“…and so I said to the cock-sucking shit, why don’t you go fuck yourself?”
The example above is roughly what I heard the other day whilst shopping in the town centre. I’ve quoted it here to explain that I have double standards when it comes to taboo language.
If I’m out, shopping in public, and hear someone swearing loudly in conversation, I instantly become a prude. There is a time and a place for everything, I think: and the shopping precinct is neither the time nor the place for taboo language. Children might hear. And even if children can’t hear, I don’t want to listen to such foul-mouthed verbiage.
Yet, whilst a part of my mind is reacting prudishly to this swearing, my immediate thoughts are, “Why doesn’t this foul-mouthed fucker, keep his cock-sucking mouth closed?”
Am I schizophrenic? Well, no more than the next couple of person you might meet. But, like so many others on this blog have said this week: context is king.
I should state here that, in my opinion, there really is no such thing as ‘bad language.’ I believe that particular subjective phrase is a contemporary colloquialism used to describe the inappropriate use of profane or ‘taboo language.’ Most profanities refer to either sexual anatomy, sex acts, eliminatory functions or religious iconography and symbolism. (The word ‘profane’ traces its etymology back to a meaning of ‘in front of the temple’ or ‘outside the church’).
Personally, I had always thought that blasphemy was no longer that big a taboo. However, whilst chatting recently about children’s literature, a colleague of mine confessed that she found one contemporary children’s author distasteful because her characters kept saying, “Oh-mi-God!” My colleague didn’t make a big deal about the matter. But it was obvious that this frequent use of taboo language, especially in the context of a medium aimed at children, was causing her some great distress.
Eliminatory functions are more easy to understand as taboo language. We’re referring to waste matter, which is not a pleasant subject. It smells bad and carries the risk of potential disease. It’s no surprise that the associated words don’t have pleasant connotations.
On Wednesday, Jude mentioned the swearing reflex that occurred when she caught her thumb with a hedge trimmer. Current thinking tells us this is because there are certain ‘taboo’ words stored in one side of our brain, and these words are specifically called on to produce a shocking display in readiness for the fight-or-flight reaction prompted by such unexpected stimuli.
This is a reflexive action akin to what happens when you accidentally step on the tail of a cat or a dog. Anyone who has ever done this will know that the pet reacts with an unearthly howl of pain followed by a vicious retaliation or a lightning-fast bolt in the other direction. In animal terms, the pet is ‘swearing’ during this howl, and shocking its attacker whilst deciding if it should fight back or run away. If the pet could talk, it would be saying, “Jesus-fucking-Christ! That was my motherfucking tail!”
But, to me, it’s the inappropriate use of sexual terminology that tends to piss me off. As an author of erotic fiction I spend a good many hours each day, trying to describe scenes of a sexual nature. This means I’m regularly describing the sex act and parts of the sexual anatomy – key areas in the lexicon of taboo language.
I tend not to go to the clinical extremes for which Lisabet expressed a distaste. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word ‘prostate’ in one of my stories. To me that would be as farfetched as one character saying, “I have a pleasant tingle in my pancreas,” or ‘he could feel his pituitary gland throbbing.’
However, at the other extreme of this language usage, I don’t rely overly on vulgarities. It would make for an inappropriate conclusion to an erotic scene if I simply wrote, “And then they did a fuck.”
So I aim for a balance in my writing. Some characters swear. Some characters don’t. Some scenes call for profanities: if only to juxtapose the raw passion of the sex act against the conventional ‘non-swearing’ norms of that specific situation. But I always try to make sure it’s contextually appropriate.
A character in one of my stories might end a chapter whispering to someone, “I want you to fuck me.” In that context I’ll think the language use is appropriate for the situation. But, when a stranger on the street uses the same verb, I will always think, “Mind your language, you foul-mouthed fucker.”