It was 1982, and I was sitting in the lounge chatting with my in-laws when I used the fatal word in conversation. Yes, I said “bum.” My new Mother-in-Law, looking very shocked, informed me that swearing was not permitted in their house and the polite word, the word they preferred, was “arse.”
To me the word “bum” was harmless and quite funny, whereas the A-word, as I referred to it then, was forbidden.
That was a bit of a wake-up call for me and I realised then that people have completely different levels of tolerance where swearing is concerned. Nowadays the F, C and T words are used in everyday conversation. On social media, day in and day out we face a daily barrage of expletives, it’s wall to wall. I fear my (now ex) mother-in-law would not be able to cope at all.
Fast forward thirty-seven years and profanities are a way of life and a person who doesn’t swear these days is a rare thing. Profanities are intended to offend, reinforce, emphasise and insult and they have always had a particular role in speech. In short, they were intended to shock.
However, the shock value has long gone and the words themselves have blended into our language and I for one feel quite sad about that. You can watch three consecutive dramas on the TV and hear only the F-word for most of the dialogue. I’m pretty certain scriptwriters just continually copy and paste it. I suppose it makes life easier for them, if you don’t have to create dialogue you can finish work early.
But, isn’t that a shame? Aren’t we losing something here? Isn’t the language we’ve cultivated and shaped since we were scratching lines into rocks 35,000 years ago worth more than that?
I have been following Claire Baldry’s wonderful ‘Books for Older Readers’ initiative since its inception and I have to say it’s my ‘go to’ facebook page of choice. I find people of like mind on there, I like the politeness of conversations and beyond all that I love the shared passion for reading that is abundantly clear to all.
On that facebook page, and others, I’ve picked up on some very interesting discussions on the subject of swearing in books. I get a strong sense that older readers, in the most part, just don't like it.
An author has to use expletives in fiction because otherwise the characters would not sound realistic. I confess that I do use profanities in the dialogue of both of my books, The Seven Letters and The Slow Death of Maxwell Carrick because the characters need to sound authentic and fully-rounded, but I do wince every time I type them! I suspect I’m haunted by those words from my Mother-in-Law.
Last year, I was given a novel to read by an author friend of mine and I was irritated by her use of swear words within the prose, she wasn’t even writing in the first person. By about page twenty I’d had enough and I gave up reading it. Other people said it was a good book, and I am sure it was, I just didn’t want to read further because the language was so strong.
On the other side of the coin are reviewers. I’m constantly amazed at how many of them resort to profanities too. Younger people, in particular, no longer refer to the phrase: ‘make love’ but just insert the word F***, even if the scene they refer to is actually the act of love between two people who love each other.
Am I old-fashioned? Is this too controversial? I gather from those comments I’ve read on various social media threads, that this is something mature readers are concerned about. Is it about maintaining standards or must we accept that the bar is set lower these days? Do we have to tell ourselves that books without profanities are old-fashioned and life has moved on or, do we ring fence them and revel in their expletive free language?
So many questions, so little time, but I know from my own point of view I’ve suddenly become really tired of this echo chamber of profanity and surely it can’t just be me.
In the end, it begs one big question. If swearing is now so much a part of our every day life
where do we go from here when we really want to shock? Will we have to invent new swear words? Won’t the over use of profanities eventually make swearing redundant?
Who knows, we might have to go back to using real, more descriptive words again and won’t that be a shock!