Sunday, October 28, 2007

I Swear!

Ah profanity. I'm having a bit of an issue with it these days. My three-year-old son has decided that the word s**t is an essential part of his vocabulary these days and I'm having a heck of a time getting him to understand that it's not exactly an appropriate word for him. We may be moving on to soap very soon.

My son's recent fascination with four letter words has had profanity on my mind recently, and then I stumbled across this most excellent post on Joe Abercrombie's blog. For those who don't know who Joe is, I have a review of Joe's book, "The Blade Itself" on my book-review blog. One thing "The Blade Itself" had kind of become known for is the prolific use of profanity in the book. Joe addresses part of the issue in this way:

There was an interesting discussion of this very issue (which again started with a reading of The Blade Itself , blast my potty-mouth again) over at SFFWorld a while back. Some of the objections raised to swearing there were: that these are 'modern' swear-words out of context in a 'ye olde' fantasy setting, that you're better off making up a culture-specific oath like 'by the holy orb of Zalxoz I will destroy thee!', that you can just make up your own non-offensive word to substitute for the evil English creations (like BSGs frel, for example). ((it was noted by readers of Joe's blog that BSG's swear word of choice is frak))

So allow me to viciously destroy this straw-man I have myself created, by repeating parts of the post I made there:

The notion that 'folks all spoke nice in them old days' is entirely a Victorian invention. The three words that I believe we are chiefly talking about here (F**K, S**T, and C**T, forgive my euphemisms) are all words with long and proud traditions in the English language, going back hundreds of years.

Of course, fantasy is not history. Fantasies can include all kinds of different elements corresponding to different time periods. Furthermore, even if we are describing a pseudo-medieval setting, no-one could pretend that we are writing for a medieval audience. As I see it, an author has to select the mode of expression which he feels best communicates his meaning, or the meaning of his characters, to a reader of modern English. It's a question of judgement, and, as with the explicitness of sex or violence in a book, every author will find his own way, and different readers will have their own unique response.

For me, as a reader, I find complicated oaths (by the holy beard of Swarfega etc.) to be unconvincing (and often truly risible) unless very well integrated into some specific element of a fantasy culture, and even then they are rarely a good substitute for a simple S**T in times of high excitement. When I stub my toe I very rarely reach for a culture-specific mouthful such as, "by the golden boots of David Beckham!" or some such.

Isn't that great? There is more to the post, just click on the link to read more of what Abercrombie has to say.

Profanity in entertainment fascinates me to some degree. I remember when I watched "Pulp Fiction" for the first time and the use of the "N-word" blew me away. That is a word that has been so taboo in our culture that I just couldn't believe it was thrown out there so casually. But then that's kind of Tarantino's thing isn't it? Shocking the audience through the use of coarse language and extreme violence? I often wonder what the movie would have been like without those elements and whether or not it would have been so good.

The debate over language [as well as violence] in entertainment isn't a new one. I don't believe in censorship for the basic reason that I wouldn't trust anyone to decide what I should see or read. But I do think that over-use of profane language can dull the impact. Abercrombie even said that perhaps he had been a bit liberal with the use of profanity in his book and I have to admit that I agree. Even the N-word in "Pulp Fiction" lost its edge before the movie was even over. At times I even find myself looking for entertainment that is a bit easier on my sensibilities, kind of like a breather, or palate cleanser for my brain.

Maybe I'm just being a bit puritanical. Though it would be nice if my son would stop swearing.


Lee said...

I've always told my kids that I find it difficult to beleive that certain arrangements of our alphabet are "bad." But they seem to understand that the use of certain words are inappropriate for their age, same as driving, smoking, voting, drinking. They can do what they want, when they are old enough. I've also told them they will straight up get their asses handed to them if they use the wrong language in front of the wrong people. Good ruck with yer potty-mouth! ;)

Stewart Sternberg said...

I use scant profanity in my writing. I think profanity, whether it is in literature or in real-life is a sloppy short cut, a lazy execution of the language that does little to effectively communicate.

My high school kids swear little. That's because I have long laid down the law about, explaining why it is inappropriate. I believe that language is one means to success. While someone who speaks well can always slum it down, someone from the streets will have trouble talking up unless educated to do so.

As a writer, language is my blood. Throwing around profanity in a sentence or in a lyric doesn't make a song "real" ("real" in such context is the most asinine usage of the word, don't you think?). It can provide blocks of all manner; people throw up walls as it jars against culture.

If children are given proper instruction when very young, they will have some perspective about profanity when later exposed to it through peers or the media.

It's all so depressing.

SQT said...

I've always been on the fence on this Stu. Sometimes I think profanity, as used in writing, can be an honest expression of a characters kind of wordless-frustration. But I don't like it so much when it's used excessively. I generally assume it's being used for shock value at that point and I pretty much ignore it after that.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

I think people who use it in books have a lack of imagination as they don't have the vocabulary to describe things effectively.

ShadowFalcon said...

Swearing is a funny thing, I try to abstain but every now and again a four letter word pops out my mouth. It is so infrequent however the my aquintences gasp with shock whenever it happens. It seems that its fine to swear if you do it all the time but shocking if like me you rarely do. I guess as kids we all go through the swearing phase...

Charles Gramlich said...

Karl Edward Wagner used to get "shit" for this and his response was pretty much the same. He said, when a soldier in ancient Rome stepped knee deep in a mudhole he might not have said "shit" but he certainly said the local equivalent. I have to agree, and the words don't typically bother me. I use cursing very sparingly in my own work. I think it has a role to play, because people do indeed talk that way, but as STewart says, it shouldn't be a sloppy shortcut.

weenie said...

What I found quite refreshing in Joe's books was the swearing - somehow, it made it seem a bit more real in my view.

Personally, I only swear if I'm upset or angry, or in my car!

I'd like to think that my English vocab is extensive enough that I can describe things without resorting to swearing! :-)

weenie said...

Um, just read the last comment - I have to admit that I do use the words 'shit' and also 'b*ll*cks' - when I meant swearing, I actually really meant the f-word!

The Curmudgeon said...

This is a favorite subject of mine: I am amazed at how frequently my own kids (much older than yours) lapse into profanity -- on the computer, on the phone, sometimes even when they know I'm in the room.

My wife -- a junior high teacher -- told me this week about a kid in her class who used the word "crap" in a presentation about food. He honestly did not know that this was an inappropriate word for use in school, particularly while presenting to the class.

But, my wife said, why would he? His parents are nice people and we live in a middle class area... but language far worse than this is on prime time TV every night of the week.

I can't imagine how a person who does not learn how to speak without cussing can function in environments where cussing is truly impermissible -- say, in court, for example. No matter how tempting, it is really not acceptable, when the learned judge pronounces a ruling, to expostulate, "That's bullsh*t, Your Honor!"

It's not that I don't cuss -- I drive occasionally. It was tough going to Cub Scout Pack Nights right from the drive home on the expressway... when they asked for the hand sign I was always afraid I'd give the wrong one....

But words -- especially the "big ones" that you referred to -- have power. Or they're supposed to. That's why they are used in the most extreme circumstances. If they are used for casual conversation or trivial provocation what is left when you hit your thumb with the hammer?

Crunchy Carpets said...

If an oath is make has to sound 'real'..which is why Frak works and so does Frelling from Farscape.

They 'sound' like words in our world.

The big noble oaths just don't flow.

I think Deadwood is the best example of archaic language and profanity....I LOVE the writing for that show.

My kids have managed to ignore most of my potty mouth...and still think 'Ass' is the funniest word ever.