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On swearing

21st December 2009

Fuck me it’s nearly Christmas. As such I thought I should write a festive blog. Because despite being Jewish (well, Jew-ish), I do love a Christmas. Well, mostly.

But then I thought: why would I write about Christmas? It’s FUCKING BORING. So here’s a blog about something equally close to my heart: swearing.

I grew up in a house where the air was constantly blue. “Fuck this”, “shit it” and “piss off Christo you cunt” were the norm. Comfortable, middle-class swearing it was, swearing as an indicator of education rather than the opposite. The Guardian always prints swear words; The Sun and The Mail **** them out. As Billy Connolly once remarked, “I know at least 127 words, but I still prefer ‘fuck'”.

My dad swore because he thought it was cool. He particularly loved to do it in front of my friends. “Saul, you’re dad’s really funny,” they would say. “I love the way he says ‘fuck’, ‘cunt’ and ‘wee-wee'”. I knew he was just trying to curry favour but I didn’t mind. My mum was a more clandestine blasphemer, but she too knew the power of a timely “shit” or “piss” (I’m talking about the words here). Both liked to swear and both did it well. I in turn have inherited a foul mouth. In that I’m no different from most of my friends.

Saying shit, fuckup, cunt it, toss or anus is a great way to gain attention and punctuate a point. But be careful: too much swearing and you dilute it; too little – or none at all – and people won’t trust you or think you’re a gay. Same with drinking. Men should drink and swear, ideally at the same time. But too much of either and it loses its novelty. A case in point would be the latest series of “The Thick of It”. Just too much swearing. And they all do it, thus reducing the impact of Peter Capaldi’s potty-mouth.

A well-timed swear is like clever shouting. People who say swearing isn’t clever are talking out of their collective anii. Smoking looks cool, and swearing is clever. Accept it you twats! That said, smoking is disgusting up close. I smoked until I was 30 (I’m now 26). Soon after giving up I started dating a Swedish lady who smoked roll-ups. She had a mouth like a dirty bottom. Eugh. And she didn’t even swear.

But I fucking digress. This blog is turning into a hodge-podge, a mish-mash. Luckily it’s my blog and I don’t have to hand it in to a teacher or professor, or submit it to an editor. Which brings me conveniently to my final point. I’ve had my own ‘challenging’ experiences with sub-editors, the people at newspapers and magazines who receive your copy, make the odd change and tailor it for publication. In my early days as a journo a spot of heavy-handed subbing could leave me writhing in my bed or ranting locally in the nude, but I don’t let it bother me anymore.

I’ve always thought the key to avoiding the perils of bad subbing was to become so famous that no one tampers with your copy. But that’s quite an ask. Because even someone as well-known, successful and brilliant as The Times’ Giles Coren still has his battles – as exemplified by this fantastically funny and virally-renowned email to The Times’ sub-editors in the summer of 2008.

(Warning: The following contains swearing, and nuts)


I am mightily pissed off. I have addressed this to Owen, Amanda and Ben because I don’t know who i am supposed to be pissed off with (i’m assuming owen, but i filed to amanda and ben so it’s only fair), and also to Tony, who wasn’t here – if he had been I’m guessing it wouldn’t have happened.

I don’t really like people tinkering with my copy for the sake of tinkering. I do not enjoy the suggestion that you have a better ear or eye for how I want my words to read than I do. Owen, we discussed your turning three of my long sentences into six short ones in a single piece, and how that wasn’t going to happen anymore, so I’m really hoping it wasn’t you that fucked up my review on saturday.

It was the final sentence. Final sentences are very, very important. A piece builds to them, they are the little jingle that the reader takes with him into the weekend.

I wrote: “I can’t think of a nicer place to sit this spring over a glass of rosé and watch the boys and girls in the street outside smiling gaily to each other, and wondering where to go for a nosh.”

It appeared as: “I can’t think of a nicer place to sit this spring over a glass of rosé and watch the boys and girls in the street outside smiling gaily to each other, and wondering where to go for nosh.”

There is no length issue. This is someone thinking “I’ll just remove this indefinite article because Coren is an illiterate cunt and i know best”.

Well, you fucking don’t.
This was shit, shit sub-editing for three reasons.
1) ‘Nosh’, as I’m sure you fluent Yiddish speakers know, is a noun formed from a bastardisation of the German ‘naschen’. It is a verb, and can be construed into two distinct nouns. One, ‘nosh’, means simply ‘food’. You have decided that this is what i meant and removed the ‘a’. I am insulted enough that you think you have a better ear for English than me. But a better ear for Yiddish? I doubt it. Because the other noun, ‘nosh’ means “a session of eating” – in this sense you might think of its dual valency as being similar to that of ‘scoff’. you can go for a scoff. or you can buy some scoff. the sentence you left me with is shit, and is not what i meant. Why would you change a sentnece aso that it meant something i didn’t mean? I don’t know, but you risk doing it every time you change something. And the way you avoid this kind of fuck up is by not changing a word of my copy without asking me, okay? it’s easy. Not. A. Word. Ever.

2) I will now explain why your error is even more shit than it looks. You see, i was making a joke. I do that sometimes. I have set up the street as “sexually-charged”. I have described the shenanigans across the road at G.A.Y.. I have used the word ‘gaily’ as a gentle nudge. And “looking for a nosh” has a secondary meaning of looking for a blowjob. Not specifically gay, for this is soho, and there are plenty of girls there who take money for noshing boys. “looking for nosh” does not have that ambiguity. the joke is gone. I only wrote that sodding paragraph to make that joke. And you’ve fucking stripped it out like a pissed Irish plasterer restoring a renaissance fresco and thinking jesus looks shit with a bear so plastering over it. You might as well have removed the whole paragraph. I mean, fucking christ, don’t you read the copy?

3) And worst of all. Dumbest, deafest, shittest of all, you have removed the unstressed ‘a’ so that the stress that should have fallen on “nosh” is lost, and my piece ends on an unstressed syllable. When you’re winding up a piece of prose, metre is crucial. Can’t you hear? Can’t you hear that it is wrong? It’s not fucking rocket science. It’s fucking pre-GCSE scansion. I have written 350 restaurant reviews for The Times and i have never ended on an unstressed syllable. Fuck. fuck, fuck, fuck.

I am sorry if this looks petty (last time i mailed a Times sub about the change of a single word i got in all sorts of trouble) but i care deeply about my work and i hate to have it fucked up by shit subbing. I have been away, you’ve been subbing joe and hugo and maybe they just file and fuck off and think “hey ho, it’s tomorrow’s fish and chips” – well, not me. I woke up at three in the morning on sunday and fucking lay there, furious, for two hours. weird, maybe. but that’s how it is.

It strips me of all confidence in writing for the magazine. No exaggeration. i’ve got a review to write this morning and i really don’t feel like doing it, for fear that some nuance is going to be removed from the final line, the pay-off, and i’m going to have another weekend ruined for me.

I’ve been writing for The Times for 15 years and i have never asked this before – i have never asked it of anyone i have written for – but I must insist, from now on, that i am sent a proof of every review i do, in pdf format, so i can check it for fuck-ups. and i must be sent it in good time in case changes are needed. It is the only way i can carry on in the job.

And, just out of interest, I’d like whoever made that change to email me and tell me why. Tell me the exact reasoning which led you to remove that word from my copy.

Sorry to go on. Anger, real steaming fucking anger can make a man verbose.
All the best

Merry blinkin’ Christmas one and all.

Saul x