Peter Robins

Foresworn: Jonathan Lethem, Kenneth Tynan, and the unpredictable progress of swearing

Foresworn: Jonathan Lethem, Kenneth Tynan, and the unpredictable progress of swearing
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For a few days last week, it seemed that Jonathan Lethem had achieved something unique: he had become the first person to use a particular four-letter word - the one beginning with F - in the New York Times. (Sensitive readers should be warned that I will stop using euphemisms after this sentence.) 'I’m delighted,' he told Salon's Laura Miller, who spotted the transgression in an editor's note to the paper's glossy style magazine. 'If I’d had the foresight to make it one of my life’s aspirations, I’d have done so. Instead it lands as dumb luck. My UK friend Dan Fox pointed out that it puts me with John Cleese, the first person to say "shit" on the BBC.'

Almost. There's now a correction at the bottom of Laura Miller's story, pointing out that the Grey Lady had the word several times back in 1998, when it printed the unexpurgated text of the Starr report. Lethem therefore joins the company of Kenneth Tynan, who nearly everyone thinks was the first user of the word 'fuck' on British television. Nearly everyone is wrong.

According to Armchair Nation, Joe Moran's just-published social history of telly, Tynan was at best or worst the third. The first known case is Brendan Behan, who swore repeatedly on Panorama in 1956. 'No viewers protested,' writes Moran, 'perhaps because Behan's diction was severely impaired by drink, although hundreds rang to complain that they could not understand his Dublin accent.'

The second case is worth quoting at length, because it's splendid in itself and a great example of Moran's dry comic style:

'A few years later, just after Ulster Television had begun in 1959, the man with the Sisyphean task of painting the railings on Stranmillis Embankment alongside the River Lagan in Belfast appeared live on its teatime magazine programme Roundabout. The interviewer, Ivor Mills, asked if it was ever boring painting the same railings all year round. "Of course it's fucking boring," the man replied.

'The channel's managing director, Brum Henderson, waited anxiously for the inescapable tsunami of complaint to arrive at the studios. In the event, not a single viewer, even in this deeply religious region in which play swings were padlocked on Sundays, rang or wrote in.'

So now you know.