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How Twitter Ruined Swearing

Cockwomble. Spunktrumpet. Arsebadger. RIP, swear words.

This article first appeared on VICE UK

The world screams its anger, and it screams cockwomble. You might have seen the word before, lobbed with dull precision by some agitated man on social media, and you thought it was brilliant and decided that you should start using it. As an epithet it feels oddly satisfying, front-loaded with those nice sharp voiceless velar stops, and then dropping away into a mumbly wombly mush. It's clever, a kind of plummy cleverness; this is not any ordinary word, but something that had to have been invented, probably by someone very smart, someone like Stephen Fry, and if you say it too you might be considered a little bit smart as well.


It's almost a class marker: the swearword of someone who would never let themselves get angry enough to resort to mere vulgarity, to say something as uninventive as fuck; the cockwomble-sayer wants to float above her enemies on a roving cloud of gentle and untroubled disdain. A word neatly split down the middle, apologising for itself in its own second half; so quintessentially British. And while it's everywhere on Twitter, search major news sites for cockwomble and, aside from a mention in (of course) the Spectator, you'll invariably be directed below the line. Cockwomble is the Guardian comments section condensed into a single word.

It's sickening.

It has its cousins: spunktrumpet, arsebadger, dickweasel. All the quiet little woodland creatures we're busy eradicating have reappeared without warning in our language, a ghostly reminder of what we did to the world. Cockwomble is a word in mourning for a power we lost, a polysyllabic bloom of rot on the corpse of swearing as a literary form. The word cunt still has some power to shock, just about, if it's thrown with enough sharpness and spite, but nobody has ever been really hurt by being called a cockwomble, the word that neuters itself down the middle. Everywhere people are enraged, and lack a language in which to express that unhappiness; their desperate efforts to thrash themselves out of the general unhappiness only leave them sinking in deeper. That's why we have Brexit; that's why we have cockwomble.


What we're witnessing might be the finial crisis of swearing. Our old swearwords, shit and piss, are relatively recent innovations – not as words, but as expletives. In the Middle Ages the landscape of vulgarity was very different: towns across the country had their own Gropecunt Lanes and Pissing Alleys; Sherborne Lane in the City of London was once Shiteburn, named after its generous public toilets; Chaucer could write frankly about a woman's queynte and still think of himself as a godly scholar, because it was just a standard anatomical term. Hard to get prudish about ordinary bodily functions when everyone's happily defecating together. Instead, the really rude words were blasphemies. To shout Jesus Christ! as you stubbed your toe was a far more grave insult to the common decency than to say fuck.

These words only acquired their power once all the old vestiges of communal peasant life had been stamped out and replaced with the cold anonymities of industrial capitalism. In the bourgeois era every person is supposed to be an atomised, fungible and clean unit of labour-power; you live in your own house, cordoned off from the world, and what you do in its shameful little white-tiled room is not to be spoken of outside. Our four-letter words all have to do with what the great Soviet theorist Mikhail Bakhtin called the grotesque: those parts of the body that are open to or project themselves into the world, or which produce an undifferentiated and inert substance: dick and arses, piss and shit, the possibility of a bodily unity, something that the Victorians with their terror of socialist revolution felt themselves required to stamp out at every turn.


"This is what's taking over, the sickening vulgarism of the confounded and the polite."

But all these forms are fading. Even American TV, which used to fastidiously bleep out any part of the human body that would be kept hidden under a three-piece suit, is now dominated by HBO and Netflix, where you can say whatever you want and show some nipples while you're at it. Capitalism is no longer afraid of the human body, which has become just another collection of parts to be marketised.

Since the sexual revolutions of the 20th century, the really offensive words now no longer pertain to vulgarity but bigotry. It's far worse in polite society to use gay as a pejorative or throw around ethnic slurs than it is to go effing and blinding; people who would never be so dowdy as to asterisk out a good sharp fuck will still cautiously refer to it as the N-word rather than risking the subtleties of the use-mention distinction.

This is, of course, a good thing; after centuries being horrified by blasphemy or indecency, we've finally decided that what's really unacceptable is language that actually causes harm to other people. But it puts the ordinary, progressive swearer in an unbearable position. The world is terrible, and you want to express that awfulness in the strongest way possible; the people around you are unbearable and stupid, and you want to tell them so; but the only really terrible words are the ones that reinforce what's making it all so awful in the first place. And so, hanging limply just over this final precipice, come the cockwombles.

The powerless shamble and groan, and a thick flood of chunky nonsense gushes out their mouths. The language of a world exhausted of all possibility, a miniature post-apocalypse in which all the survivors can do is rearrange the fragments of something that used to be whole: you're a right thundercunting cockwomble of a pissbollocks wanktrombone dicklizard otterbutt turdmongoose. No wonder it's in comment sections and on Twitter where this flaccid, gassy, swearing-not-swearing tends to take place: this is where the people who have had every last vestige of control over their own lives go to whinge in half-hearted tedium about the world that's killing us all. Cockwomble is the epithet of someone who can't even fully understand what it is they're complaining about. The grotesque swearwords had concrete referents; using them meant dragging down whichever lofty prick you hated so much into the true and ordinary world of piss and ordure. Cockwomble doesn't mean anything; it doesn't say anything at all.

This is what's taking over, the sickening vulgarism of the confounded and the polite. On Twitter, for instance, accounts are now subjected to 12-hour lockdowns if they tweet anything uncouth at someone with a verified tick. Instead of combating the site's harassment problem, the management have instead decided to make it better for just those people who might write another of those dreary newspaper columns about how mean their readers are. The site now has a full cohort of blue-ticked neo-Nazis; call them a bunch of cunts and suffer the consequences. But you can call them cockwombles. It's clever. It's not really swearing. It's safe.