The dreaded F-word. What does it really mean?

posted in: On writing | 14

“I hate it when women swear like navvies.” The comment had to do with fictional ‘kick-ass’ heroines, and it got me thinking. Oh, the power of the dreaded F-word. You know the one. Starts with F, rhymes with duck. In my own case, one of my books scored a one star review (would have given it zero) and a major reason appears to have been because the heroine ‘used the F-word’ a lot. Which is absolutely true. She swears when she gets mad. Another writer colleague received a two star review where the reviewer complained about the unnecessary use of the F word. The word appears twice in that novel, both times in context.

Why do we have such an obsession about what is, after all, just a word? And a very versatile word it is, available as a noun, a verb and (with ‘ing’ on the end) an adjective which can be applied to almost anything. Sure, it’s a profanity. I remember, as a tender young thing growing up in an environment where such language was not used, being somewhat taken aback when listening to a gaggle of young lads talking. Every second word began with F. But let’s face it, folks, it’s a very common word. I have become enured to its use through familiarity. If you’re surrounded by people who swear, you learn to ignore it. But I will add that I still shake my head sadly when I hear young people, especially girls, using bad language in loud voices as if that makes them ‘cool’.

Which segues neatly back to the use of swear words in fiction.

I’m not suggesting that the F-word must be used in novels, or even that it should be used a lot. I read a chapter or two of a book set in a rough and tough high school and the constant use of F*** became boring. Yes, that’s how kids talk but, like accents, realism can be overdone. I mentioned (obliquely) that my father didn’t swear (in front of us kids, anyway). Maybe that’s why I recall with startling clarity the only time I heard him say FUCK!! We were down the beach, sorting a catch from a prawning net and Dad pricked his finger on a fish spine. It hurt. A lot. So when Grand Admiral Saahren in The Iron Admiral: Deception uses the F word for the one and only time it makes an impact. The word is intended to signal his feelings of frustration and impotence.

With my ‘kick-ass heroines’ the use of swear words doesn’t signal toughness. It hints at back story, having been around people who swear routinely. Sometimes, it’s a defence mechanism. “I swear, therefore I’m tough.” And sometimes it means “I’m so angry I can’t think of a better word to express my rage.” All of those reasons are perfectly legitimate. Indeed, sometimes leaving out swear words is totally unrealistic. If you’re writing a crime novel involving bikies, for example, let’s face it, folks; they swear. If your dialogue leaves out the profanities, you’ll have a hard time convincing this reader.

I’m also not a fan of word substitution. I write space opera so it’s tempting to try to come up with a new, 23rd century F-word. But at the end of the day, people mentally substitute ‘fracking’, ‘fecking’, ‘frigging’ and so on with good old ‘fucking’, so why bother? And if you come up with something completely different – let’s say ‘bahl’ – you’re going to have to explain it. Maybe put in a footnote, which might read “bahl means the same as fuck”. If you don’t, you’ll throw the reader out of the story while they get their head around the unfamiliar word.

It’s quite interesting to consider what sort of word is profane in different languages. The worst Dutch swears have Christian roots. Goddamn is a serious swear. In English and many other languages, rude words have to do with sex and excretion. Thus we have shit, fuck, bugger and so on. Words like ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ are hardly noticed as swear words. And words evolve, their use spreading with familiarity – or maybe as their real meaning is lost. Like ‘bloody’, ‘bugger’ has become a perfectly acceptable soft profanity, despite its original meaning.

For me, swear words have their place. There’s no reason why a writer has to use them in a novel – provided the setting and the characters support that premise. Like adverbs, used sparingly in the right places, they can add to the realism and power of the prose. Personally, I’d rather see a swear word than gratuitous gore or weird sex.

Over to you. What do you think?

14 Responses

  1. Richard Leonard

    Agree totally. In fact I wrote a similar post about a year ago. Maybe two, I can’t remember. Word substitution: In that post I mentioned an episode of Packed to the Rafters where in one scene they have a pub band playing the Angels “Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again?” and the classic punters chant was unrealistically cleansed to suit the family timeslot. “No way! Get stuffed! Stuff off!” Better to just leave it alone and go elsewhere. That ruined it.

  2. nancyrae4

    I just remembered in my first novel my tough-talking people used fuck only twice. They were a wild bunch and they cursed a lot, but even for them, fuck was an important emphasis word and used sparingly .

  3. Bill Kirton

    You seem to have a consensus again, Greta. I’m with you totally on the inauthenticity of deleting swear words from the vocabulary of characters who, in reality, would use them in almost every sentence. And ‘fracking’ or ‘fecking’ are useless substitutes in that they not only call attention to the fact that they’re not ‘fucking’ but also introduce a totally irrelevant response in the mind of the reader; instead of being drawn into the narrative, they’re sidetracked into a weird, faux-moral sub-routine about respectability, ‘niceness’, appropriateness and so on. As for substituting with f**k – how absurd!

  4. mformichelli

    I absolutely agree with you, the F word has its place. There are also times in life, and in a book, where no other word will do. It’s harsh, it expresses one of the strongest human emotions (several, in fact, depending on context) and really there is no other word that fits that definition quite so well.

    I wonder about people who complain about swearing. Don’t they ever go outside? It’s how real people talk when they are in informal situations. Some of the most polite, caring people I know will swear up a storm when in the right setting. Why would it be taboo to depict real life in science fiction? It shouldn’t be.

    Also the F word has been with us a very long time, and will probably be one of those whose staying power will last and last and last through the centuries (it already has.) From
    1495–1505; akin to Middle Dutch fokken to thrust, copulate with, Swedish dialect focka to copulate with, strike, push, fock penis”

    Yup, been with us since about the 15th/16th century.

    OH, and one more thing. Why is it more shocking/offensive when girls use the F word?
    I don’t mean offense, but doesn’t that reinforce stereotypes about women?
    (I don’t buy into that girls are dainty and weaker than men thing. Some of the strongest people I know are women.)

    • Greta van der Rol

      “Why is it more shocking/offensive when girls use the F word?” I don’t know, Mike. It’s a cultural stereotype which has even rubbed off on me (blush).

      But I absolutely agree about wondering about people who complain about swearing. That’s life. And I also agree with the derivation of the word ‘fuck’. Many of our ‘rude’ words come from Middle Dutch, I’ve found. Thanks for commenting.

      On 10 September 2013 13:27, Greta van der Rol

  5. juliabarrett

    I love frack. Actually the F word is fine. Can’t single it out for discrimination. It’s never great to overuse any word.

  6. The Masquerade Crew (@MasqCrew)

    Frack worked for Battlestar Galatica. Sure, some might substitute, but most fans as I understand it actually say FRACK. Of course, I thought they over did it.

    I don’t mind a little profanity, but I don’t hang out with profanity users in real life, so I don’t like doing so in books either. But I wouldn’t give you a 1 star review. I probably wouldn’t get far enough to even review it at all.

    • Greta van der Rol

      I think frack worked (sort of) because it is so close to fuck. Even so, I’m betting lots of people did the mental swap over.

      Your comment about the use of profanity in books is absolutely fair enough. If it’s not your thing, sure, throw the book at the wall.

      On 10 September 2013 09:44, Greta van der Rol

  7. Steven J Pemberton

    To my way of thinking, swear words are like any other word. There are times when it’s appropriate to use them and times when it’s not. There are characters who would swear a lot and characters who wouldn’t swear at all.

    Frequent swearing in books doesn’t bother me – though my partner is Irish, and swears more than just about any fictional character. I think swearwords are like chillis – a small number stand out, but if you pile them on, they stop being special.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.