What Victorian swearwords teach us about Bob Ainsworth

Ngrams are interesting from google. I’m returning to blogging as I mean to go on with a mixture of vulgarity and insight.

Here are graphs charting the use of the words cunt and fuck through the ages.

As you can see, there is a rather strong negative correlation between the use of the words fuck (in blue) and shame (in red, appropriately).

From this you could infer that there was a somewhat sexually repressive tinge to the industrial revolution.

I would argue differently, and in doing so echo Foucault. If you look at cunt and loose – and I assure you, you must – you can see another strong negative correlation.

What this says to me is that the industrial revolution didn’t ignite, or coincide, with a repression of sexuality. What in fact occurred is that sexuality became reclassified as something to be controlled. The modern industrial economy needed different family structures to agrarian economies and social control was needed to keep the Satanic Mills humming.

One of the ways in which sexuality was controlled was through language. The terms of the debate can help frame the way the debate is undertaken. Loose women abounded in industrial England, fucking, apparently, did not. Because language can be used in this way and leaves an almost indelible record we can observe these changes.

Social control of sexuality has not gone away, gender roles are still heavily proscribed, but we can see a distinct change in the middle of this century. This is in part down to changes in industrial organisation – a larger workforce was needed with more investment in human capital – and in part due to the proactive organisation of women’s groups in civil society.

Women have won their equality in large part, and they will keep it because it is 1) profitable and 2) in the interests of a powerful interest group; women. This, of course, does not mean social control has not gone away, its just changed its spots.

Bob Ainsworth‘s comments on drug policy, and the reaction to them show this well. We won’t see a relaxation of other controls as we saw for those on women and sexuality. I say so for a couple of reasons.

1) Modern economies are still afraid of disorder, and varying forms of social control, including drug prohibition, offer a simple way to try to reduce disorder. I suppose this is because modern economies are complex and therefore vulnerable. Trying to reduce disorder, even with wrong headed policies, makes a kind of sense.

2) The elites in charge seem to exhibit strong status quo bias, there is a viscous circle that causes the public to think drugs are bad because they are illegal, which makes politicians afraid to call for legalisation, which causes drugs to stay illegal, which… you get the picture.

The time isn’t right for drug legalisation, there is still too strong a social norm that controlling those using drugs is a good thing in itself, regardless of the outcome.

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2 thoughts on “What Victorian swearwords teach us about Bob Ainsworth

  1. On a lower level(?) this Ngram is great fun to mess with. There has be a fairly steady decline in people writing “manly”, who knew? Other words hav sudden peaks, for example “mutiny” trended in the 1850s (presumably coverage of happenings in India), between 1910 & 1920 (World War I?) & it had a spike in the ealy 70s, for reasons I can’t think off off the top of my head.

    I’d really like to see this fleshed out, I hven’t done enough serious reading lately (is it ever enough?) & this seems like a good avenue to explore.

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