Swearing in Writing: The Origin of Offence17/12/2019
I’ve written scenes involving domestic abuse, sexist and homophobic language, violence, descriptions of drug dealing and detailed sexual behaviour. However, I still paused to reflect on my use of a specific four-letter word. What was I trying to say with this word, that I couldn’t have said with a less offensive alternative then? Well, everything. Is swearing in writing necessary, or should it find itself banished to the lower echelons of literature? For me, swearing is and should be viewed as an acceptable form of communication.
But it isn’t. Everyone seems to find offence in an arrangement of four letters that says nothing about an individual. True, “fuck” stings with a sharp clicking sound at the end, but the softness of the first two letters allows the word to roll off the tongue and feel at home in everyone’s mouth at the height of emotion. Whether for pleasure, or earth-shuddering fury.
The Origins of Offence
No one knows for sure where the word “fuck” originated from, but it’s always caused offence. It’s first recorded use was in a poem written around 1475AD, possibly earlier. The line in question had been changed to make no sense as some form a literary Morse code. In verse, the hybrid word of English and Latin “fuccant” is written “gxddbou.” The actual line reads “they are not in heaven since they fuck the wives of Ely.”
However, not all terms used today were always viewed as offensive. In medieval Britain, the word shit simply meant what it still means today and was widely used at the time. Today, however, it’s viewed as vulgar; albeit less so than other words in use. It also has many different meanings in modern times and forms the base of many phrases that emphasise our feelings. For example, being shit-hot, or shit-scared and so on.
If you ask Google for a definition of either “shit” or “fuck” it will class them both as vulgar slang. On the other hand, ask it define “bastard” and Googles dictionary will define it as an informal noun for an unpleasant person or an adjective to describe something as no longer pure.
But when Shakespeare wrote “What about my nation? Is my nation a villain, and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal?” in Henry V, it’s hard to imagine just how offensive the word would have been at the time. It was considered so vulgar that in writing, it was often written b-d. However, it proves one thing. Vulgarity has always had a place in literature.
Is Swearing in Writing a Sign of Laziness? Fuck Off
When I tried my hand at a rap career, a friend of mine suggested we cut out all the swear words from our rhymes. I refused, but he always tried to convince of their unnecessariness. He thought positive content was the way forward and swearing represented negativity. I responded with an Eminem quote; “I’m tired of all of this bullshit. Telling me to be positive. How am I supposed to be positive when I don’t see shit positive?” And after all, everything I love about writing is the power it gives me to express how I feel.
Another thing he resented about curse words was the impression of a ‘lesser’ vocabulary. As though by swearing, I proved I had a limited lexicon. He knew my grasp of the language was vast and found my ability to rhyme long and beautiful words impressive. However, he believed listeners would overlook my talent because I used certain four-letter words.
But swear words don’t indicate a limited grasp of English. Instead, they highlight the emotional impact of it. Consider the following phrases –the test was difficult – the test was fucking difficult.
Nothing changed in the sentence, except the addition of a single word. Usually, writers are advised to not use more words than necessary, hence why we avoid words like very, as in very hard and choose words like difficult, because they both mean the same thing, but require fewer words to achieve the intended meaning. However, the term ‘fuck’ places emphasis on the adjective but also hints at a sense of hopelessness. We’ve transformed the sentence from a statement of truth to an emotional sentence.
Swearing and Intelligence
My mum continually argues with my dad over his stance on swearing. He swears blind that he never swore as much as she and I do now, but she’s adamant he did. Even in front of us, as kids and he can’t be shocked now I’m older and eager to use that language for myself. Whether he did or didn’t, it doesn’t change his current views towards the language I use daily. Often citing his justifications with the phrase; there’s no need to swear.
My response to this is to point towards the literature. Not the art kind, but the scientific variety, in which no adult human with a brain should find it so easy to argue against. After all, it’s rooted in facts and research. In 2014, studies suggested people who swear more often have higher intelligence and far greater vocabulary than those who don’t. So, if there was ever a need to curse, surely it’s to prove you’re the smartest in the room.
The problem is, humans are naturally stupid and judge those who use profanity to be less intelligent than those clean speakers who wouldn’t know a thing about breaking taboos. Personally, I don’t swear for any other reason than I like the words. They roll off the tongue and add colour to otherwise dull language. All swear words are catchy with hard consonants that make them easy to employ in speech, whether to express anger or happiness. And I won’t stop using them for shit.
I brought a self-help book with the title F**k It. Its premise was simple, when things get too challenging to cope and life is at your back, just say fuck it. If it’s beyond your control, don’t waste your time fretting over the probability of failure. Fuck it. A late train. A miserable boss. An overcooked dinner. A missing digit from the phone number of the beautiful girl you’d watched from across a crowded dancefloor for over an hour before plucking up the courage to finally talk to her. Fuck it. On not having the balls to speak to her sooner, fuck it.
The book was sold as a philosophy. But it doesn’t matter. It is what it is and if you find it offensive. Fuck it. Just let it go. Or else it’ll eat at you until you break apart at the seams and sink in a never-ending sea of despair because instead of saying fuck it and moving on, you sought outrage. I used the word fuck too many times in my novel. Oh well. I mean, fuck it. We don’t have to like the same things, but we can still be friends. Oh, we can’t? Fuck it. Try it. It’s empowering.
The One Word I Wouldn’t Use in Speech or Writing.
There is one word I refuse to use in writing or everyday speech on account of having black friends and understanding the history of the blood-soaked terminology. I’ve heard people argue over why black people can use the phrase and white people can’t use it in the same context, as a friendly gesture, but my question is, why would I want to? Why would I feel the need to use a word derived from a brutal regime based on racism, knowing the vile history of the blood-stained word? When the term was used to murder innocent men, women, and children whose only crime was to be born different. With the skin of people, I call friends. No, people, I call family.
My views on swear words can be defended, but I can’t utter the word and defend it as just another collection of letters. It isn’t just a word. It has a meaning, and a subtext, all of which suggest that I and my skin complexion is somehow superior. Whether I use it to greet a black friend, or as an insult, it doesn’t matter. I know what the word once meant when uttered by someone who looks like me. As for the argument over its use today within the black community, well that’s a debate I don’t belong to.
Thanks for reading. I hope you found the article insightful, and if you’ve got this far without feeling the need to tell me to fuck off, subscribe below to never miss a post. Or help start a revolution by sharing the post with your friends. Thanks.