We're all doing our bit to turn the air blue

24th June 2005 at 01:00
You could hear books bouncing when a perfectly respectable-looking woman recently asked in Waterstone's for a book called On Bullshit. Asked where she'd looked, she replied: "Under philosophy - it's an American bestseller, written by a professor of philosophy. Do you have it?"

Waterstone's had it on order but not in stock. Disappointment all round.

More important, though, was the way just asking for the book nudged the word up a grade on the unwritten acceptability scale. Which, come to think of it, may also be what has happened to bullshit.

Papers now report substantial exam cheating. Internet coursework and essay providers say things amounting to "it's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it", much the way prostitutes are always spoken of as the world's oldest profession. "There's a market for it... I'm only providing what the customer wants." But the essays are spurious - bullshit, in fact.

Similarly, we are told that most CVs are less than (or do I mean more than) strictly truthful. I heard a celebrity interviewed about a sports medal he'd won as a teenager. He didn't even remember it. Then, "Oh that! I was the reserve for a team which got to the finals of a tournament. I didn't actually play, and the team was knocked out first round, but everyone who turned up got a medal - so yeah, I was a medal winner, wasn't I?"

Bullshit again, which the philosopher, Harry G Frankfurt, tells us is dangerous because neither the perpetrator nor the listener views it as straightforward lying: it's more like embroidery, or sleight of hand, or (Lord help us) spin. Bullshit is helped on its way to respectability and acceptability by virtue of the philosopher's scholarly treatise. I found the book on a visit to the US, and very entertaining reading it is too - no bullshit. Frankfurt, emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton University, aims not "to discuss the rhetorical uses and misuses of bullshit" but "to articulate, more or less sketchily, the structure of its concept". Great stuff.

All of which calls to mind the nature of language itself, and the mystery of what is acceptable. The philosopher's book has done something dramatic for the very word "bullshit", which is not one I had ever uttered until recent weeks, still less put in print.

But The TES itself drew me up short in its April 15 edition, when articles on successive news pages cheerfully quoted teachers using a word that surprised me.

On page 3, Jasmine Votano, the lady in the Dove ad featuring women in their undies, said about being invited to be one of the line-up, "I was feeling a bit low at the time and thought 'bugger it'." Have I really reached old-fogeydom that I should have been, what, slightly put out? From a teacher? In print? Ah, but it was a daring thing to do, and after all, the young lady is Australian. But turn the page, and in an article on remodelling, a headteacher, no less, followed suit. Having decided to use teachers to cover classes in order to provide the new PPA time, he reportedly said, "Let's do it - and bugger the budget." Gosh. On both counts, for the language and for the budget.

So "bugger" is out of the closet, out there in the public domain. A triumph for free speech. But next time an irate adolescent swears in class, we will have less right to complain. If standards of language are slipping, we helped push them down the slope. And the only comment one can make on that is "Oh bugger!"

Hilary Moriarty is headmistress of Bedgebury school in Kent. She writes here in a personal capacity

Hilary Moriarty

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