NewSouth Publishers, 2020, 314 pp. ISBN: 9781742236636, p/bk, AUD$32.99
‘Oh, that book is for Rachel.’ It was a statement. A bit like ‘it’s started to rain’ or ‘it’s time to put the kettle on’. There were no requests for volunteers. There was no polite squabbling at the allocation desk, it was obvious that I would be delighted to review a book on swearing.
Rooted: An Australian History of Bad Language, by Amanda Laugesen, is an absolutely fascinating social history of swearing. Laugesen has focused her efforts on a country in which people are well known for letting not just the odd curse, but an incredibly diverse* array of words, just ‘slip out’. Sometimes for emphasis, sometimes as part of everyday conversation. Aboriginal Australians have their own bad words (p. 42), but the focus of this work is swearing in English in Australia since 1788. This is the story of how bad language – elegant, ordinary and downright offensive – is entrenched in the modern Australian narrative.
I have some very good friends who I have never heard swear. In contrast, I might swear a little bit too much. For me, fuck is an all-purpose word. Acknowledgement. Dismissal. Exhaustion. Fear. Frustration. Oops. Ouch. Surprise. Thirsty. Triumph. It’s also a very useful piece of punctuation when I can’t decide between a comma and a semi-colon. In 2020, as I really struggled with an overload of technology, muttering ‘fuck it’ became a staple component of my working from home routine. A bit like breathing. I like, too, some of the F-word’s classic variations (fuckwit and fuckwittery are personal favourites). As Laugesen notes: ‘While it is probably hard to argue that we swear more than others, we do our best – and we try to be inventive in the process’ (p. 2).
There are some words that I would never say or put into print. For example, words that are blatantly misogynistic or racist. Some people might use these terms, as Laugesen points out, as acts of reclamation (p. 14), but I think using some words gives them too much power. Or worse, some words can be normalised through usage and so we end up, inadvertently perhaps, rejecting the hurt particular words have caused. It can be as if the most controversial words do not matter, and neither do the people they have crushed.
Of course, all of these words are important, and it is crucial – in a world where communication is routinely identified as an essential skill – that we understand different types of words and their context. Laugesen shares her expertise as a lexicographer to unpack the histories of individual vulgarities and how some of these words, like any fashion, have fallen in and out of favour. Indeed, ‘profanity, obscenity and bad language are never absolutes – what a society considered offensive at one time may be quite different at another’ (p. 3).
One of Laugesen’s most interesting arguments considers swearing as power, and what she refers to as linguistic subversion. The exertion of, and resistance to, power is seen very early on in modern Australia with multiple accounts of insolence focused on how ‘convicts used bad language as a way to challenge authority. Their defiance runs through these insults, even when they were liable to be punished’ (p. 32). Another vital thread in the text is how ideas of language and class run through our history. The language that we use can serve as a label, with bad language deployed to promote but also able to blur the boundaries of a class system imported from England.
So, there are the convicts who were ‘much addicted to swearing’ (p. 21). There are, too, ‘the ‘educated of the middle classes, and many of the upper classes’ [who] were just as likely to indulge ‘in strong and sometimes blasphemous language’ [with some restraint]’ as the working class (p. 112). Also covered are more recent debates about political correctness (pp. 245-48).
If you’re interested in how, and why, many Australians speak the way they do (or you just want to up your linguistic subversion game), then put the kettle on, pick up a copy of Rooted and settle in for a fascinating, and often surprising, history of bad language.
*Laugesen covers a very long list of bad words. If readers can make it through the index in a single sitting, they may never blush again.
Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, December 2020