Once upon a time, Andrew was walking down the road.
Outside a shop, he saw a poster with the words FUCK OFF! printed on it in large, unfriendly letters.
Immediately, he performed an exegesis.
“I think it means ‘We are closed today’”, he said. “But I wonder why they have expressed it in such a rude way? Perhaps the owner was genuinely cross when he stuck it up. Or perhaps he has such a reputation for good manners in the neighbourhood that he takes it for granted that everyone will take FUCK OFF! as a good natured joke.”
He thought a bit longer.
“Perhaps it is a message delivered to a particular customer,” he thought “One who was very rude to him yesterday, and who will know the message is directed at him.”
“Perhaps that’s his standard OPEN / SHUT notice” he thought “Maybe it says COME IN YOU WANKER on the other side. Maybe he’s making the point that he’s the kind of chap who doesn’t care about social norms and wants to attract customers who feel the same way?”
“Or maybe he’s from a different culture” he thought “Where FUCK isn’t nearly such a rude word. I remember once eating in a cafe in Germany with a waitress who kept dropping ‘fucks’ and ‘bullshits’ into the conversation—I can only suppose she was translating milder German words and didn’t know how rude she was being in English. Or perhaps she had heard that the English were exceptionally foul-mouthed. There is a funny story about how an England cricket manager in the 1950s complained to the Australian cricket manager that members of his team kept using obscene and shocking language. The Aussie turned to his players and said ‘All right—which of you bastards has been calling this bastard a bastard?’”
“No, I’m overthinking this” he concluded. “It’s much more likely to be an advert for a local punk gig, or a political advert from a local anarchist collective.”
And then Andrew had a brain wave. He decided to ask the shopkeeper what the poster meant.
“Excuse me” he said “Why have you stuck such a rude poster on your door?”
“I am sure I don’t know what you mean,” said the shopkeeper. “There is absolutely nothing rude about the word FUCK. It’s just an acronym for Fornication Under Consent of The King. I intended it to mean ‘Please be advised that I am not taking visitors today’ and if you found it offensive, that is your problem; it is rude only in your head. Now be a good wanker and bugger off.”
As a matter of fact, the word FUCK is not, in itself, particularly rude.
It kind of represents rudeness: everyone knows that it is the King of Swears, the one word you must never, ever say: but in fact nearly everyone uses it all the time. In a conversational context “Fuck off...!” very often means “That is very surprising and I can hardly believe it.” I myself occasionally use it to mean “I acknowledge that you have told a joke at my expense, and, while at one level being a little bit annoyed, at another level, I acknowledge that it was a little bit funny.”
There is an old saying that expletives are okay when used as exclamation marks, but not when used as commas. For some fucking people, they are the actual fucking font.
I believe that the law currently takes the view that the true meaning of a text resides in the intention of the author.
If I intended my pirate cartoon strip to produce sexual excitement, then it counts as pornography (even if no-one is particularly turned on by it) but if I honestly didn’t mean it to be sexy, then it isn’t porn even if loads of people get off on looking at it. A person skinny dipping on a public beach might be charged with public order offences or causing a disturbance, but he isn’t committing a sexual offence unless you can prove that he took his clothes off for specifically kinky reasons.
This is quite sensible. But there is a problem with it.
I know that some people find bodies sexy. Not my body, necessarily, but bodies in general. I know that some people are embarrassed by them. It may be that in your nudist colony, no-one pays the slightest attention to anyone else’s skin; and it may be that that is a more sensible way of going about things, but when I decided to walk round Sainsbury’s in my birthday suit, I knew that I was doing something that other people would find (at the very least) odd. I can’t not have known.
The shop keeper knew that some people consider FUCK to be a very rude word when he stuck up the poster. He can’t possibly not have known. You can’t isolate the meaning of the word from the act of putting the poster up. The true meaning of the poster is “I am the sort of person who would display this sort of poster in my shop window.”
We aren’t really talking about the F-word. We are talking about a different word. Which begins with a different letter of the alphabet. Which is even ruder and more shocking. And which brings us back to penguins.
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