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Thrill of the swear

10 March 2017

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IN THE world of graphic designers there is a measure, referred to as TTP (time to penis), which re­p­resents the amount of time it takes for a cheeky user to stick a phallus on it. TTP is a calculation of the image’s resilience to external viola­tion; but it is also an indicator of the level of provocation which an image might present. Thus, the TTP for an abstract, non-figurative image is greater than the picture of a stern-looking general with the caption “Your country needs you”.

As we discovered in The Philo­sopher’s Arms (Radio 4, Monday of last week), TTP provides a useful way of understanding the use and abuse of swear words, which can be both innocuous and incendiary. Radio 4 is still a safe enough space that any obscenity has the force of a detonation; so hearing Matthew Sweet and his guests effing and jeffing provided a continual frisson, particularly when perpet­rated by the nicely spoken man from The Times style guide.

The study of swear words en­­courages us to think about our language and how it works. Why is it that, in print, f*** is less offensive than the actual word? How has there come to be a hierarchy of offensive body parts? All of these questions open up realms of linguistic understanding that lie beneath the surface of simple, lexical content. The thrill of the swear lies some­where in that deep cortical region that edits our thoughts before they become utter­ances.

Between the Ears: The enemy within (Radio 3, Satur­day) was os­­tensibly about a condi­tion when these deep-brain pro­cesses are upset by the traumas of war. With the help of audio diaries kept by their partners, the programme dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the effect of the con­dition on sufferers.

But, ultimately, this was not about PTSD, nor even about the particular strains it caused in re­­lationships; this was an intensely powerful depiction of love and loyalty in situations in which those qualities were tested to breaking point.

We heard from a wife whose husband might get so violent that the police would need to be called. In a state of complete exhaustion, she talked of how she had to fulfil every kind of domestic and profes­sional post, from doctor and psy­chia­trist to cleaner, cook, and wife. We heard from another: her partner was, she said, everything to her; she could not imagine not wanting to do all that she could.

Two expressions of the same, multi-functional love, captured, one on a bad day, the other on a good. And, as the documentary pro­gressed, the emotional states of these two carers inevitably reversed.

If putting up with the everyday aftermath of trauma is not a suf­ficient witness of love, then what about P. K. Mahanandia, whose love for a Swedish woman — as told in Outlook (World Service, Sunday) — led him to cycle 7000 miles from India on a secondhand bike, to be reunited with her? There is a block­buster film there ready for the taking.

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