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Thursday, 17 January 2013

Do Expletives Have a Place in Your Writing?

IMG_1075 (Photo credit: tantek)

Swearing in literature is probably as old as the written word. It offends many, amuses probably as many, and huge numbers remain indifferent to it. So, its use results in mixed reactions. Is there justification for it?

'Fuck off, mate. 'Course there is.'

Okay, so some of you flinched, others smiled. Others expected this sudden interjection.

'You're a cunt!'

Different? Of course. For two reasons, I think. Firstly, of course, this statement is an insult, downright offensive in intention as well as tone. Secondly, the word 'cunt' is possibly the last expletive available that has any real shock value. We're all subject to the once taboo 'fuck', and its derivatives, on a daily basis. It's used by all classes, all ages, both genders. It no longer has any emphatic value and has become merely a 'filler' for those without the intelligence, imagination or energy to come up with a more apposite epithet. It's a shame that something once so full of the power to startle and shock has, through too much usage, become no more than a lazy way of filling space whilst the speaker has time to think of the next thing he wishes to say.

'Cunt', on the other hand, is most definitely taboo is many circles, profoundly shocking in others and considered offensive in most. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives its root as the Old Norse word 'kunta' and I recall coming across it in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which I studied for my 'A' Level English Lit exam, as 'queynte'. Its definition is straightforward; meaning either female genitals, the vulva; or a person who is either very unpleasant or stupid, or both. Why the name for the most desirable part of a woman should also be used as an insult referring to horrible or stupid people is a matter for another discussion. Suffice it to say that it probably reflects on the way the Abrahamic, and most other, religions have viewed women from before Christian times.

In my youth, had I referred to my father as a 'bugger', I'd have received a clip round the ear. Later, as we both aged, I was able to call him, 'the silly old bugger' as a term of affection understood by all, including him, and make him smile. Such is the fluidity of language subject to usage. The same could be said of 'sod', once a pejorative term for a homosexual man and now a word used so casually that many have no idea of its original derivation as 'one who engages in sodomy'.

What, for one person is an offensive expletive, is, to another, a harmless epithet with little or no real meaning. I know, for instance, that in the Bible Belt of America, where the myths of ancient misogynistic men still have greater relevance than modern inclusive philosophies, words such as 'hell' and 'damn' are more than merely frowned upon. In the more enlightened cultures of the West, they are, of course, viewed as mild in the extreme and few parents would consider reprimanding a child heard uttering such innocuous words.

So, if you're tempted to use expletives in your writing, it's essential that you consider your readers. There is absolutely no doubt that whatever expletive you employ you will offend some. It's inevitable because of narrow-mindedness, cultural implanting, ignorance, taste or simple preference. Therefore, I suggest you think very carefully before you use words that some will see as 'bad'. That there are no 'bad' words is self-evident, of course, but there is 'inappropriate usage', and it is this that the writer should avoid.

It may be perfectly acceptable and, indeed, essential to the story for the writer to place long strings of extremely offensive words into the mouth of a character, because that is the way that particular character would speak.  The quoted speech of a coarse man may be absolutely necessary to the understanding of his character. And 'You fucking, shitty cunt!' may express exactly what such a character would say to another in certain circumstances, and therefore be perfectly acceptable. But, as the author, the narrator, it might be very unwise to employ the same string of words in describing that same character. The reader frequently reads the words of the narrator as those of the author, regardless of how inaccurate that assumption may be. So, beware.

Context is everything in this issue. If the use of an expletive is appropriate in the circumstances, then it's incumbent on the writer not to substitute it with something mild in the hope of avoiding offence. It is less than honest to turn down the heat, so to speak. But remember the old expression; call a spade a 'spade', by all means, but perhaps avoid calling it a 'fucking shovel', unless that's how the speaking navvy would refer to it.

I hope this has been useful. I'd appreciate your observations and comments. We can all learn from each other and that's my intention in these short posts that are intended to help writers entertain their readers without unnecessarily offending them.

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