Sunday, October 28, 2007
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.