THE SPOKEN WORD V THE PRINTED WORD

A couple of years back, Radio 4 ran a programme on the history of swearing and how it started.

Apparently it was the Victorians who invented the concept.

It didn’t exist before them.

The words existed of course.

But not the concept that some words were unfit for use.

What caused the invention of swearing was the advent of road signs.

With the Victorians came the need to formalise every address.

So they could supply sewage to every house, gas or electric, mail delivery, everything we now take for granted.

The problem was London had grown organically over two thousand years.

Streets just happened to be pathways between groups of houses.

They acquired nicknames that were just a way to describe them.

So you might tell someone to go to, “the street with all the blacksmiths”.

This would pretty soon be shortened to “Blacksmith Street”.

Which is how we got “Butcher Street” or “Baker Street” or “Leather Lane”.

So far so good.

But the problem was slang.

For instance, a street of stables might be known as “Horseshit Row”.

Because that was its most noticeable feature.

The BBC said one alley, that prostitutes used, was known as “Grope Cunt Lane.”

Before the advent of road signs this wasn’t a problem.

Polite Victorian society wouldn’t have any reason to talk about these streets, much less walk down them.

But suddenly every street was going to have its named printed in large black and white letters.

Up where everyone could see it.

“GROPE CUNT LANE” just wasn’t going to happen.

So a lot of streets had to be renamed.

And a list of unfit words was compiled.

And the concept of swearing was born.

Grope Cunt Lane, for instance, had to be renamed as ‘Grape Lane’.

The main point being, when you see something written down it has a much more ‘in your face’ quality than something merely spoken.

When John Major was Prime Minister he knew his own party were against him, and called them “a bunch of shits”.

The next day, Sue Douglas, editor of The Sunday Express, ran that as the front-page headline: “BUNCH OF SHITS”.

She was fired.

Somehow it was much more powerful to see it, than just to hear it.

The same is true in advertising.

Nick Wray once wrote a very nice commercial for Mazda.

The commercial took place in a massive warehouse.

Huge wooden boxes were lifted, one-at-a-time, to reveal smaller boxes underneath, like Russian dolls.

It went roughly like this:

(Vision: A huge wooden box is lifted by chains, revealing a slightly smaller second box.)

Anncr: The outside of a Rolls Royce is bigger than the outside of a Mazda.

(Vision: The second wooden box is lifted, revealing a third wooden box.)

Anncr: But the inside of a Mazda…..

(Vision: The third wooden box is lifted, revealing an even smaller fourth wooden box.)

Anncr: …..is bigger than the inside of a Rolls Royce.

Voice: That’s amazing.

(Vision: Dissolve through to Mazda logo.)

Anncr: No, that’s a Mazda.

The problem was we couldn’t print the words “Rolls Royce” on the box.

If we showed the name it was considered copyright infringement.

Whereas if we merely said it, it wasn’t.

Which was a shame.

Because, although the ad was a strong demonstration of a good fact, it would have been simpler, more powerful, and more memorable to have the words Rolls Royce and Mazda on the boxes.

A picture may not always be worth a thousand words, but to see something is often more emphatic than just hearing it.