did about an engaged couple. We suddenly realised that one of the most hilarious and ludicrous positions to be in was this state of being engaged. It doesn’t apply now. We described it in one of the programmes as driving with one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake. Nowadays it is driving with both feet on the accelerator.

Strangely, there was something very sexual lurking behind it, though it could never be made explicit in those days. But that was what we were on about, that was what we found funny, that state of having to hold back all the time. Frustration. It was possibly the first glimmer of the permissive society struggling to be born. People sort of recognised that if you were engaged the question was why don’t you go to bed together. But one never dared say it, never mentioned it. It was just simply this blind groping, this aching state, the tension.

Of course we weren’t allowed to indicate any of this for a second, but I think it caught the public at a time when they were becoming aware of sexuality.

Ron’s voice was funny, grotesque, June's voice was absolutely true – we knew who she was founded on. There were a lot of cosy family serials and soap operas on the radio, so it was a slight send-up of them too...

... Eth was the sort of girl for whom women’s papers published photographs of ideal kitchens. .. we used to read them just to get the picture of Eth. .. What was extraordinary though was the number of letters we got from girls asking how we knew that when two people are alone they talk like Ron and Eth ... The obvious answer was that your fiancé is a moron, but they didn’t see it like that. They saw him as the ideal fiancé, completely infatuated and dominated by both parents and girl. That was how a fiancé should be ...

Read the whole thing here If you're not familiar with The Glums, the blog post has a link to a later TV recreation of the characters that captures their uniquely grotesque sound (the original recordings aren't readily available on line due to BBC copyright issues, but they're occasionally rebroadcast on Radio 4 Extra). I doubt whether the word fiancé(e) ever recovered from the association with the simpering Eth and her twit of a boyfriend.

Moving from the 1950s to the '60s, the economic conditions that made long engagements a standing joke, eased, but so did the puritanical attitudes towards sex outside marriage. Look at the figures for marriage in Britain and you'll see marriage rates rising in the 1960s presumably reflecting increased prosperity and a decline in long engagements for couples who couldn't afford to get wed just yet. But after the early 1970s the figures go into an inexorable decline (although remarriage rates go up to a plateau that persists into the early 21st Century).

There are probably other factors at work, but the world that came after the 1960's marriage boom was different from the one that had gone before. In the old world, the institution of marriage and its preamble was Not To Be Trifled With (at least for "Respectable" folk). In the early part of the 21st century, nobody bats an eyelid at people cohabiting, or having a child out of wedlock (things unseen and unspoken of by people like my parents). People in the '50s may have laughed at The Glums, but engagement was still seen as the prologue to Something Very Serious Indeed:

DEARLY beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man's innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men's carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.

First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.

Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ's body.

Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity. Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined. Therefore if any man can shew any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace. 

That's telling 'em. Compare and contrast those splendidly thunderous words from the Book of Common Prayer with the more inclusive, less scary (and, frankly, rather drippy) form of language in common use in these more permissive times:

In the presence of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
we have come together
to witness the marriage of N and N,
to pray for God's blessing on them,
to share their joy
and to celebrate their love.

Marriage is a gift of God in creation
through which husband and wife may know the grace of God.
It is given
that as man and woman grow together in love and trust,
they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind,
as Christ is united with his bride, the Church.

The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together
in the delight and tenderness of sexual union
and joyful commitment to the end of their lives.
It is given as the foundation of family life
in which children are [born and] nurtured
and in which each member of the family,in good times and in bad,
may find strength, companionship and comfort,
and grow to maturity in love.

Marriage is a way of life made holy by God,
and blessed by the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ
with those celebrating a wedding at Cana in Galilee.
Marriage is a sign of unity and loyalty
which all should uphold and honour.
It enriches society and strengthens community.
No one should enter into it lightly or selfishly
but reverently and responsibly in the sight of almighty God.

The clergy aren't going to terrify anybody with that. In a world where marriage itself is optional and the language of the marriage ceremony is commonly reduced to a few neutered, inoffensive, feel-good words, stripped of any vestige of awe and majesty, it's no wonder that the word fiancé(e) is being quietly slipped into the drawer where "doily", "antimacassar" and other words too ridiculously quaint to continue existing, are put away to be forgotten.


Tony aka Pismotality said...

Many thanks for mentioning my blog but I'd like to credit David Nathan's The Laughtermakers for most of the material quoted. Published in 1971, it remains an excellent and readable guide to a range of comedians and scriptwriters; the Muir and Norden material is particularly good.

Andrew King said...

Always happy to give credit where it's due - post updated to make sure the book gets a namecheck.