When Boyz II Men sang “I swear”, romantic girls swooned. But these plaintive words make me shudder, and not just when they’re crooned on X Factor. Invariably “I swear to you” precedes an unwelcome admission. The swearer isn’t arguing: oh no, the heirloom is broken, and yes, the plane tickets are in his briefcase. At home. But he swears he didn’t mean to. And if I doubt his word, he is entitled to be angry with me. Devious, isn’t it?
Emotional manipulation is just one of swearing’s powers. Whatever you tell your mother, I bet you love letting rip, but don’t care to be sworn at. What is troubling isn’t simply the limited vocabulary of whoever is cursing, which suggests that violence may ensue. Swearing disturbs an antique thing called honour.
Once, swearing invoked magic. The word derives from an Old English word for ‘answer’, because it was part of an exchange. Devotees of Sulis, the goddess at Bath spa, would hurl curses, inscribed on pewter or lead, into Sulis’s spring, begging her to melt the eyes of the rotters who had stolen their boots. Like the coins we toss into wishing wells, these were bribes, hoping for answers. Equally, to plight your troth (pledge your truth) made you answerable for your promise. If not, your good name would be lost.
‘Son of a bitch’ still impugns somebody’s honour, not to mention his mum’s. Unless he answers back, with word or fist, he’s the loser. Such vendetta logic makes an-eye-for-an-eye sense, but ends only when there’s no honour left to be redeemed, i.e. one side is dead. That’s why an entire Corsican clan bought it over a disputed chestnut tree. And that’s why civilisation favours virtues like forgiveness, which ask us to answer not to our honour but our conscience.
Today shame and magic are as unfashionable as vows, and potty mouth is a term of endearment. While gangs pursue honour, the rest of us bang on about self-esteem, and swear to nobody in particular, to vent out frustration. We don’t fear, like our grandparents, that it will turn the air blue, let alone blacken our name, or bother the gods. It’s a shame, because the magic of swearing was that people took their words seriously.