Rebecca Roache, Royal Holloway University of London

Wicked Little Letters is not a film about swearing, but it’s safe to say that swearing is a big part of what makes it such a great story. In 1920 Edith Swan (Olivia Colman), a well-to-do, devout Christian spinster who lives with her elderly parents in the southern English seaside town of Littlehampton, receives anonymous, abusive letters that are bristling with expletives.

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Suspicion falls on Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley), the Swans’ next-door neighbour. Gooding is hard-drinking, foul-mouthed and – horror of horrors – does not clean out the bath that she shares with the Swans. Inspired by a true story, the film is part soap opera about neighbourly conflict, part cosy teatime detective story. And it’s also a showcase for some delightful swearing – a topic I explored in my recent book.

In the course of telling the true story of the Littlehampton letters, Wicked Little Letters shines a light on some of the most fascinating aspects of swearing. One of these aspects is the hilarity that can result from the incongruity of encountering a swearword at an unexpected moment, from an unexpected person, and in an unexpected context. This can be unpleasant, especially if it’s you who’s on the receiving end of a sweary insult. But it can also lead to delight and glee.

The latter is what we get with this film, and it’s a time-tested formula. As philosopher Immanuel Kant remarked in his Critique of Judgement: “In everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh there must be something absurd.”

It’s unlikely that anyone who chooses to watch Wicked Little Letters is going to be caught off guard by swearing, but even so, we very much hit the ground running. The film opens in the Swans’ front room, just as Edith has received yet another anonymous letter. The trailer for Wicked Little Letters.

Edith herself is demure and prim, and the family gathering (her parents are sitting at the table with her) is straight-backed and proper. If this atmosphere of austere respectability is the setup, then the sweary contents of the letter are the punchline.

Hypocrisy is another theme explored in the film through swearing. Many characters who are outraged by the letters (or, perhaps more accurately, at the idea of letters like these being penned by a woman) are unconcerned by far more pressing moral matters.

Edith’s father (Timothy Spall) is contemptuous of the suffragette movement’s attempt to give women like his daughter the right to vote. Police officers who condemn the sweary letter writer unhesitatingly use similar language to gossip about their sexual escapades.

Hypocrisy is evident, too, in contemporary attitudes about swearing. In 2012, the team working on the Ken Loach film, The Angel’s Share, complained about the hypocrisy of the British Board of Film Classification. The board refused to grant a 15 certificate, opting for an 18 due to the film’s swearing. Yet it has awarded 15 certificates to films depicting torture, racism, violence and cruelty. All subjects far more shocking and concerning than swearing.

The power of swearing

The film also explores how satisfying it can be to swear. Letting rip with powerful language is so cathartic that, as research has shown, it can help us withstand pain.

Swearing has this power in large part because we know we’re not supposed to be doing it. It’s fun because it goes against the rules. For the characters in Wicked Little Letters, there are plenty of exasperating rules to rail against.

The values of the time not only forbade women from voting, but also held them to high and ridiculous standards of decorum. The ridiculousness of these values did not stop women from internalising them. Rose Gooding forbids her daughter from the unbecoming activity of playing the guitar, while Edith Swan pastes on a smile while her father exerts his tyrannical authority over the household.

It was an especially frustrating time for women to endure such oppression. As Mabel (Eileen Atkins), a neighbour of Swan and Gooding, observes at one point, women were called upon to do all manner of traditionally masculine work during the first world war. But once the war ended, they were expected to return to docile domesticity. They had plenty to swear about.

The right way to swear

Toward the end of the film, there’s an entertaining discussion about how to swear properly.

Rose Gooding thinks that “foxy ass piss country whore” – a real turn of phrase from the Littlehampton letters – is an inept attempt at swearing. Historian Christopher Hilliard, who wrote a book on the letters, agrees. “Just what is a ‘foxy ass piss country whore’?” he asks, before complaining that multiple dictionaries have failed to enlighten him.

But what’s the difference between competent and incompetent swearing, and who makes the rules anyway? As children, we’re not taught by our parents or teachers how to swear. Nor is swearing a skill that tends to be taught to foreign language learners – an oversight that the linguist Geraldine Horan has argued should be corrected.

Sometimes, as in the case of “foxy ass piss country whore”, we view an unusual sweary expression as evidence that the speaker doesn’t know how to swear properly. But in other cases the same thing points to the speaker being an impressively creative and imaginative swearer. Think of the original expressions uttered by Malcolm Tucker, the notoriously sweary character in the British political satire show, The Thick of It. What makes the difference here? Very little, I suspect.

Whether we view someone as an incompetent swearer or an especially clever swearer probably depends largely on whether they strike us as the sort of person who is good at swearing. Well brought-up women in 1920 did not strike anyone as the sort of people to be good at swearing. This is what made the Littlehampton letters so shocking to the nation in 1920, and Wicked Little Letters such a fun watch today.

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Rebecca Roache, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Royal Holloway University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.