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WTF? Or, The Knights Who Say F*ck (A Lot)

How much swearing is TOO much swearing? Is there even such a thing as too much swearing?! Lavie Tidhar, author of By Force Alone, on sale now, dives into that question, and what “bad” language means to our concept of speech in the article below. Check it out!


I once wrote a picture book called Going to the Moon, about a boy with Tourette syndrome who wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. It starts, “This is Jimmy. Jimmy goes to the FUCKING school. Jimmy has Coprolalia. It makes him use socially-unaccepted words. Like FUCK.”

(I may have been stoned when I wrote it. It really was a long time ago).

The thing is, Going To The Moon – a book about words and what happens when you can’t control them, about bullying and dreams – might actually be the best thing I ever wrote. It was illustrated by Paul McCaffrey, who went on to be my partner on the comics mini-series Adler (issue #3 out now!), and I think only thirty people ever bought one (the publisher lost the second box of copies).

What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that if language matters, “bad” language, or swearing, matters too. It is the sort of thing we try to teach children not to use while, most often, using it ourselves. It’s everywhere, in music, in films, graffitied on walls. And it’s old.

I suppose some readers have the quaint notion people never used to swear. The c-word, so offensive we call it “the c-word”, was used by Chaucer and Shakespeare. Shakespeare in particular takes absolute delight in working in rude puns into his plays, reminding us that Elizabethan theatre was set in the veritable den of vice that was Southwark, a stone throw from the brothels and the bear pits. And swearing was hardly restricted to the barbarous English. The Romans, whose absence haunts the pages of my recent book By Force Alone, swore like troopers. Just in Latin.

So when writing historically-set novels, even if they occasionally feature a leprechaun or a dragon (or Jewish kung-fu masters, or aliens), the question becomes not, “Did they swear?” but rather, “How much did they swear?”

My first novel, The Bookman, an almost young-adultish novel really, originally had exactly one instance of the word “fuck” in it – because, in American movie ratings, one instance is allowed and I thought it was funny (I cut it out in the end but I still like the joke). And I am not a huge fan of swearing for its own sake. I’ve taken to removing instances of swearing from my work unless explicitly called for. I also, as it happens, write children’s books (The Candy Mafia is out this September), and I couldn’t even use the word “fat” as a description (or, indeed, mention in passing the smell of cigarette smoke). Words and their use change over time. Where Roald Dahl takes awful delight in tormenting Augustus Gloop and his parents (Dahl’s inherent cruelty is never more evident than when he targets overweight people), today’s children’s authors must do better (and I always felt bad for Augustus, a happy child finding utter joy in food and tormented for no good reason by that awful Mr. Wonka).

I suppose I only discovered the sheer joy of sweary abandon when I got to write the character of “Wolf” (a down-at-heels Adolf Hitler who never rose to power) in A Man Lies Dreaming. Wolf’s rage, hate, and frustration were incredibly liberating! As his life gets worse and worse, the expletives come pouring out with greater savagery and emphasis. In the second half of the novel the exclamation marks multiply! It was great fun! At least for me! (I don’t think many people ever bought that book, either, though it has its fans).

So when setting down to write By Force Alone, a book about terrible people doing terrible things (which is the history of Britain in a nutshell, really), how else could they possibly speak? I may have somewhat overused the c-word, I must admit, though modern Brits do use it more freely than their American counterparts. The knights are gangsters, and gangsters (at least, movie gangsters) make poetry out of obscenity, a fact that owes a debt of gratitude to Goodfellas writer Nicholas Pileggi more than most. Pileggi makes “fucks” sing.

In his influential essay “The Simple Art of Murder”, Raymond Chandler set down the idea plainly. How should his hero speak? “He talks as the man of his age talks,” Chandler says, “that is, with rude wit [and] a lively sense of the grotesque.”

I can’t promise I delivered on the wit, but I certainly did on the rude parts, and I’m pretty sure I did ok on the grotesque. As one rather confused Goodreads reader put it, “Swearing, some sexual scenes, violence and graphic descriptions do not make it suitable for a younger age group.” You’d think the blood dripping sword on the cover might have been a clue, too, but fuck that.

Swearing for its own sake is a pointless exercise, and you should go wash your mouth with soap (as people used to say. Do people still say that? Did it ever work? I rather doubt it). But used well, there is a wonderful theatricality to swearing, a slapstick joy like a custard pie in the face.

And if someone doesn’t like it, then fuck it.

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19 thoughts on “WTF? Or, The Knights Who Say F*ck (A Lot)

  1. Swearing never had a valid reasoning. It is a weak mind, someone with a limited vocabulary or of a low intelligence that must resort to using crude and vulgar words. Any book that has any kind of Swearing in it i immediately put down. The vast majority of movies even i do not tolerate it. There simply is no need.

    1. That’s so fucking stupid. So because I swear, my PhD is meaningless? Emphasis is emphasis, who gives a shit what words people use to empathize things? “It is a weak mind” get the fuck outta here with that.

    2. Bullshit. Or, rather, fucking bullshit. I know a LOT of very smart people who swear. Also, there is research that shows that people who swear a lot are more honest. Which is another quality I admire. Smart and honest? Good combination.

    3. There is no need?
      There is no need for literature at all. Who needs vivid imaginations of things that never existed or ever will?
      Who needs art, what with its unnecessary colors and occasional mislaid lines?
      Who needs movies, those cacophonous and loud effects poured over bright and whirling visuals?
      Who *needs* anything more than the grey, monotonous March towards death in our little boxes, working to make money to survive?
      Yet you dare swerve into reality so far as to come onto a webpage discussing swearing as a thing to be shunned and avoided, while leaving others to wonder why you’re here, if the natural flow of language (with all of its regional or coloquial color, the bastardized remains of old words, and the emotional punch of cursing) is so offensive to your sensibilities. Swearing is a natural response to pain, anger, and loss, and has even been scientifically proven to reduce pain. You claim that it shows low intelligence, whereas I would think that using all the words available to you and your audience in order to communicate effectively is more correct. Sometimes, damn it, a word means a lot fucking more than just a swear, but acts as a form of punctuation and emphasis at a visceral level.
      Besides that, it is society that defines what is currently labeled as swearing. The euphemism treadmill assures us that previously accepted words become more swear-like the more they are used. For example, “Retarded” became an insult rather than simply an observation on hindered brain development. So it is with curses. “Damn” was once much less acceptable than it is, being used more by religious figures to sway souls than to curse poor drivers. “Cunt” was less vulgar than it is, today, when latin was a common spoken language. It still held some rebuke, but that was more due to its association with women and the opinion held for them during that age.
      While I’m sure you’ve left off after the first curse, I just wanted to point out the inherent silliness of avoiding entertainment that contains vulgarities. They ALL do, or have, or will, by someone’s perspective. You can choose to ignore the perceived vulgarity and instead highlight the emphasis as you read the words, or you can be offended and run away from the “bad words”.

      I know what an intelligent reader would do.

  2. Great article. I am still somewhat bemused by an American reader who didn’t like the fact that my 18th century trooper swore like a trooper. She thought this didn’t fit in with my use of the Scottish vernacular, accused me of being a ‘Mickey Spillane wannabe.’ Eh?. I wondered if she thought 18th century Scottish people skipped through some sort of a Brigadoon, going, ‘Oh dear me, I hae just drappit this hammer on ma big toe.’

    1. Ronald has cruelty to overweight people? No, you’re actually an idiot. What Ronald was showing was a greedy little boy Led by his parents to be unhealthy and gluttonous. A boy whose joy is food? Yeah, and I suppose during early was Augustus’ dream too. Ronald was trying to say how parents need to be parents and teach their children properly. You should maybe stop watching CNN.

      1. *Applause*
        I’m so tired of people claiming that fat-shaming is some great atrocity. Bullying people is one thing, but simply pointing out the fact that “your arm droops are knocking over my drink because you’re too fat to sit at a table with me” seems like a different flavor. I dunno when gluttony became a virtue rather than the sin it was, but it’s stupid, and I refuse to comply with people who want to dictate my speech, especially when they can’t even chase me down to discuss it.

    2. HAha! The Brigadoon reference is perfect! Ian Rankin and Charles Stross, among others like Monty Python, plus a trip to Edinburgh and the Orkneys 20 years ago took care of that misconception – People are People world-wide. Cheers!

  3. The way society reacts to “profane language” is uncomplicated. It’s always been my contention that defining words as profane is done to exert control over other members of society. I find it rather comical actually.
    Having come of age in the late 60’s I’m pretty much a child of profanity. We used profanity to keep society on the defensive and for a laugh (we were easily amazed and amused). Of course nowadays profanity has become fashionable in a sort of simpering manner. My late friend Bruce summed it up best when he always said:
    “Fuck em’ if they can’t take a god damned joke!”
    I’m a musician and my solo work is under the name W.T. Fits. That an acronym for:
    What The Fuck Is This Shit?
    I’ve been using this name since late 1998 before WTF was in widespread use. Music has long been judged by society based on language. Heck some albums were banned based on inferences alone. The best example being Elvis Presley. The prime example being his appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. The cameramen were forbidden from showing him from the waist down. The censors disproved of his “hip swiveling”. I can think of many more examples each one more stupid than the next. It may be that it’s a calculated move since it seems to sell more records. My favorite of all is Tipper Gore (Al’s wife). She started a tiny group the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). Their goal was to have a warning sticker on every CD about profane lyrics. Like most censorship it just increased CD sales. In fact many groups put profanity on their CDs just to make more money.
    IMHO profanity is a con game. It’s about control and profit not about protecting anyone.

  4. People swear. Some more than others. It can be creative or dull. Literary characters should follow Chandler’s rule. They shouldn’t have to follow norms real people don’t follow.

  5. Surprised no one mentioned Ringo’s Looking Glass series – aside from the unlikelihood that ‘grapp’ and ‘maulk’ would instantly take over for equally satisfying (and even shorter!) profanity, I would catch myself asking “is that the one that means ‘shit’? or the one that means ‘fuck’?”

  6. I prefer a book without profanity. I went into the settings on my moonreader app and had it autoreplace expletives with more innocent alternatives. Any ebook I load is subject to these rules.

    It’s more fun to come across a passage of text that reads “he’s a skunking coward” than you’d think!

  7. Some profanity is okay, but any more it tends to be over-used. I’ve ben around people who use “fuck” or a a derivative of it as an adjective for almost everything they say, dropping it into each sentence once or twice. In a book or in a movie profanity can be useful and appropriate, For example who is going to believe somebody is going to say, “Golly gee whiz, that stupid girl just shot me!” It does not have the same emotional effect as, “Holy shit! That fucken bitch just shot me!” So if it is well placed it can be useful and more realistic, but when it is over-used or used for the shock value or cheap humor, then it devalues the work. I grew up listening to George Carlin who used profanity for humor and to show how idiotic it was to single out certain words and label them as “bad”, (think Seven Dirty words skit). Like anything else, it is all about perception. Society and culture deems certain words or actions unacceptable, then as time progresses, the words or actions can evolve into mainstream use, (think of clothing fashion through the ages). But like anything else, language, especially what can be considered “offensive” by general standards should be used in moderation. Words are tools, sometimes you need a sledgehammer, other times a tack hammer is appropriate, so be “tactful” with the words utilized.

    1. This. So much this. George Carlin pretty much fixed in stone my opinions about language with his “7 bad words” routine. Sure, there’s too much profanity if you’re using it every other word, but sometimes nothing says, “fuck you”, like literally saying, “fuck you”.

  8. As a writer of fantasy (unpublished), my characters curse when it’s warranted and/or as part of their character. Some characters don’t curse at all. Some can’t say two words without an expletive (like my dear departed father).

    People have blasphemed and used scatological words since the beginning of language, I’m sure. (Romans and Viking left naughty graffiti wherever they went.) My Celtic faery doesn’t curse in the name of the Abrahamic god–that wouldn’t make sense, but he blasphemes in the name of whatever god is appropriate at the time.

    If the bad language is solely to shock (the reader), or just to do it because it can be done, that’s just bad writing. Like anything else, expletives should tell us something about the character saying them and how the other characters respond.

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