Why was “bastard” a swear word?
Swear words are strange animals. They are words that have emotional force because of the taboo against saying them. Once they are said often enough they lose their force – the taboo having been broken.
Bastard is a swear word that is losing its force, though for many of us – myself included – it is still not part of our comfortable vocabulary. But why was there ever a taboo about calling somebody a bastard?
The meaning of the word is straightforward and is relatively impersonal and objective. It meant to be born out of wedlock. About one third of all children in Britain today are born out of wedlock. And while this is a pattern of childbearing that is popular and even advocated there is still something pejorative or insulting to call one third of British children bastards.
Part of the reason why the word may have been classified as a swear word is that it is associated with sex. Many swear words deal with sexual matters.
But there is more than a sexual reference in this insult. It is used to insult the child not the parents. There is something about the child and their behaviour that draws this particular term of abuse. But why should the behaviour of a person draw an insult that speaks of their parentage? It is cannot be their fault that their parents were not married at the time of their birth.
Today some people are rightly trying to reclaim this word from its moral opprobrium. If a child is born to unmarried parents let us not assume any the worst of the child or imply anything immoral about them.
In previous generations being illegitimate by birth meant shame at best and rejection commonly. Children born out of wedlock were marginalised in the family and society, inadequately provided for in life and education, and left out of family inheritance. Little wonder they often grew up feeling rejected, unloved and unwanted. Little wonder they developed anti-social behaviour that came to be called “bastardry”.
Nobody has to live out the lot into which they are born. Some illegitimate children rose to great fame contributing positively to the benefit of humanity. In the Bible Jephthah (Judges 11-12) is a great example of the bastard, who saves Israel and becomes known as one of the heroes of faith (Hebrews 11:32).
The real problem has always been the failure of fathers to take responsibility for the children that they fathered. This pattern of parental neglect and consequential anti-social behaviour stigmatises the children instead of the parents.
Being a father is more than procreating. It is providing, protecting, guiding teaching, disciplining – in a word loving – your child all the days of your life.
Back in 1998 The Commonwealth Government published a report entitled “To have and to hold: Strategies to strengthen marriage and relationships.” It gathered expert opinion from around Australia and the world. It provides overwhelming evidence of the wonderful advantage of being raised by two loving biological parents. It also provides terrible evidence of the devastating consequences for children of being raised without those loving parents. The children suffer educationally, in employment, in health, in mental health. They are more likely to succumb to drug and alcohol abuse, criminal and anti-social behaviour. They are less likely to be able to form stable and satisfying relationships. So the list of disadvantages goes on and on.
The social sciences from around the world are discovering what common sense has always known – that proper fathering matters, that illegitimacy often results bastardry.
As a society it is important that we support and uphold fathers and fatherhood. It is important that fathers are taught to take proper loving responsibility for their children. It is important that those of us who are fathers act like responsible men and not irresponsible youths.
But for those of us who suffer from bad fathers all is not hopeless. For when we come to know Jesus as our Lord we discover God as our Father. When Jesus rose from the dead he poured his Spirit – the Spirit of the Son of God – into our lives. And the Spirit teaches us that God our heavenly Father loves us and cares for us better than any human father could ever do.
The Spirit also transforms our lives so that we do not have to keep living in the way that we were raised. Whatever the failure of our human fathers – the love of our heavenly Father can overcome.