Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Fishcakes and coelacanths: how to swear like CMJ and Captain Haddock

I telephoned my wife by accident just before Christmas, having leant on the phone while driving, and left a voicemail that she later played back to me with a fit of giggles.

About 10 seconds of beautiful violin music is heard, punctuated suddenly by a bellow of “indicate, you fucker” as one of London’s many selfish motorists changed direction without thinking to let anyone know. I swear a lot when driving. God knows what my baby daughter is picking up in the back.

Christopher Martin-Jenkins, who died last week, had plenty of misadventures with mobile phones but it is hard to imagine him ever leaving a profane voicemail. One of the delightful repeated references in the tributes paid to him was how creatively unsweary he was. “Fishcakes” was a common euphemism, as was “Captain Carruthers”.

For really bad occasions, he would say “Billingsgate Harbour”, “Bishen Singh Bedi” or “Billy Goats Gruff”. He was also fond of composers. If he ever shouted “Beethoven” things were pretty dire.

And then there was “Fotheringay Thomas”, which I first read in Jonathan Agnew’s tribute in our paper and assumed was an error. “Which **** of a sub-editor didn’t query that?” I probably said in my agricultural way, because, as any fule kno, it was surely meant in reference to Basil Fotherington-Thomas, the school swot in the Molesworth books of the 1950s, right, who is always skipping around saying “hello clouds, hello sky”.

But Fotheringay was how it appeared in all the other tributes and obituaries, so that must have been what he used to say. Odd that CMJ, such a stickler for getting things right, should err a little in his creative swearing.

There is great art in the inventive non-obscenity. The master, of course, was Captain Haddock, Tintin’s crusty companion, who uses 211 different swear words in their 16 adventures together, usually after one too many Loch Lomonds.

“Anthropithecus” is one of many scientific abuses he employs. “Bashi-bazouks”, “Coelacanth”, “Iconoclast”... And then there are the alliterative strings of curses: “Billions of blue blistering barnacles”; “ten thousand thundering typhoons”; “lily-livered landlubbers”.

As someone who grew up on Tintin, I really should have followed Haddock’s lead. There is something quite classy about raiding the dictionary for a good non-offensive swear, which follows on from the minced oaths of yore that were designed to avoid blasphemy such as bloody (by our Lady), egad (Oh God) and zounds (by God’s wounds).

Instead, I tend to eff and blind like a docker, although I have my own elegant variations, usually involving the c word being adjectival (“indicate you c***ing fucker”) or the portmanteau of twunt. I blame my first boss in journalism, the shy and retiring Giles Coren.

Now that my daughter is 2, though, I need to rein it in a bit, otherwise I could have some awkward conversations when she starts school. Instead of calling other motorists fuckers, perhaps they should be philistines; for wanker read Wanamaker; and as for the C word, well there the benchmark has already been set by Test Match Sofa, the amateur online cricket commentary.

Although the Sofa is less sweary than when it started, the language used is still more rustic than the BBC would tolerate. There has always, however, been a blanket ban on calling someone by the most offensive word.

Instead, they use the word Bradman, in the hope that overuse will eventually lead to the great Australian batsman’s name becoming similarly unusable in polite company. “Indicate, you Bradman” will be my new roar of the road. Or perhaps, in extremis, “indicate, you Ponting”.

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