Iain Duncan Smith and the art of swearing

Iain Duncan Smith
Iain Duncan Smith, Work and Pensions Secretary and potty-mouth

The skies seemed to darken with the great man’s mood, and underlings – sensing the change – scurried to be anywhere but in his path. Like a vast animal crashing through the jungle, he stomped past desk and cubicle to his target, and swept the telephone from the hand of a minion.

“If you ever speak to my officials like that again,” roared the work and pensions secretary, his waxed scalp gleaming, “I’ll bite your balls off and send them to you in a box.”

Yes. Iain Duncan Smith, the “Quiet Man”, has revealed himself to be no such thing. It was reported last week that he lost his temper with a Treasury staffer so spectacularly that he threatened to emasculate the chap with his teeth.

His rage was so magnificent that it seems churlish to point out that he hasn’t got the hang of this swearing thing at all. Seriously. For one thing, IDS, why are you sending the guy his testicles in a box? Why not hand them to him? He’s right there. For another, “biting” sounds a bit creepy. (Mr Duncan Smith has a history of getting these things wrong. Once, under pressure as Tory leader, he said: “If the men in grey suits come, they’ll leave without their suits.” An unnamed MP responded: “That’s fighting talk bordering on the homoerotic.”)

But being rude has always been trickier than people realise; swearing is a complex part of language, governed by its own rules.

For instance, the act of “tmesis”, or cutting a word in two and putting another word in between, is usually used for swearing: “abso-bloody-lutely”. But you can’t just cut anywhere: no English speaker would say “absolu-bloody-tely”, for instance. It seems to be that the rule is you can’t cut in the middle of a “prosodic foot”, or natural group of syllables. All children learn this, despite, presumably, parents trying not to swear in front of them.

Even the expletive you yell after hitting your thumb with a hammer is more interesting than you might think. It’s not governed by the brain’s language centres, but by the far more ancient subcortex, where non-vocal noises, such as moaning, come from.

Patients with aphasia, which occurs as a result of damage to the speech centres of the brain, are often “superb” at swearing, according to the psychologist Steven Pinker.

None of which is entirely relevant to IDS’s failed efforts, except to reassure him that his inadequacy with a swear word is nothing to be ashamed of. Keep trying, Iain. You’ll get the knack of it. Just, while you’re practising, try not to do it where anyone can hear.

Talking of language, I was writing in Google’s fancy cloud-computing word processor last week, and I typed the phrase “a lot of time”. I was startled to see it put a red line underneath “a lot” and ask me: “Did you mean ‘alot’?” No, I bloody did not, I told it.

But it raises an interesting point. Google’s spell-check system probably works with an algorithm, so it will assume commonly used words are correct. “Alot” is a common mistake. (One blogger suggests that you imagine the Alot to be a large furry animal, so when someone says “I like this alot”, you can picture them hugging the creature, and not be angered by their illiteracy.) No doubt it’s a long way from Google’s hyperactive spell-check to the Oxford English Dictionary, but I wondered: is “a lot” going to go the same way as “all ready”? I still haven’t got used to “alright” yet.

This week, Paul Goodman of the blog Conservative Home described whining ministers as “like Douglas Carswell on amphetamines”. And our own Dan Hodges said that Ed Miliband was like a trooper in the Light Brigade “on acid”. Sorry to be a pain, guys, but can we drop the “like [X] on drug [Y]” analogy? It’s very old, and doesn’t work.
For the record: Douglas Carswell on amphetamines would twitch and interrupt you a lot; and a Light Brigade trooper on acid would get very interested in the pattern of the wood on his lance. This probably isn’t the image you were trying to convey.


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