Author Topic: Epithets, Explatives, and Four Letter Words  (Read 22623 times)

Thaurismunths

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on: January 24, 2007, 02:00:52 PM
While reading the flash fiction contest entry "Damn Yanquis" I critiqued the author's use of racial slurs and epithets saying it might have been done to excess for shock value:
I get that this is an alternate/futuristic history of North America, but are all the racial epithets necessary?

Then later used one myself:
I agree with JCGillespie in that they would be part of the character's vocabulary, though I get the impression from the piece that they were shoved in for shock value. This remind me of Chris Rock's stand up routines: he comes across as a well educated, well informed black man, who feels that he has to say nigger every few minutes just to be heard.

This struck a nerve with some of the other members of the forum. That wasn't my intent, but I shouldn't have been surprised. Saying "nigger" is just a word is like saying the Grand Canyon is just a ditch, but there are conflicting points of view on this and other emotionally charged words.
So of what value is the use of epithets and expletives in Fiction?
How much is too much, and when is not enough?
« Last Edit: January 24, 2007, 02:06:49 PM by Thaurismunths »

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scottjanssens

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Reply #1 on: January 24, 2007, 05:37:17 PM
The golden rule of writing applies: If it works it works, if it doesn't cut it.  How do you know?  Listen to your first readers.

However, if you're trying to shock or provoke a reaction solely by word choice, the story probably isn't going to work.  IMO, the shock should come from theme or plot.

Just my $.02.



Thaurismunths

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Reply #2 on: January 24, 2007, 06:49:57 PM
That's very true. In fact that golden rule is applicable to life, but it's a lot harder to apply such rules than it looks.

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Russell Nash

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Reply #3 on: January 24, 2007, 07:03:57 PM
You can see this rule at work when you watch comedians on HBO. Some get up there and curse and curse, but they're just not funny. But then you have someone, like Robin Williams, who is hysterically funny and when he drop a "bomb" it has an impact.

It's all in how you use it.



Thaurismunths

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Reply #4 on: January 24, 2007, 07:44:31 PM
I’ve found that using swear words in text is a lot harder than in voice. While cursing occasionally happens when I talk, it takes effort to put it down on page. Having read the language the author used to express the harsh racist views of the dominant race (I don't know if "Native Americans" applies as a title as they obviously run the place in that world), did it seem 'forced' to anyone else? I don't mean to pick on the author of Damn Yanquis, so if you're reading this; I hope I’m not offending you.
I've seen the same awkwardness in my writing, and my friends’ when we try to either use swear words we aren't use to, create new swear words for a world, or just curse at all when we otherwise wouldn’t. For me, it's far more comfortable to write "What do you mean?" or "What the hell are you talking about?" than "What the fuck are you talking about?

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SFEley

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Reply #5 on: January 24, 2007, 08:32:50 PM
I've seen the same awkwardness in my writing, and my friends’ when we try to either use swear words we aren't use to, create new swear words for a world, or just curse at all when we otherwise wouldn’t. For me, it's far more comfortable to write "What do you mean?" or "What the hell are you talking about?" than "What the fuck are you talking about?

To some audiences, "What the hell are you talking about?" would be shocking and inappropriate.

I'm pretty relaxed on the issue.  In fiction, I'm only jarred out of the story if a character's language seems out of character.  And that, in turn, just means the author's been inconsistent in establishing that character.  I really don't care if there's swearing or not; I care about the world that's being described and the story that's being told.  A word like "fuck" isn't any different from a word like "chair" to me -- it's just one glob of paint on a very large palette, and whether it appears on the canvas or not depends on what the artist is painting.  In stories I've written, I've used profanity in some and not in others.

In non-fiction and in life, like most people, I adapt my speech to context.  Most people have an instinct for context whether they think about it or not.  E.g., I don't swear in the Escape Pod intros (well, not after the first one) because it doesn't seem appropriate.  That's a semi-formal context and the audience has certain expectations -- and having shaped those expectations, I'm now pretty much bound by them.  That's fine with me, because the things I want to say in that context don't require it.  I do swear when I'm doing Podholes with Mennenga, because it's supposed to be a much more casual context and part of the conceit is that we're giving each other shit. 

My talking patterns are different depending on who I'm with, what we're there for, etc.  I think most people are like this.  For a while in adolescence and early college I had a big Holden Caulfield thing about it and refused to use profanity, ever, but over time (and after a few weeks in Ireland) >8-> I realized it just wasn't important unless I chose to make it important.

And right now, at age 32, I don't think much about it.  How a thing is said is only an aesthetic aspect of what's being said.  And being able to appreciate aesthetics in more forms, rather than fewer forms, seems like a Good Thing.

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SFEley

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Reply #6 on: January 24, 2007, 08:42:18 PM
In stories I've written, I've used profanity in some and not in others.

Oh, and I forgot to mention my fantasy novel (the one that's in eternal slushpile purgatory at Tor) -- in which my worldbuilding included a deliberate absence of religion.  Everyone in the world knows the world was made by wizards, and up until a couple hundred years ago those wizards were living down the street and coming over for dinner, which made 'em hard to worship.

Which was all well and good, until it came to characters swearing.  Did you ever stop to think how much of our profanity is based on religion?  Even the word "profanity" is religious!  So I couldn't have any characters ever say "damn," or "hell," or "holy shit."  The only expletives left were scatology -- bodily functions.  So I decided that most of the swearing in this world was based on body fluids.  E.g., "Blood and piss" was pretty common, and effective since blood also had magical significance.

Anyone else had similar problems in worldbuilding?

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capteucalyptus

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Reply #7 on: January 24, 2007, 08:45:16 PM
Just out of curiosity, how would you use the sort of words that the authour of that story used in a way that wouldn't be attributed to an attempt to shock or called excessive?

The character in question strikes me to be a bit like Archie Bunker.  He used those sorts of words (and on network TV no less) and it wasn't to shock the audience but rather to reveal Archie's character.



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Reply #8 on: January 24, 2007, 08:51:03 PM
Oh and regarding fantasy and scifi worlds, I can't tell you how annoying it is to hear completely made up words for curse words.  Firefly gets somewhat of a pass since they tried to substitute Cantonese for a lot of theirs.  I like how much thought you put into that, SFEley.  My argument has always been that real people really use this sort of language (granted to varying degrees) and using anything else seems like cheating somehow.

Now I'm not saying that anyone needs to fill their prose with f-bombs.  I think you can go too far in that direction too and the impact can be blunted.  And after a fashion I do think that's what some comedians try to do. 



Thaurismunths

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Reply #9 on: January 24, 2007, 09:37:36 PM
Ok. I've just sat down an reread the piece a couple times, and tried to figure out what it was that seemed so off.
I don't think there's anything wrong with any of the words used, by "forced" I mean that they were out of context: Stuck in there to make a point. All the slang and name calling really wasn't out of place for the character, in his world or ours. In fact, the author really just took all of today's prejudices and mixed them up. What stuck out was just how many were put in to such a short story.
Were I to try a similar story, I would cut down on how many nationalities were involved. Really, just doing two or three races would make the point of how differently the world turned out, and would have left more room for continuity  and some of the world to the reader’s imagination.
Much like swearing, the epithets would have been more potent had fewer of them been used.

Steve,
Good point about religion, I'd been thinking about that earlier in the day. Swear words and profanities often derive from disgusting things, things that are looked down on, and abuse of things that are regarded as important. However, many of the “worst” words, we don’t even know where they came from. Words like fuck, shit, and cunt go back hundreds of years (maybe more), and we still don't know why they're dirty if what they are attributed to is natural.

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bekemeyer

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Reply #10 on: January 24, 2007, 10:24:36 PM

Anyone else had similar problems in worldbuilding?

the only problem i've had world building, is actually doing it well.  i'm amazed at stories, like Sigler's Rookie and The Lord of the Rings.  completely made up and completely believable. 

as for written swearing vs. spoken, particularly where i spend a lot of time writing screenplays.  the swearing is easy to put down in to words, because "fuck" or "shit" sounds authentic and real because that's how people talk.  then you realize, not people, just you and your wife cuss like sailors and most people live in a PG-13 world.  writing in excessive swearing is mostly a crutch.  i haven't asked her, but i'm sure even my eight year old can spell fuck.  you know?   

as for making up curse words...for the most part they normally sound a little cheesy because we know what the should be saying.  but, i've got to say i love the word "Frack" from Battlestar Galactica.       
« Last Edit: January 25, 2007, 04:13:14 PM by Russell Nash »

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Thaurismunths

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Reply #11 on: January 24, 2007, 11:17:57 PM
You highlight another good point Bekemeyer.
If you are worldbuilding and want to create a totally unrelated universe/race/culture, like Steve (I think it was Steve) was alluding to in that quote, then our common colloquialisms just won't cut the muster. As an author, one would have to sit down and think of not only what things they would wish to profane, but how a word would sound when shouted in anger. A lot of profanity can be growled easily, or is short and pointy when it rolls off the tongue. But I don't think that using familiar curses is always a crutch, it depends on the kind of story.
Nothing; no work of fiction, no well thought out language, will be able to evoke the same gut emotional reaction of reading/hearing a word you've been told not to say since you could first talk. It's programmed and wired in to us as part of our culture. I'm not saying it's classy to curse, or that it's suitable for all characters to swear in English just so your reader will understand, and the only guys I know who curse like sailors are Marines. Only that profane language can be used as a tool to add depth to a character or express an intense emotion, but as the saying goes: “If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”
I think that's where the crutch comment comes in. If an author's only way of adding drama or intensity to a piece is to curse like a sailor, it's a sign of poor writing skills.

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bekemeyer

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Reply #12 on: January 24, 2007, 11:54:23 PM
that's exactly what i meant.  in fact, i have found in the films i have made, that the cursing that was scripted never sounds quite as real as when the actor works it in to what he/she says naturally.  the scripted stuff rarely rings true.  true, i haven't worked with Deniro yet, but that's another thing all together. 

 

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Thaurismunths

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Reply #13 on: January 25, 2007, 05:29:54 PM
that's exactly what i meant.
Cool. Seems we're on the same page. : )


So, how about inventing curse words?
What kind of things have you all come up with?
How about sound effects while we're at it? What does a laser–taser-phaser ray sound like?

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bekemeyer

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Reply #14 on: January 25, 2007, 05:52:31 PM
you got me there. 

have you come up with any good ones?  i'd love to see what other people have come up with. 

i do like using people's names as profainity.  Son of a Brian.  or like my middle initial is F and you could say something like Michael Fucking Bekemeyer.  but, that's not exactly inventing new words. 
 

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slic

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Reply #15 on: January 26, 2007, 01:25:17 AM
I'm fairly passionate about most things and explete a fair bit.  As such I needed to figure out words that gave me the same feeling without insulting. I took a weekend and figured out why some words words worked and some didn't - I find, in English, you need a sharp consonant at the end - so Stink, Taq, Frack, etc. work well.

So now (when needed) I substitute words: e.g. Mother of Pearl, Son of a Stink (or if it needs to be longer Son of a Stinking Motherless Piece of Cheese).  If I'm looking to raise eyebrows I use Sweet Pregnant Jesus.

As for made up swear words, I agree with Steve, you need to really understand the imaginary culture.  For example, in French, the equivalent swear words are based on church paraphenalia - Chalice, Tabernacle, etc.  I don't know why, but there is a reason.



bekemeyer

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Reply #16 on: January 26, 2007, 01:39:09 AM
i'm sure my grandmother would love to hear me exclaim "Sweet pregnant Jesus" next Easter.  that's hilarious. 

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SFEley

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Reply #17 on: January 26, 2007, 01:49:37 AM
I'm fairly passionate about most things and explete a fair bit.

Great post, but my first and strongest observation is this:

You've just made me realize that "explete" is such a very, very cool verb.  I'm going to figure out ways to start using it.  >8->

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slic

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Reply #18 on: January 26, 2007, 02:55:31 AM
Thanks, both of you.  I do aim to please, though I'm not always on target.


bekemeyer - I have to ask, what is your picture?  Is it a couch or a crotch?



Thaurismunths

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Reply #19 on: January 26, 2007, 04:00:33 AM
As for made up swear words, I agree with Steve, you need to really understand the imaginary culture.  For example, in French, the equivalent swear words are based on church paraphenalia - Chalice, Tabernacle, etc.  I don't know why, but there is a reason.


If I remember right, they are vaginal references, Catholic art is chocked full of vaginal themes.

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FNH

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Reply #20 on: January 26, 2007, 08:35:13 PM
In fiction, I'm only jarred out of the story if a character's language seems out of character.  And that, in turn, just means the author's been inconsistent in establishing that character. 

As a rule I dont like swearing, audio or written, but I put up with it.  As Steve has hinted at, I find that the context is all.  A charater that swears from the start has set thier tone.  An F-Bomb out of nowhere not only distracts it can actually take you out of the story, and thats bad.

There was an Escape Pod a good while ago, something about networking with demons or somesuch ( I think it was read by Mur ), and near the end there was a sudden unexpected F-Bomb, its shock value threw me out of the story.

Yes the author got thier shock value, that part of it worked, but I, the listener/reader fell out of thier world.

As far as characters that swear all of the time, it's wasted prose.  The words say nothing.  It may be realistic to have your drug-dealer character swear in every sentence, but what do the words actually convey?  Nothing as far as the story is concerned, it merely repeats the statement that "this is a character that swears."

I've seen swearing waste a character, where the swearing was used to "define" the character.  One dimensional.  A character that says "Oh F---" has wasted so much opportunity for character development.



SFEley

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Reply #21 on: January 26, 2007, 08:41:54 PM
As far as characters that swear all of the time, it's wasted prose.  The words say nothing.  It may be realistic to have your drug-dealer character swear in every sentence, but what do the words actually convey?  Nothing as far as the story is concerned, it merely repeats the statement that "this is a character that swears."

This is one of the reasons I so admire Deadwood.  Have you seen it?  The characters swear constantly -- constantly -- but in historically accurate contexts, and in the hands of the scriptwriters the profanity is sometimes elevated to a strange level of grace and subtlety.

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FNH

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Reply #22 on: January 26, 2007, 08:58:16 PM
This is one of the reasons I so admire Deadwood.  Have you seen it?  The characters swear constantly -- constantly -- but in historically accurate contexts, and in the hands of the scriptwriters the profanity is sometimes elevated to a strange level of grace and subtlety.

No I havn't seen it.  I threw the old "Devil" box out years ago ... well actually we do have one, I just dont watch it except for DVD's.

Grace and Subtlety? It's got to be an eye of the beholder thing. 

"historically accurate contexts", I cant think what that means, literally.   

Is it "What the Musket are you talking about?"   :-)


Thaurismunths

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Reply #23 on: January 26, 2007, 08:59:00 PM
This is one of the reasons I so admire Deadwood.  Have you seen it?  The characters swear constantly -- constantly -- but in historically accurate contexts, and in the hands of the scriptwriters the profanity is sometimes elevated to a strange level of grace and subtlety.
That's as much the screenwriters as the actors. Firefly is another good example of that; totally foreign language, but the sentiments are still clear... though admittedly not as funny as the English translations.

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Thaurismunths

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Reply #24 on: January 26, 2007, 09:03:06 PM
No I havn't seen it.  I threw the old "Devil" box out years ago ... well actually we do have one, I just dont watch it except for DVD's.
Grace and Subtlety? It's got to be an eye of the beholder thing. 
"historically accurate contexts", I cant think what that means, literally.   
Is it "What the Musket are you talking about?"   :-)

NPR had something about Deadwood a while ago: The words those "Deadwood" characters would actually have used had religious overtones rather than sexual or scatalogical ones. They would have peppered their speech with "goddamn,"  "Jesus," and particularly "hell," a word that 19th-century Americans were famous for using with a dazzling virtuosity -- "a hell of a drink," "What in hell did that mean?," "hell to pay," "The hell you will," "hell-bent," "Hell, yes," "like a bat out of hell," "hell's bells," and countless others.

Back then, those oaths were strong enough to spawn a whole vocabulary of the substitutes that H. L. Mencken called "denaturized profanities" -- "darn," "doggone," "dadburned," "tarnation,' "goldarn," "gee-whiz," "all-fired," and the like. (It's only in the 1920's that you start running into substitutes for "fucking" like "freaking" or "effing" -- another sign that it wasn't used as a swear word before then.) But if you put words like "goldarn" into the mouths of the characters on "Deadwood," they'd all wind up sounding like Yosemite Sam. 


The whole article is here: http://www.ischool.berkeley.edu/~nunberg/deadwood.html

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