Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Swear Words in Literature

As I'm in the middle of Game of Thrones, this topic is at the forefront of my mind right now. A few years ago, I considered myself against all profanities in literature, because I thought it brought down the entire quality of the book. Though I am still somewhat of that opinion, I now realize that I never truly believed that 100%. Because I seriously had nothing wrong with "Frankly, Scarlett, I don't give a damn," and that's a profanity, right? So I've revised my opinion a bit, though I truly have no hard-and-fast rules regarding this. When I decide whether I think a profanity is right in the book, I think about the book as a whole, not whether the word is a "bad word."

Probably the most important thing about profanities is that if an author uses them in his or her book, that doesn't mean that's how they would speak in everyday life. It might just be how their character speaks. For example, the characters in some of the stories I've written say "hell," and "damn," but I don't use those words. (For the record, the strongest word I use is probably "crap.") So that is an important point to be taken in consideration. Using the previous example, Rhett Butler is exactly the kind of guy to use words like "damn." (As a matter of fact, so is Scarlett.)

Now, the following opinion I have is completely illogical, if you think about it, but I seem to have a greater tolerance in literature for "older" swear words, such as "hell" and "damn" than I do for more contemporary ones such as "sh*t" and the F-bomb. (See, I won't even write them!) As I said, this is completely illogical if you look at the literal meanings of these words because it's much meaner to condemn someone to tortures in the pit of Hell forever than to say a crude word for poop. However, my justification for this is that the more contemporary words are slang, and very crude slang at that - I don't like crudeness. The "older" swears have a more classic ring to them because they've been in use for centuries. (This logic is terrible, I know, but it's my brain, and it's weird that way.) I think it all boils down to the "elegance" versus the crudeness of the profanity - but seriously, can profanities really be elegant?

A few paragraphs ago, we talked about how the word has to match the character. I also think the word has to match the time period. In Game of Thrones, there are people saying "sh*t" and "f---" and somehow I don't think it fits. "Hell," "damn," "bastard," and other words like that seem fine, but the more contemporary slang doesn't. Game of Thrones is set in a fictional time and place that is not unlike our middle ages. The argument for the modern swears would be that Game of Thrones characters don't speak Old English - they speak contemporary English, and therefore can expand their vocabulary to a few contemporary profanities. Still, I think that the dialogue in this sense is a little inconsistant, because the characters use some archaic words and older sentence structure sometimes - flipping the verb and the noun from what sounds normal for us. Somehow, when they use "sh*t" and "f---," it feels out of place.

I'm pretty sure that it's this inconsistency of the language with the setting that bugs me with the Game of Thrones profanities, because the same words don't irk me half as much in Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books. I mean, there's a fellow called Mr. Schitt, and that is joked about many times.
"Oh sh*t."
"That's Mr. Schitt to you!"
It's no big deal here because it's set in an alternate version of contemporary London, so you'd expect language like that. (And the f-bomb doesn't show up half as much as in Game of Thrones.)

I must say that in the long run, swears turn me off from a book, if only slightly. Movies are rated so that viewers can decide whether it is too gory, sexy, or swear-y for themselves and their kids. But there is no such thing as official book ratings. Yes, some books are more in the PG range, some are clearly only G, and some are definitely R. But this is only up to the readers opinion and there is no notice on the book cover announcing this. It all boils down to our personal freedoms, I think, but I know that I wouldn't let my kids read Game of Thrones until I knew they were mature enough to handle the content.

What about the word "bloody?" I was reading Pygmalion (by Shaw; it's the play My Fair Lady was based on), and Henry Higgins gets scoffed at by his mother for saying "bloody." "Henry! Really!" So I guess it really was a bad word at that time - I think it actually was unprintable. (In My Fair Lady, he also says "damn" four times in a row.)
Here's something I found on Wikipedia:
On the opening night of George Bernard Shaw's comedy Pygmalion in 1914, Mrs. Patrick Campbell in the role of Eliza Doolittle, created a sensation with the line "Walk! Not bloody likely!" and this led to a fad for using "Pygmalion" itself as a pseudo-oath, as in "Not Pygmalion likely."

 What do you think about profanities in literature? Yes? No? Maybe? Let me know in the comments!

(This post is linked up at The Fiction Conniption's Let's Discuss)


  1. I think profanity in literature has been something that's been debated SO many times before, but no one seems to be able to reach a conclusion! You raised some excellent points, though.

    "Probably the most important thing about profanities is that if an author uses them in his or her book, that doesn't mean that's how they would speak in everyday life." - Agreed. And I think it's important for authors to get into the shoes of their characters as well, because it makes them more realistic. Because what I mainly read is YA, I've come across all kinds of characters - the sweet, likable kinds, the ones who swear a lot because it's cool, the ones who swear a lot because it's part of who they are, and the ones who are just so bland they're forgettable.

    And don't feel bad about feeling that way, Sophia! Everyone's entitled to their own opinions, though I can't say I fully understand yours... Heh. I'm a pretty open-minded person, so I'm fine with all kinds of swear words - both old and new - so I don't really have much of an opinion on elegance of swear words. To me, they're all pretty crude, but I think they're a necessary part of some people's lives.

    But wow, I didn't know "bloody" was so bad it was unprintable! That's a bit ridiculous, because in HP, Ron says "bloody hell" all the time, and I don't think there's anything wrong with it, compared to the other cruder words.

    So I guess I mean to say that I think profanity in literature is TOTALLY okay - especially in YA. Though swearing isn't the best of habits to pick up, it's important to make the story and the characters seem real, and a lot of people - such as myself - will be able to relate to the characters more. Though it all depends on the reader, and everyone has different opinions, so there's no right or wrong answer to this, really.

    Great post!

    1. Thanks for your input! Yeah, I tend to be a bit more conservative when it comes to swear words... even though sometimes I'm around people who use them every other sentence!

      And it seems like the offensiveness of "bloody" has really changed dramatically over the years. We can't even conceive of a time when it wasn't just considered a mild quirk of British English. (This is from an American, by the way!)
      I suppose that brings up another point - the use of swear words in different cultures. While "bloody" was unprintable in England in 1914, Americans probably didn't even consider using it, even though we both speak the same language. It just was such a British word.

      Anyway, thanks for stopping by!


  2. The F-bomb (see, I can't even write it out either!) is the reason I stopped reading Stephen King. He wrote great stories that scared me silly, but there was always that voice in my head that said, "Do we really need all the profanity and sex? Can't we get to the core of the story?" If I read horror, which is HIGHLY infrequent, I want to be scared so bad I check under my bed and in my closet and keep a light on for weeks on end. Just give me my shot of terror, and don't muddle it with everything else.

    Great post!

    1. I totally agree! That same little voice that was in your head when you read Stephen King is now in mine while I'm reading the Game of Thrones books. It's part of the reason I'm having a bit of a difficult time deciding how to write my review on them - 'cause they really are awesome books.

      I'm glad you enjoyed my post - thanks for stopping by!

  3. A very interesting topic! As someone who studies the Middle Ages, I can tell you, the "S" word can be traced to Anglo-Saxon times as well as "asses" and "farts;" however, those wouldn't have been looked down upon as they are today (with regards to calling someone that). As for the infamous F word-the groundwork for it can be seen as far back as the Romans. Though they didn't give us the specific word, just the foundation for it.

    My thoughts on swear words in books is: there's a time and place. Sometimes there's only way to express something and that's with a swear word. If I'm reading a book and swear words dominate 60% of it, I have to question the author's use. Is it part of the character's personal history, etc? If no, then why use such language since there's lots of ways to convey certain things in another format.

    1. That's interesting! I love anything Medieval, so that's a neat snippet of knowledge to add to my mental archives. :-)



Book discussions make the world a better place! Write me a comment - I respond to each and every one, I promise. So check back!

(YES! I LOVE TAGS and I do them! So tag away! But no bloggerly awards, though, like the Liebster or the Sisterhood of World Bloggers. Thank you!)