“A Pet-Vice among us”: Swearing in the Eighteenth Century
© Erin Parker2008
Debates about swearing during the eighteenth century take place within a culture that was nearly obsessed with creating standards for “proper and polite speech” and relegating both vulgar language and its speakers to the margins (Beal 170). However, it is hard to bracket off swearing from refined speech when almost everyone seems to do it. This paper explores both the connection between swearing and class in the eighteenth century and the relationship between coarse language and gender. Was swearing really a “vulgar” habit or did foul language spread beyond and threaten to collapse class boundaries? Was the tendency to curse a masculine trait or, as Richardson’s Clarissa declares, an “unmanly vice” (396)? What can the entries for swear words in eighteenth-century dictionaries tell us about the contemporary views of gender and class? Ultimately, this paper will argue that swearing was, and remains to this day, a controversial topic which resists easy classification.
Swearing as “Vulgar” Habit: Cursing and the Lower Classes
Every time we refer to swear words as “vulgarity” or use the expression “curse like a sailor,” we associate the habit of swearing with the lower classes. This connection was also made repeatedly during the eighteenth century. Edward Ward, in his Satyrical reflections on clubs, devotes a chapter to a group named “The Surly Club,” whose members come together on a regularly basis to practise their swearing. Telling his readers about the nature of those who belong to “The Surly Club,” Ward lists only the poor: “This Wrangling Society was chiefly Compos’d of Master Car-men, Lightermen, old Billingsgate Porters, and rusty Tun-Belly’d Badge Watermen” (62). The link between swearing and poverty is further reinforced by the creation of another name used to designate coarse language. Just as cant was treated as a separate tongue and sometimes referred to as “Pedlar’s French, or St. Gile’s Greek,” so too did foul language become detached from more proper speech (Grose ii-iii); it came to be known as “Billingsgate Language” or simply “Billingsgate.” This term locates swearing in one of poorest regions of London, where it could be bracketed off from the more genteel areas of the city. Both Samuel Johnson and Francis Grose list Billingsgate in their dictionaries. Johnson brands it a “cant word, borrowed from Bilingsgate in London, a place where there is always a croud of low people, frequent brawls and foul language” and he defines it, more succinctly, as “Ribaldry; foul language.” The derogatory nature of the word is further revealed in the Pope quotation selected by Johnson: “There stript, fair rhet’rick languish’d on the ground, / And shameful billingsgate her robes adorn.” Grose briefly defines Billinsgate Language as “foul language, or abuse” and adds that “Billinsgate is the market where the fish women assemble to purchase fish, and where in their dealings and disputes, they are somewhat apt to leave decency and good manners a little on the left hand.” Ultimately, the codification of a word like Billingsgate serves only to reinforce the association between poverty and swearing and to create more biases towards the lower classes.
A Beastly Vocabulary: Swearing and Animals
Some writers even go so far to label cursing subhuman. Edward Ward uses animal terms to describe the candidate who hopes to become a member of the “The Surly Club”: “He that could put on a Countenance like a Boatswain in hard-Weather, and Growl and Snarl like a curst Mastiff over a Bullocks Liver, was a Member fit for the Thwarting Society” (63). In a decidedly less playful tone, Collier, who viewed swearing on the Restoration stage as a coarse habit, also compared the foul-mouthed actors to animals. Bad language, he claimed, “does in effect degrade Human Nature; links Reason into Appetite, and breaks down the Distinctions between Man and Beast. Goats and monkeys, if they could speak, would express their Brutality in such Language as this” (McEnery 85). Of swearing, Defoe similarly remarks in his Essays upon several projects that “Words without [sense], are only Noise, which any Brute can make as well as we, and Birds much better; for Words without Sense make but dull Musick” (244). The connection between animals and swearing is made even clearer by versatile words like bitch, which serves as a reference to the “female … dog” as well as a derogatory term for a woman, and ass, which can denote both “a beast of burden” and “a dull, stupid fellow” (Ash).
George Colman, who goes by the pseudonym Mr. Town, takes further liberties with the notion of the bestial nature of swearing in The Connoisseur¸ a periodical styled after the The Spectator or The Tatler, when he pictures an imaginary world in which beasts are held accountable for human crimes. One of the “whimsical” scenarios he describes has particular relevance for us:
A PARROT was next tried for Scandalum Magnatum. He was accused by the Chief magistrate of the city, and the whole court of Aldermen, for defaming them as they passed along the street on a public festival, by singing “Room for cuckolds, here comes a great company; room for cuckolds here comes my Lord Mayor.” This PARROT was a very old offender, much addicted to scurrility, and had been several times convicted of prophane cursing and swearing. He had even the impudence to abuse the whole court by calling the Jury rogues and rascals, and frequently interrupted my Lord Judge in summing up the evidence by crying out, Old Bitch. The court however were pleased to shew mercy to him upon the petition of his mistress, a strict Methodist, who gave bail for his good behaviour, and delivered him to Mr. Whitefield, who undertook to make a thorough convert of him. (Connoisseur Number XII, April 18, 1754)
Do any of the so-called lower animals exhibit behaviour that may in any way be regarded as akin to swearing? The snarling of dogs and other animals may appear to resemble swearing,… [but it seems] to serve as a warning, a caution to others, that it is dangerous to proceed further, rather than a frustration-aggression relief mechanism…. In short, it is greatly to be doubted whether any man other than man swears. (78)
Swearers, therefore, are not savages, but rather humans whose vocabulary is a testament to the evolution of the species instead of its bestial nature.
“‘Tis not like a Gentleman to Swear”: Cursing and the Upper Classes
Despite its “low” and “subhuman” reputation, swearing was a habit frequently taken up by people belonging to the higher ranks as well. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Sir Francis Grant laments that “many dare reckon it Breeding to Swear, [and] Gallantry to be Lewd” (qtd. in Montagu 201). Libertines were often the worst offenders. As Peter Hyne notes, Richardson’s Lovelace and his crew of rakes are known for their swearing. From the beginning of Clarissa,
attention is drawn to Lovelace’s habit of cursing his servants (72), and he rarely sends off a letter without the inclusion of some more or less tingling expletive…. Lovelace’s fellow rakes are no better than their chief: Mowbray, in fact, is credited with having taught Lovelace to swear excessively (1146), and even Belford, the most humane of the group, must be lectured by Clarissa on the inutility of oaths (1071). (Hyne 311)
Nor was there a shortage of upper-class swearers in real life; Rochester, a rake made of flesh and blood, was among the notorious ones. Indeed, Rochester displays his coarse vocabulary in his famous poem, “The Imperfect Enjoyment,” where the speaker refers to his penis as a “common fucking post, / On whom each whore relieves her tingling cunt / As hogs on gates do rub themselves and grunt” (63-5). For rakes, swearing serves as the verbal complement to their sexually licentious behaviour and profane lifestyle.
However, critics such as Mr. Town hear bad language come from “polite” mouths and still blame the poor as the source of this vice. Moreover, Colman believes that swearing is bad because it causes wealthy gentlemen to resemble their servants; cursing destabilizes social hierarchies:
As there are some vices which the vulgar have presumed to copy from the great; so there are others which the great have condescended to borrow from the vulgar. Among these I cannot but set down the shocking practice of Cursing andSwearing: a practice, which (to say nothing at present of it’s impiety and profaneness) is low and indelicate, and places the man of quality on the same level with the chairman at his door. A gentleman would forfeit all pretensions to that title, who should chuse to embellish his discourse with the oratory of Billingsgate, and converse in the style of an oyster-woman: but it is accounted no disgrace to him, to use the same coarse expressions of Cursing and Swearing with the meanest of the mob. For my own part, I cannot see the difference between a “By Gad,” or a “Gad dem-me,” minced and softened by a genteel pronunciation from well-bred lips, and the same expression bluntly bolted out from the broad mouth of a porter or hackney-coachman. (Connoisseur Number CVIII, Thursday, February 19, 1756)
Betraying his worry that swearing like the “mob” will degrade the gentleman, Mr. Town’s lecture reveals just how tenuous class distinctions are. After all, if the gentry and the peasants share a vocabulary, how different can they be? By claiming that swearing has been a “vulgar” habit from the start, Mr. Town tries to safeguard the gentry’s reputation for being naturally more polite, but he manages to introduce a new problem: what does it mean if gentlemen, however unconsciously, deem the behaviour of peasants and beggars to be worth copying? Mr. Town neglects to give an answer or even pose the question, but nevertheless it is clear the real problem with gentlemen swearing is not just the personal humiliation it causes but also the threat it poses to the stability of the upper classes as a whole. In his concerns about the vulgar speech of the wealthy, Mr. Town is not alone. Defoe’s Colonel Jack also features a scene in which Jack overhears a swearing gentleman being chastised by a merchant:
Sir, says he, ‘tis pity you that seem to be a fine Gentleman, well bred, and good humour’d, should accustom your self to such an hateful Practice; why ‘tis not like a Gentleman to swear, ‘tis enough for my black Wretches that work there at the Furnace, or for these ragged, naked Black Guard Boys, pointing at [Jack], and some others of the dirty Crew that lay in the Ashes; ‘tis bad enough for them, says he, and they ought to be corrected for it too; but for a Man of Breeding Sir, says he, a Gentleman! It ought to be look’d upon as below them, Gentlemen know better, and are taught better, and it is plain you know better; I beseech you Sir, when you are tempted to swear, always ask your self, is this like a Gentleman? Does this become me as a Gentleman? (61)
Like Mr. Town, the merchant believes that swearing is a habit which better suits a “dirty Crew” of labourers than a “Man of Breeding” and he tells the gentleman to correct his behaviour out of respect for his class. The novel leaves the reader doubting whether the gentleman will reform, but Jack, who vows never to swear again, hears the lecture loud and clear.
Mr. Town and Defoe’s merchant may not notice the difference between the coarse language of a gentleman and the vulgar speech of the help, but Jonathon Swift certainly does. In Polite Conversation, he celebrates the lord’s talent at cursing, while deeming the servant’s oaths mediocre at best: “A footman can swear; but he cannot swear like a lord. He can swear as often: But, can he swear with equal delicacy, propriety and judgment? No, certainly; unless he be a lad of superior parts” (18). Whereas Mr. Town and Defoe are troubled by the notion that swearing causes gentlemen to resemble the mob, Swift maintains that they differ in quality; he makes his argument not by denying that the lord swears but rather by bragging that the gentleman is better at cursing than his servant. To what degree Swift is serious in his praise remains unclear to this critic at least, but his remarks do recall a passage in The Tatler, in which Richard Steele celebrates the “High” variety of swearer who “affects a sublimity in dullness, and invokes ‘Hell and damnation’ at the breaking of a glass, or the slowness of a drawer” (qtd. in Montagu 205). Steele’s “High” and “Low” categories do not explicitly reflect the class of the swearer; however, like Swift, he also seems to marvel at the creativity of the man who curses well, while pretending not to condone it.
In The Polite Conversation, Swift appears to favour the cursing gentleman, but the Dean targets both rich and poor in his ‘modest’ proposal to create “The Swearer’s- Bank” in hopes of transforming the country’s bad habit into great profits. However, Swift does note that the swearers with the deepest pockets stand to lose the most, “for a Shilling is so great a Duty on Swearing, that if it was carefully exacted, the common People might as well pretend to drink Wine as to Swear; and an Oath would be as rare among them as a clean Shirt” (Bank 11), whereas there are hundreds of gentlemen who could “afford to Swear an Oath every day” (Bank 6). Coarse language is so plentiful that Swift even “dare[s] venture to say, if this Act was well executed in England, the Revenue of it applied to the Navy, would make the English Fleet a Terror to all Europe” (Bank 6). Ultimately, the literature of the period serves as a testament to the fact that swearing was a habit taken up by members of all classes.
To Swear or Not to Swear: Eighteenth-Century Dictionaries
Although swearing could be heard all over town and read in plenty of books, that does not mean coarse language was officially tolerated. During the eighteenth century, dictionaries varied in their treatment of foul language. Samuel Johnson, for one, neglected many bad words completely and “branded [others] with some note of infamy” (Plan 29). By doing so, he reportedly gained the approval of two of his most “polite” readers. Henry Digby Best, introduced by Paul Korshin as a “zealous collector of anecdotes,” famously relates that
[Dr. Johnson] called on [his wife and sister-in-law] one day soon after the publication of his immortal dictionary. The two ladies paid him due compliments on the occasion. Amongst other topics of praise they very much commended the omission of all naughty words. “What, my dears! then you have been looking for them?” asked the moralist. The ladies, confused at being thus caught, dropped the subject of the dictionary. (qtd. in Korshin: 20)
However, many recent critics have blamed rather than applauded Johnson for his neglectful treatment of cant and vulgar language, and they tend to regard him as a conservative who frowned upon the so-called improper speech of the lower classes. Other critics, like Nicholas Hudson, defend the lexicographer from these charges, claiming that “Johnson by no means attempted to serve the linguistic demands of the rich and powerful or to exclude the idiom of the poor or vulgar” (78). Donald Siebert also tries to recuperate Johnson’s habit of branding words:
We must consider that labeling a word ‘low,’ ‘vulgar,’ ‘ludicrous,’ or even ‘bad’ is not necessarily to condemn it absolutely and forever. Such excommunication would best be done by a total omission of the word from the Dictionary, and thus by a refusal to admit the word’s existence. That act of verbicide Johnson would never commit. (494)
Yet, swear words like fuck and cunt are not even branded as “low” in the dictionary; unlike ass, bitch, damn, hell, and piss¸ these lexemes simply do not appear. Johnson, in these cases, is guilty of “verbicide.” Besides decorum, a word’s heritage has a great impact on Johnson’s selection of vocabulary. According to Hudson, the doctor “regarded etymology as the primary test for cant, whether ‘low’ or ‘polite’. Cant is cant not because it is used by the lower class, but because it lacks roots in the history of the language” (92). But even a word’s unclear ancestry is viewed through the lens of class in Johnson’s Plan. Siebert notes, “Using the metaphor of words as classes or races of people, Johnson seems to imply that words without pedigree—that is, etymology—would be prime candidates for genocide” (486). Whereas ass and bitch seem to come from Anglo-Saxon, it is notoriously hard to track down the roots of words like fuck and cunt; evenGraham Hughes places them in the category of swear words with uncertain origins (27). I would speculate that the vague background of these words is one of the reasons behind Johnson’s decision to exclude them from his dictionary.
Curiously, one of the most popular legends about where the swear word fuck comes fromcan be read as a campaign to legitimate it by granting it royal blood, so to speak: rumours abound that fuck originated as an abbreviation for a official proclamation made by Charles II when the Great Plague was devastating the population, with the letters F-U-C-K standing for “fornicate under command of the king” (Hughes 24). Hughes notes that such a theory, however appealing, is not very plausible: “Why precisely procreation should ever become a Royal Command Performance, and why the injunction should be issued in such arcane form are only two of the more obvious objections to such an explanation: Charles II would have been more like to echo Lear’s ferocious edict: ‘Let copulation thrive!’” (24). However, while it may not be historically correct, this folktale reveals our desire to track down a noble ancestry for fuck and refute its vulgarity. At any rate, “the etymological jury remains out on the subject of FUCK, for which we can thank the centuries of word gestapos, who, by excluding the word from dictionaries, effectively deprived us of the list of citations that would have allowed a more thorough and systematic tracing of the word’s history” (Wajnryb 55). It is relevant to note that dictionaries which came before and after Johnson’s monumental work did not necessarily follow the same rules and omit the offensive words. Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum (1730) features both fuck and cunt and gives no negative commentary on the words. Not all of Bailey’s ancestors strayed from his path; while John Ash brands the two swear words “low and vulgar,” they still remain in The New and Complete Dictionary (1775).Strangely enough, it is Francis Grose’s cant glossary, which bears the promising title of A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), that leaves out cunt and includes fuck only in a censored form: “F—K, to copulate.”
These dictionaries also supply noteworthy definitions for bitch. To his description of bitch as “a name of reproach for a woman,” Johnson appends the following quotation from Arbuthnot: “John had not run a madding so long, had it not been for an extravagant bitch of a wife.” Grose elaborates, defining bitch, the noun, as a “she dog, or dogess; the most offensive apellation that can be given to an English woman, even more provoking than that of whore, as may be gathered from the regular Billinsgate or St. Giles’s answers, ‘I may be a whore, but can’t be a bitch,” and to bitch, the verb, as “to yield, to give up an attempt through fear; to stand bitch, to make tea, or do the honours of the tea table, or performing a female part. Bitch there standing for woman, species for genus.” The verbosity of Grose’s entry for bitch betrays none of the discomfort revealed in his brief definition for fuck. Perhaps Grose does not hesitate to dwell on this particular swear word because he is confident that few of his readers will be affronted by his decision to include it. Both Grose’s lack of reluctance and the misogyny in the definitions and quotations tend to support the widespread belief that swearing during the eighteenth century was primarily a masculine habit.
“A Most Unmanly Vice”: Swearing and Gender
Yet, as Graham Hughes notes, swearing is a habit which has never been completely limited to men. Although John Fletcher reportedly criticized men for “Rack[ing] a maid’s tender ear with dam’s and Devils” in the seventeenth century, there is a long tradition of “redoubtable female swearers” in literature (Hughes 209). However, during a century when ladies were generally believed to be more polite than men, Defoe refutes the notion that women curse: “The Grace of Swearing has not obtain’d to be a Mode yet among the Women; God damn ye, does not fit well upon a Female Tongue; it seems to be a Masculine Vice, which the Women are not arriv’d to yet” (Essays 246). In “The Surly Club,” Ward also depicts swearing as a manly trait and feminizes politeness, but he has different motives for doing so. Ward claims that “if any Grumbling Associate was so far corrupted with good Manners, as to make a civil Reply to any thing that was ask’d him, he was look’d upon to be an Effeminate Coxcomb, who had suck’d in too much of his Mother’s Milk” (63). Courtesy will cause the candidate to be “turn’d out of the Company” without hesitation (63), for the members of the Surly Club “admit of no Lady’s Lap-Dogs into [their] Service” (64). Although the Surly Club, in contrast to Defoe, valorizes cursing, the two parties appear to concur that swearing is a habit taken up by men while women are, by nature, the more polite sex.
Richardson’s Clarissa, however, would strongly disagree: “[Swearing] is a most unmanly vice,” she declares when she hears Lovelace curse (396). The century’s most famous heroine is correct for one reason at least. Swearing is not a habit restricted to men, as the profane language of the bawd, Mrs. Sinclair, reveals. Her behaviour is consistent with Ashley Montagu’s observation that “Women … as distinct from ladies, of the lower classes never ceased to swear as colorfully as their men. Indeed, ‘to swear like a Billingsgate fishwife’ still is as much as to say that the performer has reached the apogee in the art of swearing. Fishwives, for some obscure reason, seem to excel at swearing” (293). Montagu does not speculate about why the fishwife, in particular, is reputed to be talented at swearing, but there are several possible reasons. Due to her trade, she spends her days at market, a space traditionally gendered male. Moreover, dealing in seafood (broadly speaking), fishwives are connected both to animals and to the realm of appetite, two things often related to swearing. Montagu’s comment takes us back into the realm of Billingsgate and reintroduces the notion of class into our discussion of gender. As it turns out, it proves very difficult to separate class implications from gendered ones when talking about swearing during the eighteenth century; the two are frequently bound up together and neither is straightforward.
Debates about swearing continue today. We still have not reached any definitive conclusions about the class and gender of the culprits; theories abound, but they often contradict each other. For many critics, swearing remains a “vulgar” habit: “What happens in English language culture is that new words always come from the group up, from the lower classes,” Paul Payak of Global Language Monitor claimed recently (qtd. in Burris). A Seinfeld episodecalled “The Hot Tub” (1995) gives us another perspective on the connection between swearing and rank. Near the beginning of the episode, George Costanza’s boss gives him the job of entertaining several big-shot representatives of the Houston Astros who are coming to town. When George takes his guests out for a drink, the jovial swearing begins: the men constantly refer to each other as “bastards” and “sons of bitches” and no one appears offended. However, the swearing habit of these powerful men causes havoc when George tries to behave like them and talk like they do “in the major league.” He gets in trouble when his boss hears him cursing loudly at the baseball reps on the telephone. The episode not only depicts swearing as the behaviour of rich men, but also suggests that it is not deemed to be universally acceptable.
The jury has not yet returned with a decision about the connection between swearing and gender either. Certainly, much has changed since the eighteenth century. Noting the rise in female cursing, Rosalind Coward famously declared in 1989 that “Women are now talking seriously dirty,” but nearly twenty years later this statement may qualify as old news (qtd. in Hughes 211). At least, one article I discovered online suggests as much. The Onion, a satirical magazine, tells the story of Helen Chernak, 59, who, to the delight of her adult children, is reportedly “learning to swear” after steering clear of “foul language” her whole life. The grown-up children marvel to hear such bad words coming from their mother, but they celebrate her new habit and happily recount the details of each outburst to The Onion’s journalist. Even Chernak’s mistakes amuse them:
Because of her inexperience at swearing, Chernak occasionally deploys the forbidden words incorrectly—gaffes which delight her children. Last week, Chernak reported that she broke the “stupid mixing-ass bowl” for her food processor and did not know how she was going to locate the “peckin' instruction manual” to order a new one. (TheOnion)
Undoubtedly, we are meant to laugh when reading this story. The fact that we do reveals that we believe that a nearly sixty-year-old lady would rarely behave in such a way. By contrast, the reporter does not make a big deal about the daughter swearing, which tends to suggest that the notion of a woman cursing is not remarkable by itself; the story depends on Helen Chernak’s age, rather than just her gender, for its comedy. As Wajnryb remarks, “Most of us would readily accept that in the first decade of the new millennium, women swoon less and swear more” (145).It is hard to dispute that women do, in fact, curse; such an observation is barely even noteworthy. However, the question remains: “do [women] swear as much as men? …. We now know that while men show a statistical tendency to swear more than women, the issue of gender variation is nowhere near as clear-cut as folk linguistics would have us believe” (Wajnryb 145). Certainly, when it comes to swearing in both the present and the eighteenth century, it seems we are always left with more questions than conclusions.
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 Before any discussion of swearing can begin, it is important to provide a disclaimer of sorts and note that that there are many terms used to describe swear-words, including blasphemy, profanity, obscenity, cursing, expletive, foul language, and vulgarity. Several of these terms have more specific meanings than the all-purpose swearing (although even swearing can refer to “the making of a formal promise or oath”), so I have tried to restrict myself to the general terms, swearing and cursing. I employ the latter as a synonym for swearing, even though traditionally cursing involved “calling down some evil upon a specificially defined target” (Wajnryb 17). I also use coarse language and vulgar language at times, but I do so ironically, with an awareness of the class biases inherent in these terms. Likewise, any references to bad words or foul language are not meant to imply any judgment on my part. See Graham Hughes and Ruth Wajnryb for more comprehensive treatments of the diverse vocabulary surrounding the topic of swearing.
 The aim of this paper is not to document swearing in its natural habitat, as it were, because there are no recordings of everyday speech from the eighteenth century. Instead, I am dealing here with representations of swearing, which necessarily are coloured by their authors’ motives and written with certain readers in mind.
In A History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries, Vol I. 1567-1784, Julie Colman says that “Cant goes one step further than jargon. Its primary purpose it to deceive, to defraud, and to conceal. It is the language used by beggars and criminals to hide their dishonest and illegal activities from potential victims” (4).
 In his article, “Fugitive Lyric: The Rhymes of the Canting Crew,” Daniel Tiffany talks about length about the bestial nature of cant. He tells the reader that sparrow language was a synonym for cant (89) and compares the canting songs of beggars to the chants of the Sirens on the basis that both sound inhuman: “The pedigree of the Sirens, who are part human and part animal and are themselves a kind of canting crew, mirrors the social depravity of the beggar and vagabond: the Sirens too are outcasts, marooned on an island, calling indiscriminately on those who are fully human” (87). Although Tiffany’s paper does not explore the connection between swearing and the animal, his remarks are still relevant because, as I have already noted in my article, cant and swear words have many features in common, such as their detachment from “proper” language and their association with the lower classes.
 This episode of Seinfeld also examines other aspects of swearing: for example, how easy it is to confuse jocular swearing, aggressive/offensive cursing, and swearing resulting from frustration.
Parliaments and legislative bodies around the world impose certain rules and standards during debates. Tradition has evolved that there are words or phrases that are deemed inappropriate for use in the legislature whilst it is in session. In a Westminster system, this is called unparliamentary language and there are similar rules in other kinds of legislative system. This includes, but is not limited to the suggestion of dishonesty or the use of profanity. The most prohibited case is any suggestion that another member is dishonourable. So, for example, suggesting that another member is lying is forbidden.
Exactly what constitutes unparliamentary language is generally left to the discretion of the Speaker of the House. Part of the speaker's job is to enforce the assembly's debating rules, one of which is that members may not use "unparliamentary" language. That is, their words must not offend the dignity of the assembly. In addition, legislators in some places are protected from prosecution and civil actions by parliamentary immunity which generally stipulates that they cannot be sued or otherwise prosecuted for anything spoken in the legislature. Consequently they are expected to avoid using words or phrases that might be seen as abusing that immunity.
Like other rules that have changed with the times, speakers' rulings on unparliamentary language reflect the tastes of the period.
Partial list, by country
In the Australian Senate, the words "liar" and "dumbo" were ordered to be withdrawn and deemed unparliamentary during a session in 1997.
In Belgium there is no such thing as unparliamentary language. A member of parliament is allowed to say anything he or she wishes when inside parliament. This is considered necessary in Belgium to be able to speak of a democratic state and is a constitutional right. Nevertheless, on 27 March 2014, Laurent Louis, acting as an independent (not party related), called the prime minister (Elio Di Rupo) a pedophile. The other members of parliament left the room in protest. This immunity that manifests itself in an absolute freedom of speech when in parliament does not exist when outside of parliament. In that case prosecution is possible when and if the majority of parliament decides so.
These are some of the words and phrases that speakers through the years have ruled "unparliamentary" in the Parliament of Canada, the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, and the National Assembly of Québec:
- parliamentary pugilist (1875)
- a bag of wind (1878)
- inspired by forty-rod whisky (1881)
- coming into the world by accident (1886)
- blatherskite (1890)
- the political sewer pipe from Carleton County (1917)
- lacking in intelligence (1934)
- a dim-witted saboteur (1956)
- liar (consistently from 1959 to the present)
- hypocrisy, hypocrite (from the early years through the tenure of Speaker Gilbert Parent; apparently not ruled unparliamentary by Speaker Peter Milliken)
- a trained seal (1961)
- evil genius (1962)
- Canadian Mussolini (1964)
- pompous ass (1967)
- fuddle duddle (1971)—probably the most famous example in Canada
- pig (1977)
- jerk (1980)
- sleaze bag (1984)
- racist (1986)
- scuzzball (1988)
- girouette (French for "weathervane", Québec 2007)
- bully (2011)
- a piece of shit (Justin Trudeau to Peter Kent, Question period 2011)
- Fart (2016)
The President of the Legislative Council ordered out for using the following phrases:
- 臭罌出臭草 (foul grass grows out of a foul ditch), when referring to some of the members (1996).
The following phrases have been deemed unparliamentary by the President of the Legislative Council:
- 仆街 (literally stumble on street, loosely translated as "go die" or "go to hell") widely considered by Hong Kongers as unacceptable language in civil settings (2009).
This list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it.
In 2012, the Indian Parliament published a book of words and phrases that were considered to be unparliamentary:
- Bad Man
- Bag of shit
In Dáil Éireann, the lower house of the Oireachtas (Parliament) in Ireland, the Ceann Comhairle (chair) has ruled that it is disorderly for one Teachta Dála (deputy) to describe another as a:
Or to insinuate that a TD is lying or drunk; or has violated the secrets of cabinet, or doctored an official report. Also, the reference to "handbagging", particularly with reference to a female member of the House, has been deemed to be unparliamentary. The Dáil maintains a document, Salient Rulings of the Chair which covers behaviour in and out of the House by TDs; section 428 of this lists unparliamentary speech.
In December 2009, Paul Gogarty apologised in advance for using "unparliamentary language" prior to shouting "fuck you!" at an opposition chief whip. This phrase was not one of those listed explicitly as inappropriate, prompting calls for a review.Seán Barrett, Ceann Comhairle of the 31st Dáil accused TDs of being like "gurriers shouting on a street at each other". He said he would not apologise for this.
The use of foul language in Parliament produced jurisprudence by the constitutional court, which has implemented the libel suits.
The Parliament of New Zealand maintains a list of words, and particularly phrases, that the Speaker has ruled are unbecoming, insulting, or otherwise unparliamentary. These include:
- idle vapourings of a mind diseased (1946)
- his brains could revolve inside a peanut shell for a thousand years without touching the sides (1949)
- energy of a tired snail returning home from a funeral (1963)
The Parliament also maintains a list of language that has been uttered in the House, and has been found not to be unparliamentary; this includes:
- commo (meaning communist, 1969)
- scuttles for his political funk hole (1974)
In 2009, a member of the Progress Party was interrupted during question period by the Speaker for calling a minister a "highway bandit".
In House of Commons of the United Kingdom, the following words have been deemed unparliamentary over time:
In addition, accusations of 'crooked deals' or insinuation of the use of banned substances by a member are considered unparliamentary language (all attributable to Dennis Skinner). An accusation that an MP's presence in the house has "been bought" is also unparliamentary.
The word 'dodgy' when used by Ed Miliband, was not however, found to be unparliamentary.
The Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, William Hay MLA, gave a ruling in the Chamber on 24 November 2009 on unparliamentary language. In essence rather than making judgements on the basis of particular words or phrases that have been ruled to be unparliamentarily in the Assembly or elsewhere the Speaker said that he would judge Members' remarks against standards of courtesy, good temper and moderation which he considered to be the standards of parliamentary debate. He went on to say that in making his judgement he would consider the nature of Members' remarks and the context in which they were made. In 2013, Hay ruled that insinuation of MLAs being members of proscribed organizations was unparliamentary language.
In the National Assembly for Wales the Presiding Officer has intervened when the term "lying" has been used. In December 2004, the Presiding Officer notably sent Leanne Wood out of the chamber for referring to Queen Elizabeth II as "Mrs Windsor".
In the USA, representatives were censured for using unparliamentary language in the House of Representatives throughout its history. Other levels of government have similar disciplinary procedures dealing with inappropriate words spoken in the legislature.
Avoiding unparliamentary language
It is a point of pride among some British MPs to be able to insult their opponents in the House without use of unparliamentary language. Several MPs, notably Sir Winston Churchill, have been considered masters of this game.
Some terms which have evaded the Speaker's rules are:
Clare Short implicitly accused the Employment minister Alan Clark of being drunk at the dispatch box shortly after her election in 1983, but avoided using the word, saying that Clark was "incapable". Clark's colleagues on the Conservative benches in turn accused Short of using unparliamentary language and the Speaker asked her to withdraw her accusation. Clark later admitted in his diaries that Short had been correct in her assessment. In 1991, Speaker Bernard Weatherill, adjudged that usage of "jerk" by Opposition leader Neil Kinnock was not unparliamentary language.
- ^Colin Pilkington (1999). The Politics Today Companion to the British Constitution. pp. 157–158. ISBN 978-0-7190-5303-0.
- ^"Senate Official Hansard: Thirty-eight parliament first session—fourth period"(PDF). Parliament of Australia. 16 June 1997. p. 38. Archived from the original(PDF) on 5 June 2011.
- ^"The Role of the Speaker of the House of Commons". Parliament of Canada. 25 October 2001. Archived from the original on 26 March 2005.
- ^John Robert Colombo (2011). Fascinating Canada: A Book Of Questions and Answers. Dundurn. ISBN 1459700287.
- ^"Official record of proceedings; Wednesday, 13 November 1996". Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. 13 November 1996. p. 121.
- ^VEXNEWS (January 1, 2012). "Indian press amused by list of thousands of 'unparliamentary' phrases and words". VEXNEWS. Retrieved February 15, 2017.
- ^Salient Rulings of the Chair (2nd ed.). Dublin: Dáil Éireann. May 2002. §408.
- ^"Dáil code: 'handbagging' not allowed". The Irish Times. 12 December 2009. Archived from the original on 25 October 2010. Retrieved 13 December 2009.
- ^ abMarie O'Halloran (14 December 2009). "Changes expected to Dáil code after use of 'f-word'". The Irish Times. Retrieved 15 December 2009.
- ^"Dáil Debate Vol. 697 No. 5 "Social Welfare and Pensions (No. 2) Bill 2009: Committee and Remaining Stages." Personal Apology by Deputy". Houses of the Oireachtas. 11 December 2009. Retrieved 21 December 2009.
- ^"Irish MP's F-word outburst sparks parliament review". BBC News. 15 December 2009. Retrieved 21 December 2009.
- ^"Ceann Comhairle refuses to apologise for calling TDs 'gurriers'". Irish Independent. 8 November 2012. Retrieved 8 November 2012.
- ^See Giampiero Buonomo, Lo scudo di cartone, Rubbettino Editore, 2015, p. 25 , ISBN 9788849844405; see also ((https://www.academia.edu/12695276/Autorecensione_02_dello_Scudo)).
- ^"Special topics: unparliamentary language", Parliament of New Zealand website, dated 28 July 2006, retrieved 16 April 2016.
- ^"[2nd day]: 1 Feb 2017: House of Commons debates - TheyWorkForYou".
- ^"Nigel Dodds expelled from Commons chamber". 10 July 2013 – via www.bbc.co.uk.
- ^"Dennis Skinner Was Kicked Out Of The Commons For Calling The PM "Dodgy Dave"".
- ^thatcheritescot (28 July 2013). "Betty Boothroyd Suspends Ian Paisley" – via YouTube.
- ^Peev, Gerri (9 July 2010). "Pressure mounts on 'cavalier' Gove as Cabinet colleague criticises school blunders". Daily Mail. London.
- ^"Unparliamentary language", BBC News website, 31 October 2008, retrieved 3 April 2009
- ^MacDonald, Alistair (19 June 2009). "Parliament Finally Sees Some Beauty in Britain's Beast of Bolsover". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 13 November 2009.
- ^UK Parliament (2018-02-21), Prime Minister's Questions: 21 February 2018, retrieved 2018-02-22
- ^"TheyWorkForYou". www.theyworkforyou.com. Retrieved 2016-04-28.
- ^"Official Report: Assembly Business - Speaker's Ruling: Unparliamentary Language". Northern Ireland Assembly. 24 November 2009. Archived from the original on 13 June 2011.
- ^"Assembly Speaker William Hay says three MLAs 'used offensive remarks'". BBC News. 19 November 2013.
- ^"AM expelled for 'Mrs Windsor' jibe". BBC News. 1 December 2004.
- ^"European Community (Intergovernmental Conferences)". theyworkforyou.com.