Will banning of bad language be a curse for pubs?

English brewery Sam Smith’s will no longer tolerate swearing on its premises, not from customers or staff. It remains to be seen if this will affect sales, says Jonathan deBurca Butler

LAST month, independent English brewery chain, Sam Smith’s, announced that it was adopting a ‘zero tolerance’ policy on the use of bad language in its 200-plus public houses.

Paradoxically, the most immediate effect of the edict from head office was probably an outpouring of expletives and profanities from managers and regulars alike.

To distance themselves from the new decree, and lay the unwelcome doormat of responsibility firmly at the squeaky clean feet of the owner, Humphrey Smith, some managers posted the memo from head office in the pubs themselves.

“If customers, and staff alike, swear on the premises, then you must ask them to refrain from using bad language,” reads the memo. “If, after asking a customer and/or member(s) of staff to refrain from using bad language they continue to do so, then you have the authority to take reasonable steps to ensure that they comply with the policy i.e. you must refuse to serve them.”

It remains to be seen what effect this has on last orders and the chiming of tills, but is it worth considering the idea here?

“If bad language is causing offence, a publican is well within his or her rights to ask the offending party to refrain from using such language.” says Padraig Cribben, chief executive of the Vintners Federation of Ireland.

“It is up to each individual publican to ensure customers are treated with the respect they deserve.”

“I can’t imagine it coming in here,” says Michael O’Donovan, owner of The Castle Inn, Cork.

“On any given night, you’d have customers using some colourful language, but if it ever got too much, you’d just have to have a quiet word with them and that would normally take care of that. It wouldn’t be a common problem.

“In all my years in the bar trade, and I’ve grown up in the bar, I’ve maybe had to do it once or twice and I’ve never had to turf anyone out for it.”

“To be honest, I’d be disappointed if it ever came to that,” Mr O’Donovan says.“I think Irish people are well-educated and if they’re out of control and a barman has a quiet word with them, they generally tow the line and they cop on and do what’s asked.”

While some people would be delighted to see us tone down our use of profanities, it is hard to imagine a tale being told, or a yarn being spun, without at least some thread of colourful language.

Compared to many other English-speaking nations (and particularly parts of the US), Irish people ‘curse’ a hell of a lot (see?).

A recent survey, conducted by Reddit, discovered that people in Northern Ireland are the most foul-mouthed on the internet.

The survey looked at data from 170 regions across the globe and found that people north of the border used bad language most often, followed by users in Winnipeg, Canada, and Perth, Australia.

Dubliners, perhaps surprisingly, came in 136th.

But we don’t need statistics to tell us this.

We know full well that we are famed for our use of bad language, and maybe we even take a strange sense of pride in it.

A number of years back, business website, Kwintessential, advised visitors to Ireland to have thick skins, because it was “common for the Irish to trade insults and tease one another (called ‘slagging’) with people to whom they are close. If you are teased, it is important to take it well and not see it as personal.”

So why do we do this? Does it have its roots in our ancient Irish culture, perhaps?

“Swear words and phrases might have peppered general conversation in the Irish language,” says Dr Ciarán Ó Gealbháin, lecturer in Irish Folklore and Language at University College Cork.

“But things of the nature of ‘t’anam ‘on diabhal’ (you’re soul to the devil) are so far removed from the profanities that one hears so often these days that it would be difficult to make any connection between the two.”

“The use of language in Irish wasn’t really foul language, it was clever language,” says Rossa O’Snodaigh, of Kila.

“ ‘May the fleas of a thousand rats infest your anus or may you never defecate again’ — they were curses in the real sense of it put onto someone else, while, at the same time, retaining your dignity by not getting angry and losing face.

“There was a culture among poets of having these lyrical spars, a bit like the rappers in that movie, 8 Mile, that get up on stage and rap at each other,” he continues. “It was a combative art.

“But I think the foul language is very much an English import and it’s something you don’t really find in Irish.”

O’Snodaigh suggests it might have something to do with colonialism and a sort of linguistic rebellion against the master.

Historically, swearing has been the language of the lower classes and the under-privileged, and, for a long time within the ‘empire’, the Irish fell firmly into that category.

“It might well have been used to embarrass English lords in their own language,” says O’Snodaigh, “and, in that way, get your own back, and, in a colonised country like Ireland, where people were so low that they’d lost their dignity, one way of getting them back was to destroy their dignity.”

Whatever the reasons for our proclivity to profanity, some recent research, published by US-based psychologists, Kristin and Timothy Jay, in the Language Sciences journal, suggests that people who use a lot of bad language have one up on people who don’t.

In the study, sixty candidates were asked to list as many swear words as they possibly could and were then asked to quickly list words from other categories, too.

Contrary to the popular belief that bad language was used to cover up a lack of lexical ability, the results showed that “taboo fluency is positively correlated with other measures of verbal fluency”, while also suggesting that those who used more bad language were more open.

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