This Week’s Bit of String: Favourite swears
When I was thirteen and my youngest sister eight, she asked me, her eyes alight and eager, ‘What’s your favourite swear? Is it the f…u…c…k one?’
Even during a slightly rebellious phase, I didn’t swear for fun. I tend to swear when events leave me little recourse. Like when an amazing piece doesn’t make a competition longlist.
Back when I fielded my sister’s question, NYPD Blue was newish on the air. Blazing TV Guide editorials argued whether its use of the f-word was an appropriate reflection of the setting, or a symptom of the nation’s damnation. One letter compared the language on NYPD Blue to the moment in Gone With the Wind when Rhett Butler used the d-word.
Now GWTW is controversial for glossing over slavery, normalising marital rape, and glorifying the roots of the KKK. Not because a protagonist commented that he didn’t ‘give a damn.’ To me, this discloses a long habit of obsessing over language when the actual subject matter should be the issue.
A Tale of Two Comedians
Fast forward about 25 years (sheesh, 25 years!) and comedian Samantha Bee uses the c-word on cable TV. Is this just the progression of opening language barriers, from d- to f- to c-words? Is this one truly more grievous than other oft-used derogatory names for women that reduce us to a single body part?
Many have highlighted false equivalencies between this incident and Roseanne Barr’s recent racist tweet–the one about Valerie Jarrett, as there seem to be a few to choose from. It’s quite partisan. For every Roseanne I name, you can accuse a Samantha Bee. For every time I want to call out Ted Nugent or Scott Biao, right wingers may cite a rapper or pop star who bad-mouthed conservatives.
Trump—Weinstein. Deplorable—Libtard. It’s like tennis, but (to borrow a phrase from Four Weddings and a Funeral) with much smaller balls.
Let’s call the whole thing off. We can’t call it even, because having someone who says a bad word on one side isn’t the same as having a number of white supremacists on the other. Still, can’t we admit human beings are prone to loss of temper and excesses of vulgarity? It’s not about saying there are ‘good people on both sides,’ but we need to remember there are, in fact, people on both sides and stop reducing political opponents to animals or lady parts. We need to weigh the substance of those people’s message rather than the language it’s couched in.
What’s in a [Rude] Name
It’s perhaps unexpected, a writer’s blog suggesting we ignore words. Of course we spend a lot of time finding the exact right ones, and I get quite dorky about which are correct and preferable.
For example, I checked out some of these terms on EtymOnline (oh, my poor browser history…) In the 1300s, the c-word was a medical term for female anatomy, thought to come from pre-Latin words meaning hollow place, slit, or sheath. Not very flattering, but I’m unconvinced it’s more insulting than less reviled terms.
What about the relatively uncensored word whore, you ask? Its roots are early German, meaning ‘one who desires.’ This jolted me when I read it, because I’m working on a novel about Eve. Part of her curse was to desire her husband, who would then have dominion over her. Eve is basically characterised in the Bible as One Who Desires, and as Western religion assumes all women inherit Eve’s curse, all women are whores. How convenient.
It gets worse, too. The word seems to have sharpened its meaning by taking in a later German masculine term for adultery, and then a middle English word for filth. If all that injustice makes you want to swear, I won’t judge.
These aren’t the only words people haven’t delved fully into. Idiot used to be a disparaging clinical term for the mentally challenged, and berk is short for the Cockney rhyming slang equating to the c-word itself—yet it’s used in completely different contexts, even popping up in the Harry Potter series.
Unless we all want to look properly at the words we use, there’s not much point assigning a random few so much importance in the media.
When No Other Word Will Do
I turned to Twitter to see if other writers might disagree and assign swears more power than I do. But like me, whether for or against using them, no one had feelings so pervasive they wished to convert anyone else. Here are a few answers:
If I believe the character would swear, the character swears. I like to think my characters dictate their language to me.—historian, writer and actor Christine Caccipuoti
Some characters would sound false (to me!) if they said ‘oh dear’ or ‘oh god’ or anything else… Who decided these words were bad anyway? —Jennifer Riddalls, copywriter and Writers Forum Flash Fiction winner 2017
What comes out of your mouth reveals what’s inside your heart / mind / soul, but I’m currently writing a story in which characters swear (a bit) because of who they are and the extremity of the situations.—Fantasy writer Marcus Bines, published in the Shadows of the Sea anthology
Even if I didn’t write YA I wouldn’t swear in my writing. I think it’s unnecessary but doesn’t bother me to read swear words in books. There are plenty of synonyms that work just fine—Kelsey Atkins, author of the YA fantasy series Finding the Light
I try to choose stronger words and rely on physical descriptions and reactions to convey strong emotions. —Literary fiction writer and Insecure Writers’ Supporter George R McNeese
I go by the same rule as I do for similes and metaphors. Once a page, tops, and only if you must. personally I find similes and metaphors far more offensive than a good swear…! —short story phenomenon and photographer Jason Jackson
In my current piece on William Morris in Iceland, the decision was already made for me: Morris was well known for his temper and swearing. —Laurie Garrison, Founder of the vital Women Writers School
I enjoy a well-timed swear myself. It’s part of the joy of language. —Alex Clark, Writers HQ rep and Cheltenham Flashers Club founder
Sometimes it’s more like a spoken punctuation rather than actual words —scifi and fantasy writer Mark Huntley-James
All words are permitted in proper context. Trust your reader.—Stephen Hines
Words are words and they are there to be used. However, on the page they can be a distraction and too many can ruin a good piece of writing. So I am selective but I use ALL of them.–Stephen Tuffin, flash fiction author and writing lecturer who’s been known to give students a class on ‘Choosing Your Fucks Carefully.’
I respect writers who try to use words other than curses. It sometimes feels like a cheat, doesn’t it, to use a single, often body function-related word to encompass a grave situation? On the other hand, there are a lot of characters who will swear. And to all of us, the characters are paramount, not the language they happen to use.
In the end, words are just tools to chisel our characters. They’re the clothes we dress a story in to send it out to the world. We mustn’t get distracted by them. Let’s mind immigrant children alone in detention centres, plastics going in our oceans, racism in our institutions, intolerance in universities, hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, social anxiety in our kids, and guns going into our schools. Let’s mind all that, and let the language go where it must.