This Side of the Pond – Aug. 23

By Sarah Pridgeon

For this week’s tale, I’m going to need to stretch my imaginative skills to their very limits, for I shall be speaking specifically about words I’m not allowed to say. It wouldn’t bother me all that much to say them, as you’ll see, but it might well rattle you.
In the surreal story I offer this week, you see, a bird has been very rude indeed, in several different languages, but nobody was all that surprised. This is because, contrary to what one might expect, it turns out the Brits curse an awful lot more than our transatlantic cousins.

I came across an article a while ago discussing this phenomenon, which I’ve been vaguely aware of from my own experiences. I’m finding it much more common to hear “Oh my gosh” than the alternative, for example, and I’ve heard more than one instance of “shut the front door”.

Things are different back across the ocean, so I should probably recommend a set of earplugs if you intend to visit. We don’t consider cursing to be nearly so vulgar as it’s thought of here, nor as offensive.

Instead, we associate swearing with both humor and the urge to pepper our stories with color. We are also more likely to insult one another, and the person being insulted is less likely to take it amiss because it fits with our idea of normal banter.

We swear so much, in fact, that we’ve watered down a portion of our not-insignificant cursing vocabulary. While some words still hold their sting (though, even in the case of the worst curse word you can think of, not nearly such a painful sting as it has on American ears), others have been reduced to the same level of indecency as “gosh darnit”.

The article I mentioned includes a tale from a Brit who now lives in Los Angeles and has faced a similar need to tone down her sentences. She recalled seeing a toddler being pushed along in his buggy in central London, only to fall out of his seat.

The wee tike looked up at his mother accusingly and said, without emotion, “bloody hell”. “I still wonder whether those were that poor child’s first words,” the onlooker said.

This illustrates my point that it’s an expletive even the youngest of us can say without the whole world screaming to a halt. It has endless uses and applications – there are very few moments of surprise or frustration that it would not apply – which is probably why it’s become so associated with my people.

But just a century ago, George Bernard Shaw used it in “Pygmalion” and caused an uproar. Up until that time, it had been the strongest curse available to almost every English speaker in the world (except for you lot, though I can’t understand why it doesn’t appeal).

In fact, a newspaper interviewed a real flower girl from London after the book came out and she was deeply offended at the idea that she or her peers would ever use such a filthy phrase.

I tell you these things to establish the idea that, despite our stiff upper lips and similarly stiff backs, the British tend to curse their way through life like proverbial sailors. This is why the bad tempered bird in my story caused me such amusement.

The bird in question is a parrot by the name of Jessie, who lives in London. She caused concern for her owner last week when, for no apparent reason, she decided to spend three days on the next door neighbor’s roof.

Jessie’s owner called the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for advice. They didn’t have any handy tricks for her to get a bird off a roof, so they called the London Fire Brigade instead.

A crew promptly turned up at the residence, ready to battle disaster while presumably wondering what kind of an imbecile calls the emergency services to rescue a flying animal from a high place. They were informed that the only way to bond with the parrot was to tell it “I love you”.

The crew manager did so, and reports that the parrot responded in kind. She then proceeded to swear at him.

The parrot continued to swear for some time, much to the firemen’s amusement. It then became apparent that the prodigious avian also speaks Turkish and Greek and is perfectly capable of telling people off in those languages, too.

The crew manager tried coaxing the bird in all its native tongues and offering her a food bowl and a fluffy towel. I assume he later resorted to begging. All the while, Jessie the parrot sat on that roof and cursed her feathered head off.

Finally, Jessie got bored of chastising her rescuers and made it clear she was an independent young lady who didn’t need the help of any man. She suggested to the fireman that they may wish to depart the premises (though not quite in those words) and flew off to sit on another roof, from whence I like to think she stared at them haughtily while continuing to swear under her breath. She then flew to a tree for good measure.

Jessie came home of her own accord and her owner invited the crew to come back so the bird could thank them for her efforts, though it took a lot of coaxing and shifty sidelong glances before she’d concede. I suspect she was cross her vacation had been interrupted for no good reason and I’m pleased to see that she made use of the full, unadulterated spectrum of British curse words to make that displeasure known.