Thursday, 28 April 2011

X is for X-Rated Expletives

Swearing — it isn't big and it isn't clever. Not unless you do it properly (then it's fantastic). There's a joy to swearing that is undeliable. The words feel good. And they can feel bad. It's all in the delivery. And it's also in the predisposition of the recipient. Some people have issues with the words in whatever context they may appear, and that's understandable. But in order to look at their use (and abuse) I will be using them freely, in widescreen and technicolor, so fair warning.

There is no better way to express certain sentiments than a well placed swear.  Not just a 'shit' or a 'piss-flaps' but a full on "Oh, for fuck's sake." And there is little to compare to the pleasure of being able to look at a horrible, annoying group of people and turn to a friend and say, "What a bunch of cunts."

I think it is perfectly acceptable not to use or want to read offensive language. What is not acceptable is trying to prevent others from using it. Even though it does affect society as a whole and increases the exposure of those words to people and children not expecting it, that’s how language develops, both good and bad, and trying to stifle it by controlling anyone other than yourself will never succeed, in fact often it will have the opposite effect.

I think most people would say they don’t seek to prevent others from using those words as long as they make it clear that’s what they’re doing so those who aren’t interested can avoid them if they so choose. I think that's fair enough. But they also make a case for why those words are objectionable, none of which stand up, in my opinion.

Vulgar language is a sign of a limited vocabulary — In order for this idea to be true I would have to speak like this: Hey, fuck-face, pass me that bastard thing over there. No, not that piece of shit, the other fucker, the one with the motherfucking pointy things sticking out. Yes, the fucking fuck with the fuckers. 

I have a pretty extensive vocabulary. I use a lot of swearing, both in my written work and my speech. I don’t use it in front of certain people or certain places. I can control it. In effect, I use all the words most well educated people use, plus I use swear words, so I have a larger vocabulary, not a smaller one.

It is seen as a lower form of communication because it used to be. That idea that the vernacular is indicative of labourers and certain 'types' is now an anachronism. Yes, dockers swear. And gangsters. But so do comedians. And politicians. And people in every other strata of society.

If you know what you’re doing, swear words, like any part of language, can be used to add to meaning or rhythm or tone.

“Can you pass the salt, please?”
“You know, if you need to talk to someone about it. I’m here to help.”
“Thanks. Pass the fucking salt.”

If you repeat a word too much it becomes meaningless — this is certainly true, but it’s true of any word. Overuse of a word sticks out on the page and starts attracting the eye, distracting from the story. If you use the word ‘monkey’ six times in two paragraphs, even if the story is about two zoo keepers working in the monkey enclosure, it will read clumsily.

Using powerful words robs them of their impact — the only power swear words have is from their restricted use. For those people who use them a lot they have no power to shock or surprise or whatever, so only using them selectively makes no difference. In fact, the only people this is true for are the people who never use them, so in effect this is an instruction to really piss off those people who are sensitive to these wiords as much as possible. Which seems a tad vindictive.

Try saying the word ‘fuck’ ten times in a row. It ends up becoming meaningless, nonsensical. Try it with ‘cunt’. You may not like the sound of the word, it may even make you feel uncomfortable, but the more you say it the sillier it gets.

Now try saying the word ‘rape’ ten times in a row.  It’s horrifying. The more you say, the worse it gets. The difference is the word ‘rape’ has a very powerful and unsettling meaning. The reaction people have to swear words is all about the actual word. ‘Rape’ is about what the word represents, which is the job of words, to represent something else.  Rape is a powerful word, and it doesn’t matter how often you use it, it never loses that power, because it never loses that meaning.

Swear words only have the power ascribed to them, and a good writer can manipulate that to be more or less as they please.

A bride on her wedding night says to her husband, “Let's fuck.” 
Is that dark and menacing?

A newly convicted prisoner is in his cell and just as the lights go out he hears the guy in the bunk above him say, “You better find something to bite down on, pretty boy, ‘cos I’m about to split you wide open.” 
No swear words there, devoid of threat?

The point is, the power of words is dependent on what they mean and the context they’re in. Arbitrarily giving a blanket response to all uses of a word is more about you than it is about the word. A knife can kill, and it can slice bread. And you can use a scimitar to butter toast if you want. It all depends on the specific circumstance.

I just don’t like it — this is a perfectly reasonable stance to take, but taste is a strange thing. It develops over time, is affected by our past experiences and can be stunted by a refusal to try new things or by clinging to old ways. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, I’m just saying society changes gradually over long periods of time and generally in the one direction. Once a line is crossed you can slow things down but you rarely get to reverse them (although people certainly do try). 

I'm not saying all bets are off and anything goes. There is objectionable language that is offensive and unacceptable, but it may or may not contain swearing. The only way to make the judgement is after you understand the intent and the context, not before. You may not wish to expose yourself to that, which is fine, but you can't then assume you know what was intended. Because the range is vast, from vicious to playful. Perception is key, bitch.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

While I've been known to slip in real life, I try not to swear online or in my writing outside of 'damn.'

Jennifer Bogart said...

Except, in Quebec, the French use religious symbols to swear. The worst thing you do is say "Oh, tabarnak" (Tabernacle) when upset, angry or disgusted. To the "English" brain, it just sounds so very silly.

So, you are exactly right when commenting that the audience plays a large role in how the swearing is received.

Rusty Webb said...

I love a good obscenity filled rant. It makes me feel better somehow, probably because I know it's taboo.

Still, I try to only use the big ones when I think it's deserved. Like when I'm at the grocery store and someone takes the only unbruised tomato left right before I get to it... I get so angry.

Honestly, very insightful post.

Josh Hoyt said...

This is interesting. I think things have there place along with strong language. Good thoughts.

McKenzie McCann said...

I have a very beatnik view of swearing. Words are a way to convey meaning, and sometimes I just can't think of a more perfect phrase than "your father is a lazy asshole." In that case, 'jerk' wouldn't have the same meaning, neither would 'idiot' 'dude' or a variety of 'clean' words.

Marion Sipe said...

Great post!

Bob Scotney said...

I express myselF Fully on the golF course when a putt lips out.

Rachna Chhabria said...

In real life, I do swear sometimes, but not while writing, teaching or commenting on blogs.

Sophia Richardson said...

Can I just say that 'the fucking fuck with the fuckers' totally made me laugh? And the paragraph about the prisoner needing to bite down on something made me grimace. So all in all, good writing with and without swearing. I'm with you, sometimes a good swear word just fits.
- Sophia.

mooderino said...

Thanks for the comments. I know this is a sensitive subject for some people, but please feel free to say whatever you want even if you completely disagree with me. Always interested in alternate views.

Jean Davis said...

I couldn't agree more. Great post. And btw, 'the fucking fuck with the fuckers' made me laugh outloud.

Anne K. Albert said...

Just a side, fun comment on swearing. Those words are stored in a different part of the brain than regular language. It's in an emotional part of the brain. That explains why stroke victims sometimes only swear. It's the only part of the brain still functioning for speech...but often terrifying for their family. (Especially if he or she is a minister!)

mooderino said...

@Anne - Thanks for that tidbit. What a great idea for a story.

Mysti said...

Swearing like sex in a movie or novel just for the sake of shock value is not necessary, IMO. I'd much rather see witty dialogue than a bunch of words that make me blush.

However, if the story involves gangsters or those who would naturally curse, then it's fitting to use them. I still don't like it overused because that's when it starts to sound like cheap vocabulary. Think Quentin Tarantino movies :)

Nicole said...

Agreed. There are individuals whom I've met that use expletives as part of their everyday language and it does cause their choice of words to lose some power with regards to the type of impact it has on others. Nice comparison of the bride and guy in prison to illustrate how language is perceived, with or without what some may consider to be offensive terms.

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mooderino said...

@Mysti - but that's my point, it's only shocking for people who find swearing shocking. The rest of us don't react that way. So I never swear for shock value, even though you may assume so (because you find it shocking).

As I mention above the whole 'it's okay if it's gangsters or people like that' view is a very narrow perspective of who swears.

Beverly Diehl said...

Good post - no words are "bad" in and or themselves, they're only tools. We've all met people who are all over the fucking place with the fucking swear words all the fucking time, and it's boring as hell.

That said, you can get a hilarious effect when a character is adamantly opposed to swearing and says something like, "Oh, strawberries!" when the drop a can on their foot.

Lisa Gail Green said...

I absolutely LOVE this post. It's fucking brilliant (and I hardly EVER swear online). I would only add that if a character swears, they should do it not for shock value or some perceived forced voice, but because it's part of them, and called for in the situation.

Madeleine said...

Ah swearing, sometimes it fits with the voice like 'Of Mice and Men' and 'Catcher in the Rye', I guess. :O)

BTW Spock was raising a quizzical eyebrow.

Talli Roland said...

I don't mind swearing as long as there's a point to it. And I love the delivery!

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Elizabeth Mueller said...

Interesting post. I make it a point not to swear any where at all. I have been since a teen. I feel it's like smoking, I don't want to take anyone's "clean air" rights away. ;)


Hart Johnson said...

I get in these debates now and then--I write edgy YA and it wouldn't be realistic without a fair bit of swearing. Teens are testing the power of language and so many of them swear quite a lot. I know not ALL YA calls for it, but there are people who clearly don't have teens arguing MOST of it shouldn't. They are WRONG. I try to teach my own kids about when and with whom, but I would never say 'don't say it at all'.

Girl Friday said...

Love this post. As you say, it's all in the intent and how the words are said. It's also just what we're used to. In the UK, 'bugger' is a far milder swearword than 'fuck' but the meaning is no less rude. It also depends on how religious someone is - some people consider 'Gosh' a swear word whereas I wouldn't even consider it one.

Personally I swear all the time in real life, not for shock value, just for emphasis in conversation or relief when I stub my toe. Because I write for kids, I try not to swear online, at least on my blog... but I find it quite hard sometimes :)

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