On Swearing

Last Friday evening I met my learned friend and actual proper author, Jay Stringer, for ale and Indian cuisine. We spoke of many things: of politics and anarchy, of football and rugby, of fiction and non-fiction, of his books and the manuscript of mine that he’s reading.

With that in mind, we spoke very briefly of swearing. This particular novel has a lot of swearing in it, and its sequel too. Jay, being an experienced man of the world and a three-novel veteran of the crazy world of publishing warned me that, while I shouldn’t compromise my art for a market, I should be prepared to get some scathing reviews because of profanity.

I thought it was an interesting point and one I can understand, but cannot quite empathise with. It’s a quasi-taboo, is swearing, that has no real rules, and whether one revels or takes offence is a deeply personal thing and one I find fascinating.

Here’s my take on swearing: I fucking love swearing. I think, rather than illustrate a lack of vocabulary or an anti-poetic bent, as is the most common aversion, it’s just another colour in the paintbox. A colour that cannot be substituted by others. A primary colour. Let’s say blue.

Swearing is blue. Without the colour blue, one can paint many wondrous scenes. one can deliberately limit one’s pallette to convey an emotion. A sunset landscape painted of yellows and reds conveys a certain warmth and coziness. It evokes that parochial feeling of a day well spent and your reward, a beautiful sunset. You didn’t need blue there, you got your message across without it.

But let’s say you wanted to paint a landscape at mid-day, without a cloud in the sky. Could you avoid blue? Yes, you certainly could, but the sky is blue, and that’s that. You can substitute it, but it’s not going to convey the emotion you want it to.

It’s the same with swearing.

Let’s say I am sitting, on a fine summer’s day, in an orchard of pear trees. I muse and chew on a piece of grass, its sweet, green goodness touches my tongue and in that moment, there is nothing but me and nature. A lark sits opposite in the tree and sings a merry tune, a warmth spreads through me like a log fire on a winter’s day, or your first sip of whisky. Blossom falls in slow motion, as if in a dream. Contentment.

“Fuck!” I exclaim, dispelling the scene. The lark takes flight in terror and I the coppery taste of blood replaces the sweet grass. I rub the back of my head and my hand comes away wet and sticky. A windfall pear has just scene fit to cosh me in its last dying action.

I could have substituted any word as an exclamation: damn, blast, bugger, curses, etc. But you know what? That’s not what I would have said. I’d have said ‘fuck’, and I’d have said it loud. It evokes a different emotion from ‘darn it!’, it’s degrees removed. I’d have been that angry because my idyllic scene was shattered. It was a jarring, shattering exclamation that immediately destroyed the happiness and contentment, and it did it fast. I could instead have described what I felt, but it wouldn’t have done the same thing.

Oh, and don’t get me started on swear-word substitutes like ‘shoot’ and ‘freaking’. If you’re going to say something, say it, don’t dance around it. You may as well have not bothered exclaiming.

Swearing isn’t a failure, or a shortcoming (often) or a lack of vocabulary (although it very much can be), on the contrary, it denotes a richness of language, it shows a skill and a mastery of the tongue we speak in, when used appropriately. Although, it can be used as a short cut, when something more descriptive would have been better, and often is. Whether you like it or not however, it’s there, it has history as long as the language and beyond and it’s not going away. Denying it is proper or that it is a weakness only serves to illustrate that a person is not as au fait with a language, its life, and evolution as they think.

Swearing is a pinnacle of emotion. Not the pinnacle, for there are many, but a pinnacle nonetheless. In some respects, it is a dead-end, an alley in which one can go no further. There are some words such as ‘cunt’, that are thought of as always distasteful and, once invoked, one cannot really go much further to continue to outraging a reader further. However, when it is used as an expletive, rather than just a vulgar noun, there is no other way of conveying that emotion in a succint way. It is no doubt possible, to describe a fellow in such terms as one might invoke with the word ‘cunt’, but there is no way, other than the utterance of a short, percussive, four-letter-word, to get the immediacy and power of that notion. None. When you read that particular word in a book, it more often than not stops you dead, and that is a useful tool when used sparingly.

Swearing also has degrees of power, dropping in ‘bloody’, ‘bugger’, ‘bollocks’, or ‘shit’, is unlikely to cause outrage by anyone but the most modest and conservative of readers, but there is no arguing that all of these are intended to be expletives. ‘Fuck’ and its derivatives are arguably a degree or two up in power from the others, but in recent times, even this once mighty taboo word, has lost some of its potency. It’s also worth noting that, the more often swearing is used in a given time frame, say a novel, or even a conversation, it begins to lose its potency, and almost becomes embellishment rather than poignant.

Now, the other thing to think about, which is really where the contention lies, is context.

In the pub, surrounded by my friends, there is no word I could say in the English language that would be considered to be personally offensive in its own right. We swear, and that escalates the more emotion is required. Granted, directing that kind of language at individuals may draw some offence, but in general, it doesn’t.

However, I rarely swear when I’m talking to my boss. Sometimes it’s appropriate, depending on the severity of a situation, but mostly it isn’t. Likewise, I rarely swear in front of my mother, but do openly in front of my father, and I have never knowingly expleted in front of my grandparents.

There’s no rule to any of this, it’s just sometimes it isn’t appropriate and sometimes it is. In fiction, that’s a very useful property to draw on, but that’s another topic entirely.

Swearing is an utterly abstract concept. Humans, in all languages, at all times in history, have always had some portion of their language arbitrarily zoned off as ‘swearing’. What makes a particular word a swear-word or not is entirely down to how puritanical a society’s view is on a particular concept or emotion. Swearing in English is mostly based on sexual innuendo and description: fuck, bollocks, cock, wank, arse, tit, cunt, etc.; or concepts we think of as vulgar or unclean: shit, piss, etc. I’m no linguist or lexicographer, but I imagine the same trends across all languages that find sexual acts and bodily functions something that is best left for private.

The other thing that is universally considered swearing is blasphemy. Obviously for different societies, cultures, nations and religions, blasphemy has different meanings, stresses, subtleties and emphases, but most subdivisions of humanity have a concept of blasphemy.  In the UK, as we become increasingly secular, exclamations like ‘Christ!’, or ‘Jesus!’ are run-of-the-mill and mostly acceptable in polite company, even by those who consider themselves to be ostensibly of one religion or another. To some people however, who take their faith seriously, there can be no greater insult than taking their deity’s name in vain. In some societies, the punishment for blasphemy can still be very serious, or indeed final.

To look at it objectively though, all words are collections of sounds, represented by marks on paper. The meaning we attach to them is our own interpretation of an accepted definition. To take personal offence at someone else’s use of a language is as alien to me as touchscreen phones to a goat. Essentially, to become offended by something not directed at oneself is purely to measure a person by one’s own yardstick.

So, context is important. I wouldn’t blaspheme to a priest, because, despite what I’ve said, I know a priest would likely take offence. Should I care? Not really. I do though, because I don’t like to offend people. Sometimes that’s impossible, and it happens, and I’m sorry about that. But sometimes, it can be avoided by having knowledge of context.

And that is why my book uses a lot of swearing. Context. Most of the characters in my book are of a certain bent, they are thieves, and smugglers, and pirates, and soldiers. Many of them are uneducated, and most of them are very angry and selfish. And they swear. They swear in normal conversation, openly and regularly, because when I’m out and about in my normal life, and when I communicate with my peers and people I am comfortable with, that’s the form of language that is used.

Some of them don’t. There are priests, and lords, and nobles, and monks, and in these contexts, foul language would be incongruous, and thus it isn’t used. I wouldn’t swear at a priest because deep down, I’m a nice enough bloke, who doesn’t like to cause upset in people. My protagonist does though, and worse, because he’s a massive arsehole.

So in short, swearing is part of all language whether you like it or not. If it gets missed out, that’s fine, the story is still there, but it’s missing a flavour. It’s missing a colour, a primary colour, an important colour.

Without swearing, you can still see the sunset, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

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