Monday, July 22, 2013

A Prick by Any Other Name?

By Lisabet Sarai


When it comes to sexual vocabulary, I'm agnostic. I will use whatever word seems to fit in a particular situation. Some authors I know are uncomfortable using terms that are particularly graphic or viewed as obscene. In contrast, I have no problem calling female genitalia a “cunt”, assuming the term is consistent with tone of my tale and the personality of my characters. On the other hand, I won't eschew a bit of euphemism, even somewhat purple-tinged, when the story, the characters and/or the readership require it. I'll use clinical or anatomical terms, too, if that's what seems right. I think carefully about the words I choose in sexual description, because an unfortunate decision can distract and even alienate readers.

Hence, I don't appreciate being told what words I can and cannot use in my fiction. For the most part, I am deeply satisfied with my main erotic romance publisher, Total-E-Bound. They're the most well-organized, diligent and supportive publishing company I've ever encountered. And they let me get away with a lot! However, I've had a few run-ins with editors when I wanted to use the word “prick”.

I've been told that, according to their style guide, “prick” is not acceptable terminology. I'm really not sure about the rationale for this, since for me the word is no more graphic or offensive than “cock”. It's true that in American English, calling a man a “prick” (or a “dick”, for that matter) is considered deeply insulting (though the two epithets do not have the same implications). Does that carry over into the original use of the word to denote the penis? Not in my dialect, anyway. It has occurred to me that the connotations might be different in the UK, where TEB is based, but we do have readers all over the world.

I'll sometimes choose “prick” as an alternative to “cock” when a man is thinking about his own organ. It seems to capture, for me, some aspect of gritty physicality. It makes me think of locker rooms and surreptitious hand jobs, of embarrassing hard-ons and Internet porn watched on the sly. Personally I wouldn't tend to call a penis a “prick”, because I don't have one, but I feel that a man might (and I hope that our male Grip members will either confirm or refute this).

“Prick” also has the nice implication of something that pierces or penetrates. I'm certain that extra level of meaning makes it sound a bit dirtier.

Anyway, when I received the edits for my most recent erotic romance, Challenge to Him, there were several instances of “prick” called out.

He could scarcely look at her without imagining her rounded limbs wound with rope, her neat bosom bared to his pinching fingers, her lively brown eyes hidden by the blindfold that would give him license to use her however he chose. His prick swelled to an uncomfortable bulk inside his trousers. He was grateful that the motoring duster he wore concealed the evidence of his excitement. 

This example fits in with my commentary above. The hero is slightly embarrassed by his sudden arousal, and thus thinks of his organ as a “prick”.

I thought a long time about whether it was worthwhile to fight about this. Ultimately I decided to change the word to “cock”. In my opinion, this loses a bit of the meaning, but not enough to justify antagonizing the editor.

However, a second case occurred here.

“You’re a clever little slut,” Andrew muttered through gritted teeth. “I’ll wager this isn’t your first time eating a man’s prick.” He wound his fingers into her hair and held her head still. “Open!” Jerking his hips, he drove his cock down her throat with bruising force.

I refused to change this instance. Andrew has deliberately selected the term “prick” to embarrass and excite the heroine. Replacing this with some other term would weaken the utterance. There's also the problem of repetition, since I wanted to use “cock” in the following sentence.

Some authors agonize over every word. I have to admit that I don't do that. However, I can usually trust my instincts, especially in a sex scene.

I'm not a prima donna, I swear! You can even ask my editors. However, I'll stand up for my right to use the words that work in my story. Penis, cock prick, dick, dong, schlong, shaft, meat, phallus, skewer, screwer... there's a place for each one. Maybe even “hardness”. Words are my tools. I'm not going to reject any of them out of hand.

18 comments:

  1. Yeah, it's one thing for an editor to say, "I don't think this word works here." I can also understand when an individual editor whose personal name is a "brand" and whose personal tastes are closely associated with the anthologies he or she compiles says, "This word is a turn-off for me, and I don't want it in the books that have my name on the cover." But for a publishing company to automatically flag a word merely because someone in the office has put it on an unpopular-word list strikes me as an unfortunate bureaucratizing of artistic decisions that can do an injustice both to writer and reader. I could see the publisher giving you a non-binding heads-up about it—"Our research shows that much of our audience tends to be put off by this word. Would you like to consider substituting something else?" But to actually dictate the word choice seems to me to be going too far.

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    1. In all fairness, TEB let me make the final decision. (At least I think they did. I haven't checked the final published version!) I strongly suspect that the prohibition reflects the opinions of the founder. Not that she is a prude, far from it, but everyone has individual associations with particular words.

      Given the horrible writing and editing that readers seem to be able to ignore, I can't believe that a prick or two inserted into my text would be likely to catch their attention.

      But, as I say, this could be a dialect thing. Lily, you're our resident Brit. Does "prick" have bad feelings for you?

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  2. to me your justifications for using "prick" seem sound. i agree with Jeremy. i worry about this era very much. there's more of a need for independent underground publishing activity than ever. shudder.

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    1. The trouble is, if you are underground, nobody knows enough about you to buy your books!

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    2. ah yes. $. i am always forgetting about that.

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    3. Well, it's not just the money issue. It's the "actually having more than seven readers" issue. I've had conversations with colleagues in which I talked about sales numbers as a factor in decision making, and I was misunderstood to be focused on the money. I am not expecting to get rich on this! (:v> I won't say I never think about money... but when I think about sales numbers, I'm primarily thinking about how many people might actually be reading my work.

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    4. makes sense. but i'm wondering about quantity as an indication of quality. i guess the more people read your work the better the chance that you'll reach the few readers who might actually engage enough with it to respond or to write something of their own. i've found a great community of like minded folk that are not mainstream readers/writers but it's not a lot of people & they don't pay to read me or vice versa, not more than a pittance anyway.

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    5. but i wouldn't be willing to use cleaned up language suggested by an editor in order to reach a larger audience. ever. i'm always willing to edit for improvement of the text, but never for censorship.

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  3. I know I've used the word "schlong" before, though I can't remember the exact instance. Different penis words for different connotations. Schlong is the best for making your reader chuckle. And it's fun to say.

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    1. Daisy Harris, a great gal who was my guest at my blog, has a M/M romance about a shy guy who thinks his penis is too big. She calls it "the giant dong of doom" book!

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  4. I've avoided using prick just because, irrationally I suppose, to me it suggests something skinny, narrow, possibly sharp and thornlike. "Just a little prick" could be said by a nurse administering an injection or as a dismissive term by an annoyed big sister.

    I do agree, though, that the right word depends on the context and the characters. Don't mind me and my foolish biases. Whatever flicks your prick.

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    1. Points well taken, Sacchi.

      English is so rich. A single word can set up a whole range of associations.

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  5. I sorta follow up on Lisabet's POV with my post "Cocksure"

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  6. I'm partial to "Boner Pony" myself.

    The only words I really don;t like to see are "member" and "organ", which sounds evasive and cheating, as if the writer were retreating from descriptive writing to a clinical text. When I think of organ I think of a liver or spleen. Not a, you know, one eyed Beaver Bishop.

    Arch Bishop Garce

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    1. "Member" has always struck me as a bit strange, but I'm not going to kick any useful word out of bed!

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  7. Huzzah, Lisabet!
    Eventually, EVERY word will be THE right one.

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  8. Prick was used by Shakespeare, so I can't imagine the TEB feels it isn't proper English. Prick, in Old English represents a pointed dagger, which makes sense in sexual slang.

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    1. I don't think it's a question of "proper English" as much as their concerns that readers won't like it. Why, I'm not sure....

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