After a bad few months for judges — being called “out of touch” and “enemies of the people” and all that — Judge Daniel Pearce-Higgins scored a terrific public bull’s-eye this week when he ruled that using “pussy” as a swear word is not a crime. We already knew this, of course, but it’s always nice to have it reiterated by an officer of the Supreme Court of England and Wales.
He had a defendant in front of him at Worcester crown court, charged with calling someone a “pussy”. “That’s an offence, is it?” he asked in all innocence. “Good heavens. It’s fairly standard behaviour in life. I’m concerned that the criminal law is properly used, not to stop people swearing at each other. To call someone a pussy is impolite . . . but not a criminal act.”
The Crown Prosecution Service, as ever vigilant and the self-appointed guardians of the moral fabric of society, took the Defendant to court charged with sending a malicious communication. The judge lambasted them for wasting court time and money, and gave the Defendant a conditional discharge. The case cost £3000, paid for by the long suffering taxpayer.
As a relaxed and habitual user of every badly-thought-of word available to us in English, I’m just trying to get my head around that. “Pussy” is short for “pussycat”. You call someone a “pussy” when they are behaving in the sort of wet or cowardly fashion one associates with a tiny domestic mammal. It isn’t a swear word at all. If it was, it would be p***y.
But I can see the mistake that has been made there. Because colourful language is still taboo in polite society, polite people (such as judges) often fail to understand its complexities. What happened, I think, is that Mr Pearce-Higgins, and possibly the insulted party, was thinking of the other kind of “pussy”. The kind that the US president thinks it is OK to grab women by. But that is a whole separate etymology and not what was meant at all.
I am frequently bemused about the delicate way in which the press describe particular swearwords, and this includes not just the broadsheets but also the tabloids. They will happily roll in the shit when it suits them, and equally happily be economical with the truth, but when it comes to describing swearwords, the asterisk is de rigueur. I have never understood the need for such sensitivity
When I was first starting out on my literary career with the publication of No Holds Barred by Ivor Bigg-Wigg QC, I was told by my publisher that if the character I was portraying used a swearword, I should write it as such and not hide behind a wall of asterisks. So where the hero tells the villain to fuck off, that’s how it should be written. He doesn’t tell him to f*** off.
It was reported recently that a crown court judge was cleared of misconduct for swearing at a defendant who called her a c***. The judge told him: “Well, you’re a bit of a c*** yourself.”
So, I ask out loud, are swearwords any less offensive when peppered with asterisks or written as they are spoken? The Defendant called the judge a cunt, not a c***. And who gives a flying fuck? Or should that be a flying f***?
David Osborne is the author of three humorous books on the Law. His latest, entitled Order in Court, is now available on Amazon and in all reputable bookstores.