Under certain circumstances, said Mark Twain, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.
But if swearing is to work as a safety valve, it has to be sparing. Used routinely and liberally, like a pepper pot, it ceases to have any effect other than to get up the noses of sensitive people. One can sympathise, therefore, with Mrs Janice Thomas, 45, an office manager who was driven to wear ear muffs to protect herself from the torrent of expletives that flowed with unrelenting abundance from her two superiors, Messrs Bob Whittaker and Melvin Jowett.
The muffs were an unsatisfactory solution since it is difficult, if not impossible, to fulfil one’s role as office manager when deprived of the sense of hearing, and Mrs Thomas walked out of the Manchester-based pallet company into the unsullied Lancashire air, not forgetting to sue for constructive dismissal.
Last week her case came up and it was the unhappy duty of the tribunal to hear some samples of Mr Whittaker’s everyday discourse. On one occasion, said Mrs Thomas, dipping into her pre-ear muff memories, he telephoned a car dealer to complain about faulty windscreen washers.
His reproach, it was alleged, found expression in the following words: “You car people don’t give a ****. The car just cost me 30,000 ******* pounds out of my own ******* pocket and the ******* thing is *******useless.”
The tribunal panel reserved judgment and at the time of writing it is not known whether it accepted that Mr Whittaker’s behaviour was excessively disagreeable. In the example given, he plainly felt the need to express himself forcibly, as counselled by the Consumer’s Association, and did so in the fashion that seemed to him most effective.
In giving evidence, he struck an aggrieved note. He denied constantly using bad language in front of employees, and added: “Swearing is common in the pallet industry.”
That is surely a noteworthy and singular defence. It implies that had Mrs Thomas wished to work in an environment where purity of language is the custom, she should have chosen alternative employment. She might, for example, have applied to join the staff of a bishop or, though one can never be entirely sure of one’s ground here, the Queen Mother.
But it was her misfortune to choose the pallet industry where, according to Mr Whittaker – and he should know – foul language is part of the warp and weft of everyday life.
If true, why should this be so? Perhaps the task of procuring and supplying pallets is so arduous and fraught with daily impediment that those engaged in its performance lard the ether with obscenity as a form of release. That, however, can at best be an historical explanation. For when every other word begins with F or C, the law of diminishing returns quickly applies and those ancient taboo words are stripped of impact. That would certainly explain why Mr Whittaker appeared nonplussed when accused of acting offensively. When effing and blinding are tools of the trade, honoured by custom and hallowed by usage, where lies the offence?
There is another possible explanation of the phenomenon, and that is that the pallet industry attracts the foul-mouthed as the flame attracts the moth, and that Mrs Thomas was the exception that proves the rule. Perhaps there is something robust and manly in the palletisation of loads that draws to its bosom big, brawny, hairy men who in a lifetime of letting their fists do the talking have acquired only rudimentary speech patterns.
Something similar was common in the days of the pirate lugger, whose poop deck was widely recognise as the repository, and indeed birthplace, of the some of the most inventive and ear-blistering scurrility ever uttered by mortal man. Weeks of cruelty and hardship at sea, relieved only by throat-slitting and plunder, can strip a brigand of every shred of refinement.
Once ashore, however, and wenching apart, the buccaneer was not so lacking in chivalry as to employ unparliamentary language in front of a lady, assuming he should ever encounter such a thing.
Within living memory the same self-denial applied. The steelworker with his pint, the miner soiled from the pit, the costermonger hoarse from proclaiming his wares, even the Billingsgate porter, the blueness of whose language could bring a blush to the cheek of a pallet operative, all would forebear to swear before a lady.
Moreover, they would severely chastise any other who failed to observe this simple code of decency and respect.
It took the space of just one generation for all that to go. Strong, not to say filthy, language is today commonplace in mixed company and is by no means confined to men. It is perhaps just a phase while the world adjusts to the new egalitarianism of the sexes.
The time may come when women no longer feel the need to match men pint for pint and curse for curse and no longer confuse male consideration with condescension, and when men can bring themselves to accept women as both equal and deserving of respect.
Mrs Thomas’ mistake was not that she sought a career in the pallet trade, but that she was born 45 years ago.