Some time ago, I wrote a blog post about "bad language", because on the day I'd written it, several people had complained about my use of swearing.
I've decided to write this extra post, because it wasn't too long ago that I saw something that got my interest going all over again. A novelist, in an interview, being asked to explain himself for using extensive use of swearing.
In case you're interested, the original blog post can be accessed on this link:
If there’s one thing in the world of writing that really bugs me, it’s the idea that writers find themselves all too frequently having to defend or justify the use of swearing in their work.
Why does this bug me..? Well, because writers write, and whether people like it or not, swear words are still words. They are words that people use, and a writer’s job is often to portray realism.
Okay, so let’s break it down.
A writer is a craftsman, and a writer’s tools are, among other things, ideas and words. We put our sentences together, one word at a time, interlinking words like snap-together rail-sets. Through words, our ideas become sentences, paragraphs, chapters and stories, books, essays. And we think carefully about the words we want to use in order to gain maximum effect from our writing.
This is one of the wonderful things about language. And words like swear-words are often called Bad Language, but I couldn’t disagree more. Swearing is not bad language. It is just another part of the language we use every day.
To me, bad language is bad spelling. Bad punctuation. Bad grammar. It is those sorts of things. And if you really want to get down to the grit of it, then bad language is also, to me, manifested in examples of using language to express prejudice. Words that incite hatred; words that abuse and insult; words that humiliate and demonise.
These, to me, are far better examples of Bad Language, than swearing.
When I see a writer being grilled about their use of swearing, they may as well be grilled for their use of any goddamn word. The offence that some people take from seeing or hearing swearing is a matter for them. But in no way does it render the use of swearing in writing somehow in need of justification…yet worryingly all too often we see it happening.
Most of the swear words we use these days have been in existence for a very long time. Indeed, most of the words we use on a day to day basis have, too. Of course, new words are added to the dictionary all the time. But that’s the thing about language. It evolves. It adapts. It changes.
Where once a swear word might have had religious connotations, the likelihood is that nowadays it doesn’t. Yet some pockets of society still cling to the original notion and yell “Blasphemy!” as though it yields independent or objective power. (Don’t get me started on blasphemy, for Christ’s sake..!)
Take one of the most controversial swear words in existence. “Cunt”.
Some argue that the word was used well before the year 1230 as a factual name for the body part to which it commonly is identified. Going right back to medieval times, this was a word that had no power to offend. Throughout the ages, it was used by writers aplenty. Geoffrey Chaucer famously tinkered with it. Shakespeare too, although by his time it seems to have acquired some power to offend, and his use of it was therefore more discrete and playful rather than openly obvious. But these are widely accepted to be two of our greatest ever writers, and there they are, playing with cunts.
By the 1970s, it seems the feminist movement sought to actively associate words like ‘cunt’ with the dehumanisation of females, and thus turn it into a word to be despised.
And it worked, too, rightly or wrongly. But nowadays, the word is losing that context. It is – in some feminist circles – even being adopted by women to reclaim the word as something honorific, probably realising that its power to offend is diminishing, and thus presenting it with some new power of their making.
But for many people, the word ‘cunt’ is just a powerful insult with no connection whatsoever to females, or female genitalia. It is just a word that means someone is a nasty or stupid person of the highest order.
Indeed, as the feminist movement may seek to reclaim the word, many people have being using it as a term of endearment for quite some time. And thus, with many different people attributing many different uses to the word, it can no longer be truly said that its use should be deemed automatically offensive.
Anyone who freaks out when they see it, or hear it, isn’t being open minded. I was frequently shushed from using the word around some women who found it offensive, and they’d really get upset over it too.
Well…I was equally offended at being shushed, and told what I could and could not say. But whose offense is to be given more importance in those situations? Theirs, because I said a word that some parts of society think is unacceptable, or mine because my right to free speech is being impeded?
If I called a certain person a cunt that might be one thing, and possibly grounds for quite reasonably telling me to shut the fuck up. But if I used it in general conversation, then why am I doing something offensive, especially if it’s obvious that my reference has nothing to do with female genitalia..?
No. There’s too much knee-jerk hysteria over swearing, which results in writers having to defend it. And it’s not right. People swear. All manner of people, from all manner of backgrounds. It is not a a blight upon language reserved explicitly for the working class. A lot of us swear, yet when we read it in books we start getting our knickers in a twist.
I therefore argue that swearing is not bad language. It is language. It is words, phrases. It can be used to intensify, modify, enhance, add power.
I was once asked whether if, given my views on swearing, I’d mind if my kids rolled around the streets screaming obscenities, or swaggering around the house turning the air blue.
The truthful answer to that is yes, I would mind.
I was instantly labelled a hypocrite. But I don’t see it that way. I’m making that decision based on how I know society reacts to people who swear. Most of us do it, yet many don’t want to hear it from others. Especially the mouths of children, and the instant judgment that is made when people hear swearing from children is a negative one. Yobs, scum. Those sorts of associations. It doesn’t sound very nice coming from the mouths of children, because society has conditioned us to believe that it doesn’t sound very nice coming the mouths of ANYONE, let alone from fucking children!
People make judgments, and I don’t want my children to subject themselves to the negative judgments of snobs who’d think extremely badly of them if they walked around swearing. It’s nothing hypocritical. I haven’t just argued my own point out of relevance. I’m simply looking out for them as their parent, knowing how they’d be viewed if they did it. In fact, I do hear them swear anyway! And I don’t always complain about it. So…
But I mostly take the view that controlled use of swearing is a far better way of deploying it. And that is what I’d hope to demonstrate to them. Not to walk around putting Fs after every other word. It’s bad language then, because it reduces the power and effectiveness of the swear word. It’s not a sign of poor vocabulary, like some people say. It’s not at all, and there’s not one piece of convincing evidence to suggest that it is. But having a skillful and masterful power with language takes time to perfect. My children won’t be allowed to walk around swearing because I don’t want other people forming a dim view of them, knowing that this is what people do, and also because I want them to learn the beauty of mastering language as a whole. I want them to learn the power of it. To command it with great effect. And that takes help from someone older, someone more experienced, like a parent.
That’s my job.
Besides, if I was to give a truly honest answer to the question of whether I’d mind my children swearing, it would be this: I would much rather my children swore, than used language that to me is truly bad. If they used sexist, homophobic, racist or any other words of any form expressing prejudice or hate or bigotry…then I’d be fucking worried.
That is what would truly offend me.