The Nameless Horror

Curated: swearing in fiction

The following is a lengthy conversation on Twitter started by Steve Mosby and Luca Veste, and rapidly dominated by an overbearing me who should’ve been working, about whether it’s OK to be offended by language in works of fiction. The argument and subject were interesting ones and we knocked around some good stuff. And then I derailed it on to asterisking out words, which I loathe. I’ve collected it here partly to see if it’s possible (yes, but awkward) to do so with Twitter conversations of this length, and also to preserve it, because the subject comes up between writers and readers quite often, and it’s a genuinely interesting one (to me at least). Where multiple tweets have followed one another I’ve run them into one (unless that’d make them reeeeeally long), but all the txt-spk and other twittered mangling is still in place.

Steve (@stevemosby): The “you were offended by the swearing in my book but not the violence?!” defence only works if the swearing in your book is made up too.

Luca (@LucaVeste): All words were made up at some point. Certain words are deemed to be offensive, just as some forms of violence are. (slapstick?)

Steve: For the argument to be valid, it would have to be a book where swearing was described but actual real swearing did not occur.

Luca: by language use, than violence use.

Steve: True, but I think most people would be more offended seeing a real murder than a swear word. Fictional violence a different thing.

Steve: (I’m just wittering really. I see that defence a lot, and it’s a category error, and it mildly bugs me. Interesting what offends)

Luca: As I said, I understand your argument, which is true. I just don’t understand the overall offensiveness of certain language. Although I would love to read the book that described swearing instead!

Steve: Ha ha! It is interesting, what offends people. Of course, if no words were offensive we’d only have to invent some…

Luca: I think some of us do that anyway! People will always be offended by something. Nature of humanity.

Sean (@nameless_horror): AFAIK, languages without “swearwords” as such generally develop insults of similar meaning using regular vocab. Fundamentally, we need something to shout at people we think are tits.

Luca: And in those languages, are they deemed offensive?

Luca: I need it to cover the amount of times I say ‘erm’. And for when I stub my toe. Again.

Sean: In my case, when the washing up falls off the draining rack and back into the sink.

Sean [reply to Steve “fictional violence a different thing/category difference”]: Poss diff POV, tho? “Your insults evoke disgust in me. Your description of brutal torture evokes visceral enjoyment.” Which is to say, the category of the thing is different, but the category of the emotional response is the same. Both are contextually created by and used against fictional constructs - unless the writer’s swearing at the reader.

Steve: Yes, but I’d say the acceptance of one rather than the other comes down to the category of the thing. Someone offended by swearing is, whether they see it on the page or hear it in the street. Violence different.

Sean: Lots of people refuse to watch horror films or read violent books because they don’t like descr it for entertainment. I don’t deny swearing gets a sort of blanket unacceptability, but I do argue that it’s not actually justified. Especially if they differentiate between fictional/real in other cases where language used to express may be same.

Steve: Hmmm. Not sure I agree there. Difference between language and the thing it’s signifying… Description of violence, with possible interesting caveats, massive difference. Swearing, less so.

Luca: I’d also add, language used in any other setting (for eg the N word) is overwhelmingly offensive to most… However, Stephen King used it in his latest book quite a few times, as it could be argued the setting called for it. I guarantee there’s more people offended by the word ‘fuck’ in fiction than were offended by that. So surely, if it is called for, it should be acceptable?

Sean: ‘“I killed him and ate his liver.” KILLER TELLS THE SUN IN EXCLUSIVE’ - “I say, what a vile monster. Don’t read.” ‘“I killed him and ate his liver.” COUNTING DOWN THE GREATEST MOVIE VILLAINS OF ALL TIME…’

Sean: (140 characters limits my examples, but how many more people would’ve been unwilling to read the rape scene in [THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO] if it had been a true life account of a real woman’s real ordeal? With the exact same language used.

Sean: The people who say “I don’t want to read either of those - I don’t like that sort of thing” are fully entitled to then say “and I don’t like swearing whether it’s a real person hurling insults or a fictional one.” Anyone happily (well…) reading that scene because it was fiction, not fact, and still saying, “But this made up person shouldn’t use naughty words to that made up person cos it’s offensive regardless” is a hypocrite on some level.

Sean: If I swear when I’m angry, I’m expressing a real (violent) emotion. If Khazdar The Mad does it, he’s not. He has no emotions, only the reader does. The writer can try to convince but we all know the game. The insult is non-existent.

Steve: I disagree. Someone offended by the real-life eating of livers encounters no real-life eating of livers in A work of fiction, therefore nothing to be offended by. Same person offended by the word “fuck” sees it on the page. Entirely different - and also different when the fiction is based on a real case.

Sean: I’m nt sayin ppl don’t have blanket objection to swearwords, regardless. I’m saying no rational justification for it. It’s a cultural norm: word x is bad, end of. But then other cultural norms include sexism, homophobia etc. The fact of their existence doesn’t make them right, it just makes them real.

Steve: Agree. But I think swearing is a special case, as the offence is embedded in the language, not how it’s used.

Sean: It doesn’t have to be (as generational shift shows wrt ‘acceptable’ swearwords), and it still doesn’t justify it. You can viciously insult someone in perfectly proper language & offensiveness varies completely between IRL & fic. If you say: “Your mum sells sexual favours and consumes copious human excrement with gusto.” That’s an insult. I’m offended. Bastard. If a character says it, it’s fine. There’s no physical or meaningful difference between [that and] saying “your mum’s a shit-eating fucking whore”. But cos it has the magic words in it, it’s bad either way.

Sean: The reality of the target is what actually makes the insult, not the words used. Offence by tradition is an illusion. (Christ, I’m getting wordy. You can tell I should be working.)

Luca: ‘Offence by tradition is an illusion.’ - What I was trying to say earlier. It’s how those words are treated That makes them offensive. Whereas violence doesn’t change on the whole.

Steve: But insult is part of the narrative. People are offended by the words themselves - the language expressing it.

Sean: And as I keep saying, they shouldn’t be; the insult’s not to them. The traditional nature of the words is irrelevant.

Steve: Or is “she slept with him” the same as “she fucked him” in terms of offence? Do they mean the same?

Claire (@scaryclaire): of course they don’t mean the same

Sean: One sounds rougher, less loving, more, what, raw? The actual word “fucking” shouldn’t necessarily carry offence unless it implies the character couldn’t care less for the feelings of the opposite sex. The same offence which can equally be given without using any swearwords at all, if it’s there. The swearword itself is at most shorthand.

Steve: I agree it shouldn’t carry offence, really, but it does. The statements mean the same the language in and of itself offends people, not the meaning it is signifying.

Sean: We’re going round in circles now, I think. Which I suspect is also largely my fault…

Steve: Well, whatever I said on my blog about it, twitter can be hard to discuss these nuances… :-)

Sean: And of course what’s far more offensive than swearing or insulting my mother is weasel people asterisking swearwords.

Steve: Asterisks, we half-agree on. Don’t for swearing (obviously), but I think it’s appropriate for racial terms.

Sean: Why? If everyone knows what “he called her a n*****!” means, whose modesty is being spared? Who reads it and thinks, “Well, I don’t know what that word could possibly be, but I’m sure it’s nothing nice! om pom pom…”

Sean: If everyone knows what it means, there’s no protection. For racial insults, if someone doesn’t know what it means I’d argue they bloody well should. And if someone doesn’t want to use the word at all - “he called her something very racist” - don’t use it.

Steve: I don’t know. I think it just shows awareness that you, as a straight/white man etc are using a word that will never affect you and is easy to throw about. It shows a degree of respect, acknowledges privilege, etc

Sean: If you’re throwing it around you shld ask why + it shld be damn clear from context that you know what word signifies. Are you quoting someone else? If so, why? Is it necessary to show how vile they are, if so, asterisks do nothing. And so on. Huck Finn, “N-word Joe”, etc., either use it and accept a lengthy conversation about history, or don’t. Asterisks are too often used as a way of weaselly pretending that you’d never dream of using a word that you in fact just h*ve.

Steve: Often. But sometimes just to show you realise a word has power, but not over you. A sign of respect to the people it does.

Sean: Still argue it’s a piss-poor sign of respect comp to not using it + correcting attitudes that made it acceptable in 1st place. But most especially not using it. Because why would you, y’know.

Steve: I agree, and it’d be contextual. Respect wrong word. More acknowledgement you know it’s a word to you, but more to others.

Sean: I feel like I’ve just done a panel debate via Twitter. And the conference organisers didn’t even lay on any booze.

Steve: It’s all here, I think.

Sean: :shakes fist in impotent rage:

Steve: That’s my line, damn it.

Sean: I don’t think anyone can lay claim to such an old classic. I’ve been impotent for years, for instance. … waitaminute