Monday, 4 February 2013

Language, Timothy!

The title of this post is of course a catchphrase used by Timothy Lumsden's father in the 1980s BBC TV comedy Sorry! in which poor 40-something Timothy, still living at home with his Mum and Dad, and longing to escape into a life of his own, and find love, has to put up with parents who thwart his every bid for independence, not nastily, but from mistaken motives. His father is in particular keen for Timothy not to let himself down by swearing, and so every slightly strong thing Timothy says gets a well-meant 'language, Timothy!' from his father. All quite amusing. The phrase became a jocular thing to say in households all over the country, and can still be said between friends and family if they are not too young.

These links say more about the programme:!_%28TV_series%29 and

The point was, Timothy's really very mild outbursts were regarded as 'swearing', and 'bad language'. I suppose this was when the fashion for being 'PC' had just taken off, and I remember a late-80s (or was it early 90s?) humorous stocking-filler at Christmas, a slim book that retold traditional fairy stories and the like using 'politically correct' substitutes for the old words. It was a chuckle, worth one read but not two.

So this post is about 'bad or inappropriate language'? You betcha.

Let me say at once that while growing up, I myself had to endure a parallel 'Timothy' situation at home. We were a middle-class Civil Service family with standards, and it was utterly impossible to express strong emotion in my parents' company, and certainly not use any of the standard obscenities, despite the fact that Dad had been in the Army during the war, and could hardly have avoided picking up a rich and varied vocabulary. But Mum was more strait-laced, and she set the tone. I became inhibited where expletives were concerned, to the point of it becoming a rigid habit indoors and out, even when away from my parents, and the cry of 'language, Timothy!' rarely had to be levelled at me.

I'm not claiming anything good about this. There was no moral angle. I wasn't trying to be 'better' than anyone else. I actually worried about coming across as a softy, or a goody two shoes. I'm sure that it didn't help my credibility in some situations, making it likely that people would dismiss me as a lightweight. I quite envied how some of my friends had an expressive word or expression for every moment, every passing mood. But, like not smoking, an obscenity-free way of speaking was conditioned into me. So while young I could never say words like 'f---' naturally or unselfconsciously. And once older, the professional standard required by my job was an inhibition in itself.

And retirement didn't lead to a lapse. So even today I reckon that I'm supernaturally 'clean' in how I express myself. But - mark this - I don't disapprove of richer, much more colourful ways of speaking, and I'm all for abolishing every restraint on clear and effective speech, providing it isn't lurid or lewd just for the sake of it. I'm really very interested in communication and the social use of language. Not just the language of today, but how we spoke in historical times.

So last night's BBC4 re-run of Dr Lucy Worsley's Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: A 17th Century History for Girls - about the women of a fascinating period of history, the reign of Charles II, the era that followed the strict puritanism of Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth - was of especial interest. It's a set of three programmes, and the first one dealt with the colourful lives of Charles II's mistresses. Let Lucy speak about it herself, at this link to her blog: I have to say, Charles II was a man with a great appetite for beautiful women, and from what I could see, it was no bad deal to attract his eye. He was a cultured and refined man of arts, a man of judgement and no fool; but he was also a man who liked a frank approach to sex and lust, and who eagerly enjoyed the revealing costumes worn by the ladies of the time, which tended to slip off. What fun!

Here's the man in his maturity:

Note the sensual lips!

He was still an absolute monarch, and could do as he pleased without restraint, and so the post-Commonwealth public mood was inclined to be satirical. His retinue of mistresses, which included Nell Gwynne of course, and the questionable moral tone he set, couldn't escape comment.

And so it was that a play was written around 1672 for a private performance at court, in front of the King and his intimate courtiers. It was called Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery, and Dr Worsley, who is a broadminded person and no prude, turned quite pink when dipping into an original edition of it. This is what the Wikipedia article has to say:,_or_the_Quintessence_of_Debauchery. And here is the play itself, as published in 1684:

Well, if you delve into it you will quite possibly blush yourself! I was staggered that even a Restoration playwright could dare to present a piece before his monarch with this amount of bawdy language. I don't suppose the King minded the blatant use of naughty body-part words: it was the underlying insinuation that the entire court was a sink of pro-Catholic iniquity that might have got under his skin. But the playwright got away with it.

Rest assured that I won't henceforth be emulating the style of this play. But it just shows that whatever is reckoned to be 'bad or obscene language' nowadays is nothing compared to the excesses of the past. Although I will suggest that the tone of Sodom is playful and no more; whereas the vicious use of the F-word, and worse, on modern blogs and Facebook and Twitter is quite another thing. In the 21st century, words are used to kill.


  1. Is facebook the f-word?

    In my youth i worked in a factory for my sins and there were many there who could conduct whole conversations just using the f-word and only altering the inflection!

    There are times such as when in accidental pain when a good curse would be a handy thing to have in the vocabulary but where are they?

    I have reached the age where I have obtained a bus pass and have yet to pass let the f-word pass my lips. Sad I guess...

  2. Not sad at all. I won't condemn expressive language, but reserve the personal right not to use it unless it serves some definite purpose - such as relieving my feelings when stubbing a toe, or suffering a sudden splash of too-hot water.

    Apart from that, 'bad language', including obscenities, really has no place in my lifestyle, and doesn't go with my self-image. As simple as that.



This blog is public, and I expect comments from many sources and points of view. They will be welcome if sincere, well-expressed and add something worthwhile to the post. If not, they face removal.

Ideally I want to hear from bloggers, who, like myself, are knowable as real people and can be contacted. Anyone whose identity is questionable or impossible to verify may have their comments removed. Commercially-inspired comments will certainly be deleted - I do not allow free advertising.

Whoever you are, if you wish to make a private comment, rather than a public one, then do consider emailing me - see my Blogger Profile for the address.

Lucy Melford