Political expletives

Almost exactly 16 years ago in Ireland the then Leader of Fianna Fáil, Charles Haughey (who had been before and would later again become Taoiseach, and who was never less than controversial), gave an interview to the magazine Hot Press. The interview was unremarkable in terms of content, but explosive in terms of the colourful language used. So Ireland was able to learn that one of its political leaders used all sorts of swear words in conversation, and that he had a particular fondness for the ‘F’ word. Shock was expressed in newspaper comment pages. But nobody needed to be surprised. After all, most people in Ireland were (and are) fond of swearing their way through the day, by no means excluding politicians. One other Minister (of a different party) was notorious for his habit of arranging meetings by telling his secretary to ‘get that f***er in here’. And today several Irish politicians are known for their fondness of expletives.

It’s not uniquely an Irish habit. The White House tapes released at the time of the Watergate investigations revealed Richard Nixon as a serial swearer. Recently there have been newspaper reports telling us that current British Prime Minister David Cameron ‘uses four-letter expletives as casually as a teenager in a school playground.’ What is more, in doing so he follows, it is said, in the footsteps of the last two occupants of No 10 Downing Street. And back in America, Barack Obama last year said of his (now departed) White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel that Mother’s Day was problematic for him because he was not used to saying ‘day’ after the word ‘mother’.

Why would any of that shock us? Maybe there is a view in some circles that politicians need to show some sort of decorum that suggests to voters that they would be more at ease at your granny’s birthday tea than just before closing time in the pub. But don’t we want our politicians to be part of life as it is lived, rather than as it is airbrushed?

I confess I get very tired of the over-use of swear words, particularly in Dublin, where many people seem to feel a need to introduce the ‘F’ word into every sub-clause of every sentence. But on the other hand, expletives can have a use, and apparently are effective in reducing tension and blood pressure. So if anyone wants to be critical of David Cameron, I hope they find a better basis for that. And as for Charles Haughey’s interview, even today it makes me smile, not because I admire the language, but because he felt confident enough to ‘be himself’. That’s not a bad thing.

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5 Comments on “Political expletives”

  1. wendymr Says:

    But then you could go to the other extreme, where even very mild language is bleeped out: you’ve seen ‘a**’ or even’ a$$’, I take it? Admittedly, the word has a different meaning in North America, but could you honestly see an Irish or British newspaper censoring ‘arse’?

  2. copernicus Says:

    When I went to America first in 1960s to study, in graduate seminars, where 5-6 students sit with professors to discuss the proble/issues posed by the professor, there was free flow of phrases like ” pain in the a**, landing on the a**, he is an a** hole, etc..” used by my American class mates which surprised and shocked me. But then they were meant to convey a strong message, and just that.

    As for criticising leaders like Cameron, very easy to do that using colourful words, but then it is my long-held view that these are mere talkers.

  3. Al Says:

    What about flatulence?
    Or would that be over confident?

  4. Perry Share Says:

    oh Charlie was ‘himself’ all right … we’re still reaping the consequences


    • Hm, what consequences would that be, Perry? I may be a rare specimen, but I have a degree of respect for CJH’s political achievements, both early in his ministerial career (he was Ireland’s most progressive Minister for Justice, bar none), and his 1987-99 period as Taoiseach. He was the architect of the more solid elements of the Celtic Tiger.


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