Sometimes it can be bloody difficult to make your point. It’s a daily problem for politicians, but the stakes change on the election campaign trail; and as the stakes change, so does the speech.
The 2017 British general election race has brought out quite a bit of unparliamentary language from people standing for election and the people supporting them. But these are rarely slips of the tongue. In fact, British politicians use risqué language for quite specific reasons, particularly ahead of an election.
On May 2, Theresa May kicked off the swearing by saying that Jean-Claude Juncker would find her a “bloody difficult woman” in Brexit negotiations. “Bloody” is commonly considered a swear word, and its use is quite frequent in British English. Though it’s mild (at least as judged by linguist Tony McEnery in Swearing in English, and formerly by the BBC and the Advertising Standards Authority), politicians still wouldn’t want to be caught saying it unscripted in public. But that’s just the thing here – May’s phrasing, though colloquial, was far from off the cuff.
With “bloody difficult woman”, Britain’s prime minister was repurposing a phrase famously used to describe her by Ken Clarke, one of the heavyweight Conservative MPs of the late 20th century. Her use of the phrase therefore says: “If you want me to do the kind of thing that got me here, vote Conservative”. As a particularly British insult it’s therefore effective to use bloody in a context where May might well want to imply that British identity, values and strength need to be protected and emphasised – such as Brexit.
A week after May outed herself as bloody difficult, actress Julie Hesmondhalgh was introducing Jeremy Corbyn at a rally in Manchester. She appealed to voters to vote Labour for “a society that truly gives a toss about stuff”. She described Corbyn as “a man who has dedicated his life to giving a toss about other people”.
This wasn’t the first time she had used the phrase, either. She spoke in the same terms at a rally in 2015. Hesmondhalgh is most famous for a long run in Coronation Street, known for dealing with “real-life” and difficult situations, so many people would see her as someone who might swear in public if the occasion demanded it.
The majority of responders (62%) thought “I don’t give a toss” referred to masturbation. The other option, chosen by 38%, was that it referred to coin-tossing – the idea being that the topic is inconsequential enough that it can be decided by chance.
Telling it like it is
Most recently on May, 14 Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, accused defence secretary Michael Fallon of talking “bollocks” on live TV. “Bollocks” originally meant “testicles” (and was considered standard until the 17th century), but it’s now used to mean “nonsense”, among other things. It was also ruled un-obscene by a UK court in 1977.
Over half the respondents to that BBC/ASA survey thought it was “very” or “quite” severe swearing. Like Julie Hesmondhalgh, Thornberry has form, though not in such a blatant way. Last May she mouthed the same word in the House of Commons while David Cameron was speaking. So it seems as if the episode with Michael Fallon was merely the most public of a number of public uses of this usually un-public word.
Being like us
What conclusion can we draw from these trips into the light by words usually kept in the shadows? It’s worth noting that many other cultures simply would not allow them into public life. The reasons why Americans, for instance, may react more strongly than British people to swearing are too complex to summarise in a brief mention, but maybe it’s partly due to another word for swearing in the US: “cursing”. That’s a telltale sign that there, profanity sometimes retains more of the religious sentiment that originally inspired many ways of swearing everywhere.
In France, slightly differently, many people don’t want to see their serious mainstream politicians as people who swear. As François Fillon found when using the word “emmerder” on the 2017 campaign trail, a French politician is generally expected to rise above the fray, and not show themselves vulnerable to the slights that would drive Monsieur et Madame Untel (France’s Mr and Mrs So-and-so) to profanity.
The people of the UK, though, want their politicians to be grounded. They want them to be like the average person – moved by the same things, affected by the same sorts of problems. And one way they can show that is if they swear (a little bit) like the rest of us. But only a little bit, because in the end Britons do want them to be different enough to be able to solve problems ordinary folks can’t.
That’s why politicians’ swearing is so carefully circumscribed: the public doesn’t want to know that actually they’re just like everyone else, but does want to see that they are just enough like everyone else to appreciate everyday problems. The British people want to know that their politicians give a toss.