Language most foul

I have recently unfollowed someone for using the C word in a tweet. The offender gave a cursory apology but, in suggesting that those of us with ‘delicate sensibilities’ should ‘cover our ears’, rather belied himself.

As a writer of court reports, some of them addressing abusive and criminal behaviours and requiring verbatim quotes, I am not unfamiliar with offensive language nor too fragile of constitution to repeat it when required. In fact, in therapy sessions, when clients have no other words for something and use, let’s call it a ‘street’ word so as not to attract unwelcome attention, I will use that word myself in the interests of unambiguous communication.

But what about fiction? I’ve noticed that none of my characters is inclined to swear. They don’t use profanities any more than I would myself and they would certainly never use that word even in extremis. So am I being prudish, unreal, and disconnected? Avoiding the gritty and down to earth man-in-the-street dialogue that demonstrates urban credibility? I’m not sure. You see, I’m pretty happy with dramas that manage without it – or at least without the peppering that seems to go with some writers’ view of realism.

Like smoking, gratuitous use of offensive language (language designed to offend, not language that has been defined as offensive by some mysterious authority) bothers me as it seems to represent a laziness of thinking. I wonder what else the characters could be doing or saying if they weren’t mouthing off or manipulating a cigarette without adding anything to the story. I particularly dislike it in books because the writer is forcing me to articulate, albeit sub-vocally, a word I would not normally use in a similar situation. Critically, I notice gratuitous swearing and smoking and I absolutely don’t notice its absence.

What I also notice and find laughable are the attempts of family magazines to asterix out particular words. Our Radio Times, a bastion of British Middle English Society, does this frequently with reports of interviews in which rock, film, and acting legends feel moved to express themselves rather strongly. Sometimes I agree entirely with their use of the word and so, to see it represented by its first and last letter bookending a bunch of  *****s as if we wouldn’t know what the word might be seems bizarre. More bizarre can be the RT’s decision about what constitutes an offensive word – the colloquial for excrement apparently is, while ‘arse’ is not – and so children can read about the latter but have to guess, giggle, and smirk about the former. And substitute words such as ‘sugar’ and, in more contemporary context, ‘frack’ (Battle Star Galactica) – well, what is that all about?! After a while, we all know what it represents so how is different from the word it is replacing?

What’s the deal, then, on ‘language’ in literature? Is there a difference between the way male and female writers approach this? Do some women go overboard with it as a kind of compensatory strategy? Is there room for wusses whose characters will more likely say ‘Oh bother!’ than ‘*****!’ when the ghoul from deepest Hades rounds the end of their blind alley? And, rather like the writing of scenes of intimacy, how do you convince your mates that this is fiction darn it, and not a window on your own perverse little world!

Post script: spellcheck did not argue with ‘frack’, what’s that tell you I wonder!

12 thoughts on “Language most foul

  1. I guess you can call me sensitive as well. When I tag surf on this site as soon as I see a ‘street word’ I’m on to the next thing to read. It’s not like I haven’t heard it all before. Try riding a city bus with a bunch of middle-schoolers. Every other word is potentially offensive. I also understand there is a place for these words in adult writing and would not promote complete absence of them, but I choose not to waste my time on pieces littered with them ‘just for effect’. I, too, make the immediate judgment the piece will be weak, it’s an easy way to spot a lazy writer. Also, every once in awhile I do write the occasional h- or d- but those words are used so often they’re hardly noticeable any longer and have lost their shock value. It’s the stronger language I walk away from.

  2. Interesting isn’t it? You’re right, some words have lost their shock value and so, if you need to shock, you have to move up a gear but, in the real world, my world, I will only move up so far however hard I try to imagine situations in which I might go further. Having said that, I have also become inured to words I would have balked at in my younger years but perhaps that is because they were the province of men, and ‘bad’ men at that, but now they are not.
    Thanks for dropping by and commenting, it’s much appreciated.

  3. Although I am prudish in my own voice (so much so that rarely does anyone in my family “slip” when they are in my presence), but I do use street language in my novel. Not for all characters and not casually. I have one character that grew up with an addict/alcoholic mother and was left pretty much to her own devices to survive childhood. I would find it unbelievable for her to say, “Oh bother!”

    Language is a tool of characterization. My character Meredith is educated and privileged and her language reflects that. Renee is the opposite and she speaks “street.”

    I do find it hilarious to hear a Sopranos episode on a censored channel. “What the frack?” Indeed.

    1. Wrote a reply and lost it – grrr! I do wonder how far ‘real life’ leads or is led by media. Is language in our dramas and literature the way it is because it reflects reality or because it imagines it reflects reality? And does reality then behave in that way because that is what seems to be the norm? John Wyndham’s novels are classics and contain nothing that might be described as strong language; they were of their time and I doubt anyone expected anything else. CSI, Law & Order and the like offer intense visual assaults but no swearing – rape and murder are evidently more acceptable than profanity. Smart writing seems to me to obviate gratuitous language but I must say there are times when ‘Oh shoot!’ has me groaning in disbelief.

      1. We had this discussion in my critique group once. I only know that I draw my characters from compilations of people I know, and I reflect their language. I also draw from my childhood. I grew up surrounded by people who did not read in an era when “bad language” was never heard in movies or on TV, so I don’t think their language was influenced by media. You might be right to say it was a reflection of a deficient education. On the other hand, one of the most educated men I know has the foulest mouth.

        However, if an agent or editor should tell me to clean up the language, I could easily do so.

          1. No, this is a real life person. You have me curious who this was. I wonder if I’m following him. There’s one guy, published author, who followed me first and I returned the favor, but he often make off-color (or too close for me) tweets.

            Btw, I would never have one of my characters use the c-word, even if I thought they actually would.

            1. Mine was a scientist on another account. I’d expected far better of him and I was surprised both at the apparent ease with which the word had been used and his casual apology. This was not a slip and so I must assume it’s a word he has few inhibitions about using. Having said that, I have huge concerns about the way in which words become associated with offence. After all, they’re just collections of letters and, unless they’re being used to offend me, I should not really be offended. In real life I work and socialise with people who use ‘words’ sparingly, with clients (patients) who often use them in ignorance, and a few people who use them either in ignorance or for effect. I’m generally not offended unless the person aims them at me with a view to causing me discomfort, but I am offended in terms of the aesthetics of language and literature when they’re used just to show me how street-cred or how authentic something is. The scientist fell foul of my axe not because of the collection of letters he used or his intent to offend me in particular but because he must be aware that social convention proscribes that word above all others. Like you, I wouldn’t use that word whatever the character. Some people can exercise restraint and others can’t. I think authors belong to the first group really.

  4. As a woman, I do walk away from certain people or conversations (or stories) if a certain word pushes a personal button.

    As in real life, those words are part of the English language for a reason, and there are certain times when they can be used effectively. When I write, I consider the character. Sometimes a character might be more abrasive and insensitive, so a harsh four-letter words would show that.

    As far as your last question, we become vulnerable each time we write and send a story out into the world. We can’t control what someone thinks of us, the author (good or bad). That said, there are certain stories I began to write, then put away based on the thought that I didn’t want to be associated with that tale…at least not today.

    1. Since most of my friends are psychologists, I wouldn’t get away without extensive examination and interpretation of my need to express a covert part of my personality. And since I’m a psychologist, I will have done the same thing myself first! No win, I think!

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