Thursday, 5 November 2009

Swearing in Fiction

When I was a small child with pert thighs and a carefree attitude to most things, I was afraid of swear words. Often co-pupils would goad me into uttering the occasional fuck or the offhand shit, but – being of strong moral fibre – I refused to utter an impure word.

This continued throughout my adolescence. When the veils of life began to peel away, and I opened my eyes to the gaping black emptiness at the heart of all human endeavour, it became clearer to me that these fucks and shits served a purpose. They were words we uttered when the riptide of meaninglessness toppled us sideways into a hectare of profoundly unpalatable piss – your time to be singled out for a cosmological rape.

At university, my rebellion arrived at an awkward stage, meaning the whirlwinds of cuss and bluster I summoned up were often mistaken for immaturity and a bad attitude (which was probably true), but the liberation I felt when diagnosing the human condition a bubbling horrorcoat of fucking shit-flan and double-dick cakes was BRILLIANT.

However, I’ve also dragged the cussing habit into my writing. My question is: how lazy is the humble swear? Is it inevitable to include these words in our work given they're so firmly ensconced in our daily parlance? Or should we aspire to purer, cuss-free forms of literary endeavour? And who gives a fuck either way?

I find the swear word entertaining in texts, provided the prose is of substantial artistic merit to get away with using them. Lazy novels about street gangs where cuss words are used every few pages are boredom fests for me. Forty pages of Nabovkian eloquence followed by eight sentences of shit and wank is hilarious and the writer should be knighted.

And I have a new swear: hegghi. It means to be badly attired or badly presented.

[What a hegghi!]


  1. My books seem to all end up with a teen in their pages, usually prominently. I don't think you can write a realistic teen without some swearing now and again--not all the time, but when they're mad or posturing? Has to happen. I'm not a big fan when the NARRATOR swears. Characters? Not a problem.

    And MY newest swearword is PANTS. I am assured by my Welsh friend it is REALLY nasty. Pretty much synonymous with shit...

  2. Hahaha, I'm tickled that the Watery Tart has commented on this one too (me being the Welsh friend who advocates the use of 'pants' as a swear word).

    Anywho, I don't mind swearing in books, as long as it isn't swearing for the sake of swearing. I pretty much swear all of the time, can't help myself, but I've gotten into the habit of substitutions when I'm around my kids ('pants' being one, 'sponge' another (stop being a sponge, you useless soaker upper!) and 'fudge' being the most common of all).

    Everyone swears, whether they'll admit to it or not, so reading it in a book just makes it more real. *shrugs*

  3. WTart:
    The Welsh swearing, like their telling jokes (not witticisms, proper jokes), is one of those interesting oddities in life - simply because they mainly do it in English.
    The nice Welsh always switch to English when an obviously English person walks in, but once you are localised they go back to their native language (1 of 4 dialects of Welsh!). As a localised English I spent many an evening hearing Welsh all around me. EXCEPT. Jokes or swearing.

    Swearing is another huge conundrum.

    Reality hat on, they are only f'ing words - there are many more important issues in life. However, it's not up to me (or anyone else) to deliberately tread on other's sensitivities. I only do so when faced with rampant 'moralists'.

    I have a friend who was brought up in the Jehovah Witness religion (though now lapsed). After six months of my comppany, she has finally stopped jerking backwards when I swear. She still couldn't let even the tamest of cuss words pass her own lips though.
    I can talk about almost anything, she can take it. Sex, drugs, Rock'n'roll. She can watch a film where someone goes around hacking off limbs with blood and gore everywhere - minimal reaction. Let one person say fuck, she sighs "Oh Dear, oh my".

    The two greatest areas of human stupidity are swearing and sex.
    There are greater examples of stupidity, but for sheer volume....

    Here is a list of the commonly held top 10 'bad things':

    1. Showing naked bodies having sex and swearing.
    2. Swearing while having sex outside of marriage.
    3. Sexuality or showing bodies.
    4. Someone nude holding the national flag.
    5. Someone swearing at the national flag.
    6. Swearing.
    5. Sex outside of marriage.
    6. Abortion. (Someone swearing in anger at the idea of an abortion is a tricky one - unless they are also nude, then they are definitley bad).
    7. Anti-nationalism.
    9. Being cruel to horses
    10.Being cruel to any cuddly animal

    Note that missing from that list are:
    Killing people, starving or killing foriegn children, legally robbing the poor to pay the rich, etc. They come much further down the list, maybe in the top 100, I'm not sure.

    Funny world eh?

  4. Watery & Tundie: PANTS should be a compulsory swear in every story. Even stories that deal explicitly with socks.

    Mike: What about swearing in the presence of a horse? Surely that's the CRUELLEST of all sins.

  5. You've pretty much painted me as a hardened criminal, Mike. What, being naked and swearing both inside and outside of marriage!

    PANTS! I hope I don't get arrested any time soon.

    I can assure you though, my Welsh friend speaks no Welsh language except English and Taff and everyone knows Taff is nothing BUT swear words. If you doubt me, find "Taff Wars" on YouTube. You'll be glad you did at any rate, especially episode 6.

    Mark: "Even stories that deal explicitly with socks." BUWAHAHAHAHAHA! i needed that (though my office mates wonder what I'm doing in here)

  6. Remember Private Parker's retort in the movie "Platoon" when Charlie Sheen catches them all raping the villager?

    "Fuckin' fuck...fuck...fuck it. Fuck it.

    Battlefield eloquence.

    Just realized, you probably don't remember.

  7. On thinking about this a bit more, as I sometimes do, I think swearing is basically laziness.
    With little time or inclination to think of a good communicative phrase or two, a simple FUCK suffices.

    Sit yourself in a pub or bar, with a few drinks inside, when someone obnoxious gains your attention.
    Option 1:
    "I am dismayed at your stupidity, ignorance and lack of social graces. Your total inability to comprehend even a modicum of...."
    Option 2:
    "Fucking dickhead."

    Aside from the thinking required for option 1, you would also probably have lost your audience after the second word.
    Option 1 also, of course, has little promise for the pure emotional force that can so elequently be projected with option 2.
    A roared FUCK accompanied by globs of spittle and bulging red eyes really can be most effective.
    Someone once said that a good "Fuck Off" is one of the few phrases that communicates across all language barriers. I'm pretty sure a pigmy in a Brazillian rain forest would clearly get the message.

    So, in our writing, do we want succinct, emotional and, yes, pretty lazy - or do we want to wax lyrically and utilize language to it's fullest? Depends on the character(s) we are dealing with really, doesn't it?
    Like the construction worker who, when his mate drops a red hot rivet down his back, shouts "Please do be more carefull Ralph".

  8. Thanks for the extra thought. You should really be writing my blogs.

    "Fuck" is a bizarre word. Everyone uses it, yet if it's mouthed by a red-faced yob with a shaven eyebrow, we poop ourselves.

    I agree that usage in writing depends on the character. I always write one character who is phobic of swearing and one who loves cursing up a storm.

  9. What many fail to realise is that fuck, like several other swear words, is contextual.
    Don't like someone? "Fuck Off" = "Get lost"
    Don't believe someone? "Fuck Off" = "Really?"
    Feeling lazy? "Fuck Off" = "Can't be bothered"
    Embarrased at a compliment? "Fuck Off" = "Why thank you, but I really don't deserve it."
    Breaking up with a partner? "Fuck Off" = "Fucking is no longer on the menu".

    If a 'a red-faced yob with a shaven eyebrow' were to say "Gaggagoop", do you think you still might poop your pants? As a spindly kid, I would have even if he just said "Hi".
    Then again, I was so socially inept I would have pooped if ANYONE said "Hi" to me, especially females!