To swear or not to swear

To Swear Or Not To Swear – That Is The Fecking Question

The use of profanity in books has always been a controversial question. Readers range in attitudes from not being in the least bit concerned to finding it offensive and refusing to read books containing swear words. Mention the subject to any group of authors, and you’ll end up in a lively discussion as to the pros and cons of the use of swear words and their personal preferences.

Less is more

I have a laissez-faire attitude towards swearing. It doesn’t offend me and my only objection to it is that heavy use in a novel or movie causes it to lose its impact, and it becomes just another word. A swear word is an expletive expressing a range of emotions from frustration to despair, and if it’s used constantly, its power and associated emotions are blunted. Some people use swear words as everyday adjectives, which negates all meaning, as in ‘I went to the f…ing shop and ran into f…ing old George, who told me this f…ing hilarious joke!’

Fecking brilliant

That’s why I’ve come to love the Irish words feck and fecking. Marian Keyes, in Making It Up As I Go Along, an anthology of articles on modern life and love, goes to great pains to point out that fecking is not a swear word – it’s commonly used by the Irish in everyday conversation. But what I like about it is that it sounds so much like a swear word that you can derive a satisfactory amount of cathartic release from using it when you’re in polite company (‘I went to the fecking shop and ran into fecking old George, who told me this fecking hilarious joke!’) in the knowledge you’re not offending anyone.

Fecking is what is known as a minced oath. This is not a meat dish the Irish serve up with their praties, but a euphemistic adaptation of a swear word to make it less offensive. Others include gosh, darn, dang, fudge and heck, which sound like a bunch of vicars at morning tea and in my opinion are not a patch on feck.

You can’t please everyone

Unfortunately, feck or fecking are not much use to you when you’re writing a book, unless your character happens to be Irish. As an author I take the stance that if swearing is necessary for the authenticity of the character, I include it, and as many of the characters in my books are either criminals or live on the edge of respectable society, some cursing is inevitable. The frequency is certainly not what I would consider excessive, but even so, I have had a couple of readers comment that they didn’t like the swearing in my novel How Not To Commit Murder.

My argument is this: imagine a hardened criminal who’s been in and out of jail all his life getting angry at you and telling you to ‘Go away.’ If he does, he’s displaying exceptional and uncharacteristic self-control – maybe he did a course in Etiquette 101 during his last stint in prison. In reality, he’s going to tell you to f… off and if you’re lucky, that will be the only expletive he uses.

Wall Street Blues

It’s also a fact that the frequent use of cursing in modern books and movies has desensitized the average person to its impact, particularly the f-bomb, as it’s called. It was used over 500 times in the movie The Wolf of Wall Street. (Wikipedia says 569). So someone actually sat through the movie with the sole purpose of counting the number of f…words? If so, there’s a definite component of human error here, as another account put the number of f-bombs as a mere 506. Perhaps the person who made that claim had a coughing fit and missed the other 63?

According to Wikipedia there are two other movies with a greater number of f-bombs than The Wolf of Wall StreetSwearnet: The Movie and F… a documentary on the word. But Martin Scorsese, the director of The Wolf of Wall Street is keen to claim the title of King of Profanity, as another article claims that the movie has set a new Guinness World Record for the movie with the most swearing, with Scorsese breaking his own previous world record of 422 f-bombs in his 1995 gangster movie Casino.

Again Wikipedia disagrees, claiming that the movies Summer of Sam and Nil by Mouth contain more f-bombs than Casino. Surely someone’s created an app that counts the number of f-bombs in a movie that would resolve this important controversy for once and for all.

Jazzing it up

When it comes to the most profane book ever written, there’s even more contention. It seems that readers are not as devoted to counting the number of swear words in books as movie-goers are in movies. A number of readers have mentioned Miles, the autobiography of jazz musician Miles Davis, with one claiming there are 672 f-bombs in the book. Davis was obviously a man who liked to make a point – or maybe had a limited vocabulary. Other books mentioned were Irvine Welsh’s books Trainspotting and Filth and Henry Miller’s books Tropic of Cancer and Over the Rooftops of Paris.

There’s a fecking app for that?

And if you're offended by swearing in books, you could buy the Clean Reader app, which replaces swear words in e-books with sanitized versions, with settings ranging from clean to squeaky clean. This app was released in early 2015 to the strident objections of many authors. One called it ‘f…ing horrifying,’ while award-winning author Joanne Harris pronounced it as ‘infinitely more offensive than any of the words it blanks out.’

In an article in The Telegraph she goes on to say, ‘Anyone who works with words understands their power. Words, if used correctly, can achieve almost anything. To tamper with what is written – however much we may dislike certain words and phrases – is to embrace censorship.'

Other authors took a more light-hearted view, wondering if there would be anything left of Irvine Welsh’s novels once the Clean Reader app had swept its broom of purity through them. And it’s also worth reminding authors not to set their books in places like Tittybong, Penistone or Balls Cross, as those with the Clean Reader app won’t know where on earth the story takes place.

I’ll leave the last word to crime writer Ian Rankin, who said on Twitter, ‘People seem equivocal about the Clean Reader app, but I've just installed Dirty Reader and it has done wonders for the Miss Marple books.’

What’s your view on profanity in books, as a reader and/or writer? I’d love you to chime in with your opinions in the comments box below.

About the Author Robin Storey

Robin Storey is an Australian author from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. She is a certified book nerd and has no weird hobbies or unusual pets.

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10 comments
michael n. marcus says April 24, 2016

Either say the real words or don’t say anything. “Frigging” and “sh!t” just look silly.

Reply
    Robin Storey says April 25, 2016

    Hi Michael
    I see your point and agree when it comes to writing books. Substitute swear words don’t sound authentic; however when every second word is a swear word, it just becomes boring.

    Reply
Kate Rauner says April 24, 2016

I find excessive swearing distracting and annoying – and boring. Don’t the characters have any actual thoughts? I thought Maze Runner, which used invented swear words, was equally annoying – apparently teenage boys can’t form a sentence without a vulgarity. But the book is popular – even made into a movie that I didn’t see. Could this be an effect of age? Slang changes over generations, so I may be an old fogy. In my own writing I use occasional mild swear words – sometimes a character needs to – but not the f-bomb.

Reply
    Robin Storey says April 25, 2016

    Hi Kate
    I agree with you about excessive swearing being boring, as I said to Michael (previous comment). I guess everyone’s idea of excessive swearing is different, too. Could be an effect of aging – a lot of today’s young people have grown up with the f..bomb just a part of everyday speech. Just shows a total lack of imagination or a bad habit – like using the word ‘like.’ Lucky that’s not a swear word!

    Reply
Linda K. Sienkiewicz says May 10, 2016

Interesting facts on the numbers of f-bombs in any one film! Two characters in my novel use crude language – one is an 18 year old boy, the other is an older, shady character with a streak of stupid. The narrator, a woman, swears during a rough period in her life, then stops when she has children, and even berates her husband for swearing (that would be the shady character.) The 18 year old reappears later in the story and guess what? He’s matured and no longer swears. I don’t know how many readers pick up on the changes, but I only had one reviewer (out of 50+) say there was too much cursing in the story. I think it depends on the reason why the character uses coarse language, e.g. teenage boys swear a lot, so if you’re writing realistic fiction, it is what it is.

I laughed out loud at the idea of a Dirty Reader app!

Reply
    Robin Storey says May 10, 2016

    I agree with you Linda, that if it’s in character, the use of swearing is acceptable. But you will always get some readers who don’t like it regardless.

    Reply
Alan says March 28, 2017

I’m with you. The right word in the right place. I find euphemisms simply highlight what you are trying to avoid.

Reply
    Robin Storey says March 28, 2017

    Thanks for your comment Alan. The right word in the right place describes it perfectly.

    Reply
C. Bass says April 20, 2017

I don’t care for the use of swearwords in novels or movies or TV. I realize I live in times when that kind of stuff is widely accepted as normal both in public and private. The current lack of standards for keeping one’s speech clean is bothersome.

That said, I also understand the desire to be authentic in writing and movies and that some characters will use those words.

Somehow though, many many books and movies in the not-so-distant past and even current ones have found ways to be entertaining without including that kind of stuff. Why so many now think they have to clutter up their books and movies and TV shows with words that rarely add anything to the plot-line is a mystery. And that is the key I think for me. Does it add anything valuable to the plot-line? Or is it gratuitous?

A few swearwords I usually can mentally edit out when reading. Bogus substitutions or partial blanking of swearwords is disingenuous and the person reading will mentally think the swearword anyway. Too many swearwords makes me want to put the book down and not finish it. If I decide to struggle through it because the book is otherwise well-written; and it will be a struggle; it will get a lower rating merely for the vulgarity.

Gratuitous/graphic sex or gratuitous/graphic violence fall into the same arena. Again, I believe the test ought to be whether or not those kinds of things add to the plot.

These are my preferences which just impact what I do. What others want in their entertainment is their business.

Reply
    Robin Storey says April 20, 2017

    Yes, you can definitely overdo it. When every second word is a swear word, it loses its impact and just becomes tiresome.

    Reply
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