‘RÉFORME mon cul’ — reform my a**e (which is usually translated with a comma after the word ‘reform’ but some say that it is best read without the comma) — was a slogan of the May 1968 events in France. A series of events, in the volatile period of civil unrest was marked by demonstrations, general strikes and occupation of universities and factories, brought the entire economy of France to a virtual halt.
It is a slang expression. It is vulgar. Probably, yes. But it added the colour to the expression that was needed then. Or, ‘Violez votre Alma Mater’ — Rape your alma mater — in reference to Sorbonne. It is, in any formal setting, considered an inappropriate expression.
Postings by many that have been doing the rounds for a few days on Facebook show that some people have already fallen into pieces at school and college students, who have taken to the streets seeking road safety, demanding justice for being wronged and rising up against the chaos and corruption in the road transport administration, using some ‘slang expressions’, in slogans, posters or road graffiti.
On most occasions, people who have broken into smithereens reading the words in posters that students have used are wrong. The words are slangy but they are more than that. They are ‘vulgar’, a word which etymologically means ‘of the people’, once meant ‘commonly or customarily used by the people of a country’, and now means ‘lacking in refinement or good taste’, which is close to being ‘obscene’ or ‘filthy’ to a greater or a lesser degree, in its modern sense.
Words can be formal or informal, dictated by social status. They can be colloquial, which is often geographical. They can be slang, usually restricted to groups of peers, large or small, to create an element of exclusivity. They can be vulgar, restricted to vocabulary, referring to obscenities.
People do not use offensive language merely by using the word f***. The f-term in ‘it’s f***ing hard’, which is an adjective, or which could be an adverb, is meant not to be offensive. It is a simple modifier, evoking force. The young might talk like that, among themselves, unless they are disruptive or violating the rules.
The most emotive of the slogans that the students have used is, in feeble translation — by substituting asterisk when replacing some letters, keeping to the standard practice adhered to in a formal setting — ‘Who the p***s the police are’ (pulish kon ch****r b*l), which means to say that the police are no worthy of attention. Others are as innovative as evocative: ‘Truncheons don’t daunt us. Will shove them up theirs’ (lathir bhay dekhaben na, lathi ekdam bh**e debo) — and a more refined version in the chaste form of Bangla: ‘Will shove the truncheon up your hidden h*le’ (sendhiye debo danda tomar guptadh*ne); ‘No time to f*** the police’ (Pulish ch***r taim nai); or ‘The police are no m***e of mine’ (Pulish amar s****r b*l-o na).
Although many of the displays having such slang expressions used especially the later days of the protests are reported to be doctored, by enthusiasts to make a bit more fun or by apologists to malign the protests and protesters as too much use of obscenities often weaken the force of the words, some of the f-bombs that the students dropped have unique and essential functions in language: they elicit shock and they vent anger or frustration without resorting to physical violence. Swear words have impact and they can challenge ideas in ways that few words can. But the students started coming up with vulgar slogans only after they had been attacked by the police in the first two days of their protests. When people with power cannot be paid back in the same coin, invectives and expletives do more than a half of the payback.
A US Supreme Court case illustrates the unique functions of swear words. A man by the name of Paul Cohen wore a jacket on April 26, 1968 to a courthouse in Los Angeles sporting the phrase ‘F*** the Draft’. He did it to protest against military conscription in the Vietnam war. He was arrested and sentenced to 30 days’ imprisonment on charge of disrupting the peace by his offensive conduct.
He appealed against his conviction with the US Supreme Court, which quashed the conviction on the basis that, keeping to first and the 14th amendment to the US constitution, the state may not ‘make the simple public display… of this single four-letter expletive a criminal offence.’
The court reasoned: ‘To many, the immediate consequence of this freedom [of expression] may often appear to be only verbal tumult, discord, and even offensive utterance… That the air may at times seem filled with verbal cacophony is, in this sense not a sign of weakness but of strength.’ The court suggested that a strong society is one that allows for, and even protects, dissident voices.
Protest slogans can also be witty, having already been vulgar. In the 1990s, during the time of Slobodan Milošević, people, who threw eggs at state buildings, would say, ‘Why are only eggs? Give them what’s in between’, where the words ‘eggs’ has double-meaning word-play in an obscene reference to testicles.
The current protests of school and college students, too, have produced witty slogans: ‘Uncle Cop, don’t frighten me with arms to keep, I have a weapon to manufacture humans’ (Pulish ankel, amake manush marar astra dekhaben na, amar kachhe manush tairir astra achhe), referring to education. Others are: ‘Let students attend to roads for now. Mr Minister, send the police for schooling’ (Chhatrader apatata rasta samlate din, mantri, pulishke skule pathan shikshita karte); and ‘When teachers have no canes in hand, why do the police hold truncheons?’ (Shikshaker beter bari nishedh ye deshe, pulisher hate keno lathi sei deshe?).
But the protesters have also showed sparkle of genius in using literary slogans. The most beautiful among them is ‘Yadi tumi bhay pao, tabe tumi shesh | Yadi tumi rukhe danrao, tabe tumi Bangladesh’ (Frightened, you crumble; if you rise up, you’re Bangladesh). The most-talked about slogan of the protesters, who have checked vehicle fitness certificates and driver’s licence which resulted in congestion, is ‘Rasta bandha. Rashtra Meramater Kaj Chalchhe’ (Road closed. State repair work in progress), with the addition of ‘Samayik asubidhar janye duhkhita’ (Sorry for the temporary inconvenience) or its variants ‘Hanten, hant-te thaken. Rasta Bandha. Rashtrer meramater kaj chalchhe’ (Walk, walk down. Road closed. State repair work in progress) and ‘47 bachharer purano rashtra meramater kaj chalchhe’ (Repair work of 47-year-old state in progress). The protesters have also used lines from Nabarun Bhattacharya’s: ‘Ekta kathay phulki ure shukno ghase parbe kabe? Sara shahar uthal-pathal, bhishan rage yuddha habe.’ (When will a spark fly on the dry grass at a single utterance? A fight will spread across the town with great fury.)
For utterances to have impact, they have to be swear words, even without being offensive. An illustration of it is in The Crab with the Golden Claws (Le Crabe aux pinces d’or), by Hergé, where courageous young reporter Tintin and Captain Haddock are surrounded by bandits. As Haddock’s bottle of whiskey is shot to pieces by the attackers, he becomes enraged and repeatedly utters swear words. The comic is meant for children and the swear words are harmless: ‘mille milliards de mille sabords’, translated into English as ‘billions of blistering blue barnacles.’ Swear words are so powerful that the bandits in the Arab land, who are not supposed to understand French, flee into the desert.
An inappropriate use of vulgar or swear words may have devastating social consequences, but when the students want justice, that too for a national cause, it is not that inappropriate to use vulgar words to evoke force and to elicit awe, which the slang and vulgar expressions, in the case at hand, have done, effectively, proliferating themselves and affecting the masses.
Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age.