By the Power of Austin
I'm broad minded. I can curse in four languages (though I only speak two passably well) and some of my best friends are foul mouthed Irvine Welsh types. However, I still can't bring myself to say the word 'shag'.
I also have some sympathy with the American woman who objected to an Austin Powers talking figure on the grounds that she had to explain what it said to her prepubescent child. There's a problem with inappropriate sexual innuendo throughout popular culture, whether through pop music or advertising: Sex sells everything from shampoo (try sitting through an Organics shampoo ad with a small child and explain why it's funny) to soft drinks - and children soak it all up. Back home I have a seven year old girl dancing round the room singing that she's 'horny, horny, horny...' Another dilemma of the kind Penelope Leach does not prepare you for. One friend solved the problem by telling her daughter that the word was 'honey', but unless you come up with a whole lexicon of safe homophones for all varieties of sexual slang, sooner or later you have to explain why the birds and the bees are so motivated.
But in the case of the S word, it's not the explanation I really mind, it's the pronunciation. When I was a teenager, 'shag' was such a tainted word. It oozed bicycle shed smut. It was the kind of thing grungy, unfanciable boys whispered in your ear when they wanted to really humiliate you, or wrote on bathroom walls complete with the kind of rudimentary gynaecological diagrams that made them unsatisfactory lovers later in life.
Tough girls could tell a chap to sod, bugger, p*** or even f*** off (some of which you can't even print in a newspaper) but nice girls just couldn't say 'shag'. It wasn't obscene, but just plain icky.
So here I am Mrs Supercool, forty is the new thirty, woman with attitude, sitting in the tube looking at a Tower Records advert in the newspaper when it jumps out at me: 'music to shag by'. Suddenly I'm Mrs Mary Whitehouse. Then blokes at dinner parties tell me ruefully how they haven't had a shag for months - prompting mass 'who can say shag most in one sentence' competitions. Or the woman reading the news on CNN telling me with perfect Australasian diction, that the film 'The Spy Who Shagged Me' has knocked Star Wars off the no. 1 slot.
I'm stunned into shocked silence but amongst the children general rejoicing breaks out - unbeknownst to me Mr Shagadelic himself has moved into our house and they love him. Next they'll all be wearing velvet flares and saying groovy.
I'm dragged of the cinema but I refuse to walk up to the counter and ask for tickets. I tell my twelve year old that I'm sorry but I just can't say 'The spy who em.....'
'Just ask for Austin Powers then,' he pleads.
Okay - problem solved until the girl behind the counter hands me my change and yells; "So that's three children, one adult for The Spy Who Shagged Me, 1.30pm, Screen 3."
Then, just when I'm hoping my ordeal is finally over, the American woman standing in the queue behind me, watches me stuff my change back inside my Pradaesque money belt.
She taps my shoulder and says:
'Excuse me ma'am - but that's a very cute fanny-bag you have there.'
I beg your pardon, but really - some things, like fine wine and bad language, just don't travel.