Thursday, August 20, 2009

Double Standards

by Ashley Lister

…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.”


  1. Ha!

    "And then they did a fuck"

    I *love* that line!

    Did you read the recent research findings that swearing actually diminishes our perception of pain? They got students to hold their hands in a bucket of iced water, and the group who got to swear lasted far longer than the group who were only allowed to say 'oh my word that hurts', or similar.

  2. Hi Nikki,

    It sounds unreal, but the idea of swearing 'diminishing our perception of pain' makes sense to me. I really wished I lived closer to some of these universities, just so I could visit and watch the experiments taking place :-)

    I've been reading various books on language over the summer and taboo language fascinates me.

    I'm particularly amazed by the fact, when we swear because we've been shocked by pain, it's still automatic to do it in a grammatically correct context.

    Thanks for reading and responding,


  3. Ash,

    Wonderful post. The unexpected stimuli got me laughing for sure. I would never have called it stimuli, but indeed it was, and man did my automatic flee reaction set in. LOL

    Apropriate, that's what we all have to remember when we write. If it doesn't 'feel' right when we put it down on paper/screen, then it's not going to read right to a fan.

    You know, I'm not easily offended by vulgar language, but your comment on people swearing while in public got me thinking. If it's in a bar or pub, where there are no children present, I might not even notice it, unless it's not done properly then my internal editor wants to correct the dimwit who can't even swear right. If it's spoken in the grocery store then it's just not kosher. Children should not be subjected to that. It's not only annoying, it's uncivilized and rude. And yeah, my reaction is pretty much what yours was. LOL

    A really good post, Ash. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Oh, for a giggle, check out George Carlin on YouTube here:

    I shall always remember listening to this when my mother-in-law was at our house helping me put up wall paper. Talk about inappropriate. Ugh!


  4. “Mind your language, you foul-mouthed fucker.”

    LMAO - My thoughts exactly. Wonderful post Ash, and I totally agree with you that it's all about the context.

    I must admit, I enjoy hearing Gordon Ramsay tell his wannabe chefs to "Go piss off." (I think he edits himself for TV sometimes, LOL)


  5. Jude,

    Thanks for the George Carlin link. I was so sad to hear about his death. He was intelligent and funny - a rare combination.

    And I'm glad I'm not the only one who gets so het up by foul-mouthed people in public places.


    I'm surprised Gordon hasn't been punched for being so rude to people. I think I'd last about 2 minutes in one of his kitchens and then I'd either leave or hit him (or both).

    Jude & Jenna: after the gentle ribbing I got from you two over the past couple of days (because I'd used the word 'contextualisation') I was going to title my blog post this week "Putting the C*NT into C*NTEXTUALISATION."

    Thanks for reading & responding,


  6. As the mother of two young children, and as an erotica writer prone to swearing, I have the exact same schizophrenia. We have a basket ball court behind our house and I can not tell you the number of times I've stalked out there in full fury to tell the young men playing to watch their language or else. Then I stalk back to my house and get back to work on my latest erotica story.

    It's so schizo, and yet it also makes sense. My girls don't need to learn how to swear at their age. Later, maybe, when they're in their 60s and I'm either too deaf or too dead to hear, they can be as foul mouthed as they please. Until then, they're little girls!

  7. Ash, you are so bad. LOL

    About Mr. Carlin's death, I was astonished. I mean, I knew he was getting on in years, but he acted and was, to me, still the young man who had such an amazing sense of humor. He made you think while tickling your funny bone. That's talent.

    Don't you be using them big words, miser. I might have to get out my dictionary, then it's all going to pot. Hehe!


  8. Helen,

    I never like people swearing in front of my little lad (he's 20 now, and three inches taller than me, but he's still my little lad).

    He recently used one of my poems as an audition piece for drama school. Before I allowed him to read it, I went through it to make sure there were no 'rude words' in the content.

    Perhaps I'm now getting to the stage where I need to stop being so over-protective.

    Thanks for reading & responding,


  9. Jude,

    I will have to cut back on the long words, and not just to spare you dictionary strain. Microsoft Word doesn't recognise some of my favourite long words (like intertextual or monological) which means I have to keep getting out my college course notes to check the spelling, and it's all too much trouble when I know the regular words for those terms.





    Oh brother! Do many of those and I'll come over there and slap you. Jeeze!

  11. Hi Ashley!

    Good post. Like the cat in the adage, I find swearing cathrtic. I work with soldiers so I get used to hearing a certain level of language until I'm not aware of it anymore. But if my kid says something I jump on it.

    Sometimes swearing can be more comforting than prayer.


  12. Hi, Ash!

    As I read your post, I reached out to pet my somewhat nervous cat, who was lying behind my laptop, and got a screech as if I HAD actually stepped on her tail...

    As you say, it's all context.

    I worry about "profanity" a bit, myself. In the book I just finished, one of the main characters (a really nice guy) tends to say "Jesus" or "Christ" a lot. I hope that I don't offend any readers. This guy is Irish, undoubtedly brought up Catholic, so this is just the way he expresses himself. In contrast, another character (a somewhat elderly woman who's a witch) says "Oh, my Lord".

    Depends who's talking, doesn't it.


  13. Hi Garce,

    I'd agree that swearing can be more comforting than prayer. Many of the people I know seem to put a lot more faith in the swearing option :-)

    Thanks for reading & responding.


  14. Hi Lisabet,

    Like I said in the post, I was genuinely surprised to find myself talking with someone who was shocked and upset by blasphemy. I suppose it's because I'm not a very religious person and don't tend to see those exclamations as offensive.

    That said, I can see it working very well for characters in future fiction (both as a blasphemer and a character offended by the blasphemy).

    Hope your cat has now calmed down and forgiven you.

    Thanks for reading & responding.


  15. There is a time and place for everything. I tend to swear in cycles- a couple of months on, a couple of months off.

    Sometimes only certain words will do- kick-ass, sometimes you just need to use the word kick-ass.

  16. Zoe,

    That makes perfect sense to me.

    There are times when I hear myself saying a particular word, and I think, "Shouldn't I be using a different word?" Then, after a couple of months of not using that word, it can again sound fresh and powerful again!

    Thanks for reading & responding,


  17. Hi Ashley,

    I suspect that we share an up-bringing. Crude language used to be catagorized as designating a crude individual. Foul language was typical of those without sufficient brain power to have an intelligent conversation. Like you, I find the use of cursing in public offensive, but the unfortunate thing about our world today is that, instead of finding some stupid, drunken man as the source of such language, it is commonly teen-aged girls who are little more than children.

    I don't know that it is the language that irritates me as much as it is the loss of civility and loss of respect for self and others that such casualness represents.

    Randall Lang

  18. Hi Randall,

    I think, because the lexicon of taboo words is so compataratively small, it's the lack of imagination that irritates me the most.

    I was recently reading a list of the 'tabooness ranking' of 25 words. By the time it got to number 12 I was thinking, "These aren't really taboo words!"

    When people are in public and they've said the same f*** word five times in as many minutes, it's a sign that they are linguistically challenged to the point where it's a legitimate disability.

    Thanks for reading & responding,



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