I've had your mum. What you gonna do about it?

9th December 2005 at 00:00
You can swear as much as you like these days. A four-letter word is such an integral part of our world that it provokes little response. Schools still react to abuse directed at a teacher (we can't ignore such an obvious threat to order), but when the words are used among students themselves, we do little but admonish. "Please! Not in school."

Swearing is part of the daily currency. Words that were once considered beyond the pale now appear on T-shirts and are part of the everyday interaction between home and school. I hear words in the staffroom and in the office that not so long ago would have led to an arrest.

A headteacher colleague tells me of a Year 7 girl who had been sent to the "f***ing chip shop" so often that she genuinely believed this was the name under which it traded. She couldn't understand why her teacher was so upset when she referred to the shop in her homework by the name her family had always used.

So the shock value of swearing has been eroded. On television, in music, in advertising, it is either there staring you in the face or obviously implied. Its role as the ultimate insult has completely dissolved.

But there is still a need for the ultimate provocation. What is now regarded as the nuclear option in any dispute, especially one involving boys, is the family insult. If someone insults your family, you are honour-bound to defend them. Such unpleasantness is at the root of many of the disputes I have to deal with. "Why were you fighting Scott?" "He called my mother a slag."

A calculated insult forces your rival to react. If you don't respond and defend your family, then the reason is either that you are too weak to do the right thing, or what is being said is true. Either way you are a loser.

So we insult your mother, criticise her appearance, question her morals. We talk in detail about what your sister has been doing. Let's see how far we can go before you respond. You can't be a real man if you do nothing.

It is ironic that in a world in which family ties are less certain and less secure, the assault upon family honour is the greatest of all provocations.

Another tactic is for your enemies to talk openly of what they would do to your mother if they had the chance. Images and ideas picked up from pornographic material that is so readily available are used to insult and to bully. Your mother, that most special of people, is talked of as a sexual object in a way that is designed to degrade her and, more immediately, to disturb you. Your reputation is dragged through the dirt along with hers. And because you might not be able to do anything to stop these things being said, your self-esteem disappears.

Swearing is that part of a sentence when your mind pauses in order to work out how the sentence will finish. It is a meaningless moment of punctuation. What is far more significant is throwing a brick through the window of family honour. "I am going to shag your mother. What are you going to do about it?"

You might tell someone: your older brother or your father. They might end up in my office complaining. Or on the doorstep, seeking redress. Honour.

Revenge. Vendetta. And so the world moves on, ever deeper into the past.

Geoff Brookes is deputy head of a Swansea comprehensive

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