My father was a kind, gentle man and I never heard him swear. Well, only when he was driving, and that wasn’t really him. He was – like myself – not a good driver, and he was transformed behind the wheel into an entirely different person, launching the car onto roundabouts with scant regard for the Highway Code and – on occasion – screaming abuse. I well remember the only time I ever heard him say ‘Fuck’, shouting at some innocent driver who was, I am sure, doing absolutely nothing wrong.

I swear quite a lot and I’m not very sure where it came from. I don’t think I swore at school. It may have begun when I worked as a security guard (extended pause for laughter).

Further pause for laughter. Clear those blurry eyes.

Yes, yes, I worked as a security guard…a night watchman…in a whisky bond in Leith which is now a block of flats, but for three years as a student I spent my summers there through the night. It did not require me to be brave: our instructions were to leave the premises and seek help from the police if there were intruders threatening the six million pounds’ worth of raw spirit maturing quietly in barrels piled high in the warehouses. Mainly we sat about. I wrote my honours dissertation in its entirety there. I will, one day, write much more about the men I worked through the night with – Jimmy Cowan, Bob Edmonds, Tam Dolan – but when it came to swearing no one I ever met understood it as an art better than Willy, who worked on the ‘day squad’.

Every morning at 8 am the day squad – the men who actually moved these big barrels around – assembled in the bothy which had for the previous sixteen hours been the preserve only of the watchmen. There was some friction between the day workers and the night workers, because we got paid more and didn’t actually do any work. Willy arrived every day and sat at the same place on the bench, clearing the table in front of him of any impediments by sweeping his hand across the surface. He was a very strong, small man, square and powerful. During my time there – in the span of three summers – he was transformed by love and took a more positive view of his personal hygiene. But he did not – could not – stop swearing. 

When I was a child, one primary teacher – an arty woman – catching some errant knave saying ‘bloody’ or ‘Jesus’ told us that swearing was the last resort of the inarticulate. But Willy’s swearing was of great lyrical beauty, and was as expressive as any thesaurus. One morning, when it had rained for days, his remarks ran as follows:

‘Fuckin’ Archie. He’s oan his fuckin’ holidays, for fuck’s sakes. He fuckin’ asked me to look after his fuckin’ gairden. I went doon last night. Fuckin’ pourin’. Everything’s fucked. His carrots are fucked. His ingins are fucked…even his fuckin’ cabbages are fucked.’

This may have influenced me in my own swearing. Or it may have been because I am interested in language; I know there are academics who have spent their whole lives researching sweary words. If indeed I ever went in that direction my personal project would be to see if there is a common understanding of the nuances of those words used to describe people negatively and which are body parts; for example – and I apologise to those of you who see me as a wise old gentleman, the respectable former Head of an august Edinburgh institution – there is, in my view, quite a distinction in my semantic intention when I describe someone as a ‘dick’ and when I call them a ‘knob’, the latter being a much stronger term of disapprobation than the former. I could expand on this area, but that might be vulgar.

I am particularly interested in the word ‘arse’. Ok ok, pause for laughter again.

Shortly before I retired I saw the mother of a boy aged 13 or 14 or so. To my considerable delight, the lady spoke as follows: 

‘Mr Wyllie, I just wanted to thank you for being so nice to Stan (not his real name) over the past couple of years.’ Then she paused. ‘I mean, I know he’s a bit of an arse, but he’ll be ok in time, won’t he?’

I was so pleased and very happy to reassure her that a) yes he was a bit of an arse [though I felt it prudent not to specify which bit] and b) that he would be fine in time, and I’m sure he is.

I used the word ‘arse’ – and still do – to describe a particular type of individual. Almost without exception these are males. They are silly, thoughtless, immature, liable to say irritating things, often to show off. But I could say it to a young person, mucking about in the playground, with a degree of warmth: ‘Hamish, could you stop being such an arse?’ In this, as in so many other things, I am glad I am not a young teacher now because I fear this would be frowned upon.I could say it, of course, because I recognise that I was, when a boy, an arse myself: clever enough, wholly not cool, prepubescent at 14, and TALKING TOO MUCH. Sigh. Anyway, at least now at 56 (not my real age) I am nothing like as much of an arse as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and for that, and many other things, I am extremely grateful.



  1. A work colleague was being unnecessarily pedantic and insistent that I provide him with an answer to his question. Of course I couldn’t give him the answer he wished for and I regrettably suggested he should stop being such an arse. ( wholly consistent with your definition) I have long since retired but he has risen up the greasy pole and I occasionally wonder if he is still an arse.


  2. This piece took me back to the classroom where Mikey, Gavin, little Dicky and Alfie were being arses and you were just so cool about it outwitting them at their own jokes. Best memories ❤️



  3. In my early years of teaching, in a place you know well, one of the bulbs in my physics demonstration failed.
    I commented, “Looks like this bulb’s gone phut” and 20 top set, first year pupils sitting around the bench suddenly froze. Glances were exchanged.
    It took me a few moments to put two and two together and resolve that before the lesson ended I had better enunciate ‘phut’ one more time and a little more clearly.


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