Vulgar Tongues, and Scorn

Vulgar Tongues, and Scorn

Event: Vulgar Tongues, and Scorn

Venue: Daunt Books

Report by Jennifer Toni Andrews

Evening has darkened the windows of Daunt Books, giving the large rooms a light, and a warmth. Towards the rear of the store, a small platform holds two seats, awaiting authors. Surrounding that, a puddle of chairs gradually fills with smart jackets, draped scarves, and hands holding glasses of wine.  

As the authors, Max Décharné and Matthew Parris, take their seats, the gentle chatter dies down and the watchers rustle themselves comfortably into their chairs. Numerous clinks signal the careful placing of wine glasses on the surrounding book shelves, a man, two seats down from me, breaks into a toblerone. The crowd seems suitably settled in.

From Shakespeare to social media, Parris’ discussion celebrates the use of language, not as a “stiletto” but as a “sledgehammer”, noting this practice in the works of The Bard and Chaucer. Such creative insults, he proposes, are best seen nowadays through new mediums. Twitter, for example. The damage (and brilliance) that can be achieved in a mere 140 characters is certainly worthy of note for any student of scorn.

Melting pot of language

Décharné opens with jazz, with music and its long tradition of sharing language between different social groups. The ‘Vulgar Tongue’,  he notes, is simply another name for the talk of the common people. His collection celebrates slang, phrases, and euphemisms shared across the world and across history, subversive and endless. There is recognition of London as a melting pot of language, and of the political impacts of regenerating language, playing with standard speech.

From Dorothy Parker’s scathing “How can they tell?” upon hearing that Calvin Coolidge was dead, to the modern day tweeter’s naming David Cameron a “Cock-Womble”, Parris has the audience laughing unreservedly with his use of quotes. Recent events, Brexit especially, have seen an array of insults across the internet, with social media offering a direct channel to those behind the wheel. We, the public, are creative in our writings, from curses that promise disappointing tea to incredibly inventive name-calling. The digital world can be unforgiving. Anyone who irks us has nowhere to hide. Parris demonstrates this cheerily through the example of  “poor old Michael Gove”. Perhaps Parris’ time as an MP accounts for some of his interest in scorn, his collection includes denunciations of both himself and his writing, a witty retort in itself.


Décharné laughs when he admits that his book devotes an entire chapter to the many names given to parts of the body, considerable space also dedicated to expressions for drunkenness.  He offers insight into curses and vulgarities, from ‘C-word’ to ‘skinfull’. Euphemism is discussed at length and the power that words have in our everyday existence is made clear by the inspired allusions we have used throughout time to say everything but what we mean.

A note of the serious enters the discussion when Décharné discusses wartime slang. This use of language, he explains, is self-preservation. You cannot tell your friends on the frontline you’ll see them tomorrow, not if it’s likely that you won’t. RAF pilots, he elaborates, developed ways of discussing lost comrades, without venturing too close to the unspoken “D” word. Rather than planes being ‘shot down’, the phrase was “Newton got him”. Wry wit in the language, used to underplay loss.

It is Décharné who broaches the subject of political correctness, questioning limitations on language. He references Orwell’s Newspeak dictionary, wonders at the potential for words being erased and lost. Parris disagrees. Political correctness has always had ebb and flow. The Victorians had political correctness too, he points out, language doesn’t increase or decrease, only change. The discussion is relaxed, both writers are accomplished listeners, as well as speakers.


The evening is coming to an end when the pair are asked their opinion on the discourse of Donald Trump. Both authors delve into the etymologies of some of the President Elect’s more famous soundbites and their ideas and knowledge bounce from one to the other, separating the words from their speaker to trace their roots. Parris admits however that he cannot discuss scorn in the US election. Scorn requires wit, he explains, and in this case, there was none.

It is clear, as ‘Post-Truth’ is named Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year, that the English language continues to reflect the political. Décharné and Parris remind us of the fun to be found in language, and celebrate its variety and changeability. The words we use are in sync with the shifting environment that we live in, and so language is always in flux.

Report by Jennifer Toni Andrews

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