“Sir George Jeffreys, Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench, was a man of quick and vigorous parts, but constitutionally prone to insolence and to the angry passions. When just emerging from boyhood he had risen into practice at the Old Bailey bar, a bar where advocates have always used a license of tongue unknown in Westminster Hall. Here, during many years his chief business was to examine and cross-examine the most hardened miscreants of a great capital. Daily conflicts with prostitutes and thieves called out and exercised his powers so effectually that he became the most consummate bully ever known in his profession. Tenderness for others and respect for himself were feelings alike unknown to him. He acquired a boundless command of the rhetoric in which the vulgar express hatred and contempt. The profusion of maledictions and vituperative epithets which composed his vocabulary could hardly have been rivalled in the fishmarket or the beargarden. His countenance and his voice must always have been unamiable. But these natural advantages,—for such he seems to have thought them,—he had improved to such a degree that there were few who, in his paroxysms of rage, could see or hear him without emotion. Impudence and ferocity sate upon his brow. The glare of his eyes had a fascination for the unhappy victim on whom they were fixed. Yet his brow and his eye were less terrible than the savage lines of his mouth. His yell of fury, as was said by one who had often heard it, sounded like the thunder of the judgment day. These qualifications he carried, while still a young man, from the bar to the bench. ”
The History of England, from the Accession of James II — Volume 1
Thomas Babington Macaulay
SAINT JOAN Scene 2
A page announces the arrival of Gille de Rais, known as Bluebeard on account of his small beard, curled and dyed. Bluebeard brings news of Foul Mouthed Frank, an inveterate swearer, who was warned by a soldier to desist from cursing as his death was imminent. Soon afterwards he fell into a well and drowned. Captain La Hire, a hardened fighter, enters. He also is renowned for swearing, and, as Bluebeard has intimated, he is now fraught with anxiety. La Hire asserts that the soldier who delivered the warning was actually an angel in disguise.
Taken from York Notes on “Saint Joan” by George Bernard Shaw.
It is, or so I have found it to be, easy to misconstrue vulgar language. There are in fact those for whom it is instead a work of art. And if we are to speak plain English, there are many circumstances in which anything other than the vulgar is a pretence and unnecessary obfuscation. The truth is that many of the so-called rude words have a delightful legacy. Some are obviously nothing more than supposed blasphemy by the most peculiar religious paradigm; others are simply robust or bawdy; others merely indiscrete by modern standards though clearly less offensive historically. Having surrounded myself for a lifetime with other lawyers, it is some of those (including members of the bench) who are the most adept at the usage of vulgar language. Like any other tool in the catalogue of the public speaker, the clever employment of the unanticipated lapse into the vernacular is not without its esteem. It also helps to cut to the chase to get one’s point across with clarity.
To “cut to the chase” is to get to the point without wasting time. The saying originated from early film studios’ silent films. It was a favorite of, and thought to have been coined by, Hal Roach Sr., referring to the repeated trope in silent films to feature a chase scene at the climax.
Where much of the prejudice arises against the vulgar usages is the misconception that it equates to diminished intellectual capacity. Certainly it may betray lack of education but that is no sufficient standard by which to assess the mental worth of he or she who speaks. In some instances the so-called commonality and directness of the language intimates a profound knowledge of perspicacity which is otherwise often confused by the pretensious language of circumlocution. Professor Higgins and his confrère Colonel Pickering quickly learned to respect Miss Doolittle accordingly.
My Fair Lady is a 1964 American musical comedy-drama film adapted from the 1956 Lerner and Loewe stage musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 stage play Pygmalion. With a screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner and directed by George Cukor, the film depicts a poor Cockney flower-seller named Eliza Doolittle who overhears an arrogant phonetics professor, Henry Higgins, as he casually wagers that he could teach her to speak “proper” English, thereby making her presentable in the high society of Edwardian London.
Where it is that the British and their ancestors of landed gentry (“the sturdy country gentlemen who formed the main strength of the Tory party”) get the idea that vulgarity is the preserve of the masses I shall never know. In fact if there is one thing common to the agricultural community it is their language. Being surrounded by the metabolism and exigencies of animals is not the quickest way to isolate oneself from the vulgarities of life. The usage of such language is neither obscene nor unrefined.
Nonetheless there is no discounting the reluctance many of us have to speak publicly as candidly as we might otherwise do when alone or among our closest friends. In that regard vulgarity is a mark of affection as to speak otherwise would be construed as devious or putting on airs. I learned early in my career that the exception to candid usage is when speaking to subalterns. Then the expectation of the listener is performance of a certain standard aligned with education, breeding and rhetoric none of which generally involves vulgarity. Notwithstanding that such a contrived performance may dilute the so-called legitimacy of expression, it nonetheless preserves the psychological distances which are naturally inherent between people of different classes, ages, endowments or positions.