1. JennyM
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    JennyM Member

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    Swearing - can I get away without swearing?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by JennyM, Feb 19, 2013.

    Hi,

    First off, "Thank you" to the people who run this forum - I've just found it while looking for my 'problem' - it's great and I hope I can contribute as well as receive.

    I have a character living in the 1820's, he's seen a lot of battles (Napoleonic wars), and now he's just seen the wreckage of what's left of one of his men and his family. He placed this man and his family in a community to live, yet to feed back information as a sort of long-term spy, to the British Government.

    My character is obviously upset! "Damn and blast" seems a little anaemic - yet - I don't want to spurge into a cascade of F*****s, d****s, etc.

    What do you think? I'd like to think that a 14 year old would read my book.

    I suppose my character could always be struck dumb! ;)
     
  2. Mot
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    Mot Member

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    Depends on how accurate you want to be. Your character is a soldier. Assuming he isn't an officer, I imagine he would swear profusely in every day life anyway. Contemporary literature rarely contains swearing which I suppose is for one reason: profanity was less acceptable, both in terms of publishing, and in terms of the society of the day (as lets face it, most authors of that period were middle class upwards). The Scarlet Pimpernel books (written in 1905) substituted the word 'damn' with 'dem', and the worst swearing in the Sherlock Holmes books (late 19th century) came from the detective himself ('what the deuce!?). I have yet to find a book written in the early 19th century (i.e. your period) that included any explicit reference to cursewords.

    Potential options:
    -Swear in French. Some swearwords translate to quite mild English ones, and when people panic, they frequently revert to their first language.

    -State that the character swears, but don't include the actual word (as most children's authors do, when they include swearing at all. Harry Potter did at one point I do believe).

    -Don't use swearwords. You can either have some other exclamation ('oh god', 'god help me' etc.) or go with the idea of the guy being struck dumb (interestingly, we actually have three reactions to terror/danger- fight, flight or freeze). It would also follow the Kubler-Ross model of grief (Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive page on it if you're interested)- denial first, anger next (and I forget the rest).

    I personally dislike full swearwords in literature, but that's just me. If you can avoid it, you'll come across as rather more skilled while at the same time avoiding the wrath of many parents.
     
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  3. erebh
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    erebh Contributing Member Contributor

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    The 1996 movie Michael Collins was a factual biopic of the 1921 Irish Civil War, a big Hollywood movie you may have seen - it was as true to the times as possible except for one piece of bad language (f**k) which they got absolutely slated for. It didn't take historians to say they didn't use that word in the 20s and it was the film's biggest criticism so if they didn't say f**k in the 1920s maybe they didn't say it in the 1820s either. Also because it was so important to Irish history they tried to show it in schools but couldn't because of that word - pathetic I know but...

    If it's a kid's book you're writing you just have to make up swear words
     
  4. GoldenGhost
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    GoldenGhost Contributing Member

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    Although the above states otherwise, I remember reading that the origin of the word 'f**k' dates as far back as the 15th century, if not earlier, even if it was used sparingly. Also, it was for sure a word people were aware of in the 1800's.

    I've read a ton of good literature that have hundreds of pages without a swear word, no matter the setting's time period, and still have been able to pull off the intensity and agitation you're attempting to convey.

    To me, the solution seems obvious. Think of times where you've swore. I know, for me, I don't always say 'f**k.' Go and find authors who are respected, not because they sell well, but because they write well, within the time-period you're aiming for, and see how they handle swearing.

    And a google search usually helps to, regarding vernacular and historical trends in language.

    Hope this helps.
     
  5. erebh
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    erebh Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah I read somewhere it stands for Fornication Under Consent of the King - not sure how much truth is in it though. With regards my earlier post - although the word may have been used since the fifteenth century or if Adam said it after eating the apple, my point was, it wasn't used in 1920s Ireland - they had other swear words (or at least I hope they did) so it's important not just to use language of the time but also the country or town, I'm sure it's the same in all countries even today - if a dublin guy hits his thumb with a hammer he'll shout f**k, if a Cork guy does it he'll shout Jaysus!
     
  6. GoldenGhost
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    GoldenGhost Contributing Member

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    Of course... this is why I suggested a google search of the history of vernacular/trends in language.
     
  7. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I would also look for typical 'swear words' for the time and place. And bear in mind, not all soldiers use foul language - my father never used f**k. The worst he ever used was "g--damn it!".
     
  8. jwideman
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    jwideman Senior Member

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    He wouldn't drop f-bombs unless he was asking directions to a brothel. Blasphemy was far more incendiary then compared to now, and entirely fitting for your character in that situation, even if he's an officer.
     
  9. davidheath23
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    davidheath23 Member

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    I agree so far with most of the consensus. The cursing (whether to use it or not) should be relevant to the time period and tone of the story if it's used. A young teen reading a book aimed at their age group wouldn't notice the lack of "f-bombs", because it (shouldn't) be within their vernacular anyways.

    However, if it's an adult story and the setting/tone are apporpriate for copious amounts of foul language, I say go for it. They say that some people "curse like a sailor" for a reason, after all...
     
  10. JennyM
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    JennyM Member

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    I'm blown away by these replies - thank you so much!

    There's plenty of food for thought here, and I'm going to have to digest the replies. Personally I don't like using, or reading the F word, but then, that is only my personal opinion, but I'm glad others appear to agree.

    Being 'struck dumb' was rather tongue in cheek, though thanks for showing that it would work.

    I'm hankering on "May the devil take the bas***** ...."

    Erebh - thanks also for reminding me, I have a friend who's husband is now retired but he was high up in the Church of Ireland, she's a retired language teacher, and she uses words that would make a 'trooper' blush! My friend's sister who lives in the North cusses using Feckin - I don't think that is as bad (or maybe I'm wrong).

    I think in this case the devil will have to come into the problem. Appreciate your help! :)
     
  11. Xatron
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    Xatron Contributing Member

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    Just avoid using phrases like "god damn it" or "god damned". You would be surprised at how many religious nuts are out there that will jump tat the opportunity to chastise you for it.
     
  12. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hmm, I'd have to disagree in principle with this. Never avoid anything because someone might object to it. You won't write anything of value doing that. Be appropriate to the story and the targeted age group, but don't self-censor otherwise.
     
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  13. davidheath23
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    davidheath23 Member

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    Totally agree, shadowwalker. Censorship based on potential backlash from particular groups or individuals should never be a consideration (unless for some reason you're writing something as a paid piece specifically for that group of people).
     
  14. E. C. Scrubb
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    E. C. Scrubb Active Member

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    Well, as to the question did "they" swear, I offer you the Duke of Wellington's own words.

    Now, if you want write without swearing, there's great advice above. If you want to use swear words, I'd say use a mild one - in it's right place, or even in a place where it's not really a swear word, but can double for one, is really powerful.

    For instance (no offense intended here, this is just a powerful historical quote), when Admiral Halsey brought his ship into Pearl Harbor later in the day on Dec. 7, 1941, he is quoted as saying, "When this war is over, the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell." Despite modern implications and sensitivity about genocide, etc., imagine the impact that sentence had on the sailors as they looked out over the destruction of the Pacific fleet.

    So, I wouldn't just settle for a "swear word," I'd go for the powerful impact statement.

    --He gazed upon the bodies of his men, bloodied and strewn across the grounds. "I have been damned, and this is my hell."
     
  15. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    F*ck has been recorded as early as the late 1400s.
     
  16. Quetzalcoatl
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    Quetzalcoatl New Member

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    The point of swearing in literature is, I firmly believe, to add realistic depth to its dialogues.

    Being such the point, I wouldn't expect an early 19th Century mariner to roll a fountain of F#cks and D%cks out of his tongue, these being modern swear-words.

    You could do some research and find out what words were used in that context two hundred years ago, but then again, I wouldn't expect them to sound as... strong, perhaps, as we are unaccustomed to them.

    A writer has a certain advantage, though: a larger and more explored vocabulary means more effective ways to express our ideas through language. ;)

    Good luck!
     
  17. Beloved of Assur
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    Beloved of Assur Member

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    Personally I wouldn't find any problem with swearing as long as it didn't become endemic to the dialoges or were used as a substitute for actual work with words.

    In regards to having authentic curses not be as powerful to modern readers as modern curses, that's true. However that also means that these old ones will add realism to the story and in time I am a firm do think that the readers will start to feel that they have some strenght to them as they see them in the context and understand what they mean to the characters that pronounce them.
     
  18. mg357
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    mg357 Active Member

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    JennyM i have a thought why don't you just state in the book that the character became so angry that he swore his head off. That way you stated the fact that he did say swear words but don't state the specific swear words that he actually said.
     
  19. Shadywood
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    Shadywood Member

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    I would suggest consulting a slang dictionary for words from the era you are writing about. There are bound to be many cuss words that will not be abrasive to modern readers, but would have been used repeatedly in your era, particularly as your character is a soldier.

    Also, just a comment - my own reaction to emotional loss such as that you described would not be swearing. I usually swear when I am furious about something, not when I am saddened or have lost something.
     
  20. paper55
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    paper55 New Member

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    Thinking about this for myself, as much as for the TS.

    Perhaps the biggest risk with using modern curse words is it may make the writer a little lazy and rely too much on the word itself to convey the power/severity.
    When instead the key is to ensure people in the story react accordingly. Let the reactions to the cursing convey its power.

    For example, the word "hell" barely even registers as a curse word to me personally, but back in 1972 it was no doubt considered much harsher.
    Fortunately in the below few lines from "First Blood" (first published 1972) where Rambo and Teasle are inside a diner, I can easily see hell is not a word taken lightly based on the reaction.

    Hell :D, it could even be a good idea to replace all modern swear words with "fluffyrabbit" during your early draft stages just as a reminder.
     
  21. Kendria Perry
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    Kendria Perry Member

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    No truth in it at all - that's just an urban legend. Search for "fuck" on Snopes.com. They're experts.

    About the OP's problem, people back in the days when your story takes place rarely sweared at all (in public or in private), much less said something as offensive as fuck. Plus, there's plenty of swear words people rarely use now that were used all the time as little as 40 years ago - gosh-darnit is one, foul (as in "all fouled up") is another. Try using some of those.

    Definitely don't use fuck, though. That's historically-inaccurate.
     
  22. John Eff
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    John Eff Member

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    Erebh's example of the Michael Collins film being slated for inaccuracy is interesting, given that Joyce's Ulysses was ruled obscene for use of the f-word in its 1921 publication - the same year as the Uprising.

    Those saying the f-word would be historically inacurate for the 1820s are themselves inaccurate: the word goes way back beyond that time so would have been in some sort of use, though to what extent and whether in the same context as today is not clear. But does it matter?

    Take the TV series Rome, for example, which used this, the c-word and modern idioms such as 'innit' in the dialogue. Such terms weren't around then, but what the writer achieved by giving us language we can relate to was, in fact, a far better sense of realism. Use of contemporary language would in all probability result in the vast majority of the audience not having a clue as to its import, no matter how foul the language might have been at the time.

    My advice would be to research the language of the Napoleonic era, and if you can't find anything suitable to today's readership, use modern. I most certainly wouldn't be making words up.

    Be assured that, being a soldier, your character would have sworn, and mightily. Especially at times of stress.
     
  23. Thornesque
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    Thornesque Contributing Member

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    Well, to answer the Title Question - Yes, you most certainly can get away without swearing. As has been said, many authors, when confronted with the issue, choose to say things like:

    "He cursed under his breath," or "A string of profanities crossed his lips."

    They get the message across, but leave the reader to decide which cuss words to fill in the blanks. However, I would also like to point something else out:

    A lot of people on here are saying that Teen Books / Young Adult Books don't allow for cussing? That is absolutely not true. I've been reading them since before I was a teen, and I can tell you that they most certainly do allow cussing, so long as F-bombs are not dropped. Now, I'm sure different publishing companies will have different guidelines as to how much and which cuss words they want you to use. But I've seen b*tch, d*mn, *ss, sh*t, the whole nine yards inside a teen book, so I wouldn't make the assumption that, just because it's a teen novel, means it can't have cussing.

    However, I agree with what many people have already said - it's not necessary to swear within a novel. Your point can be made clear without.
     
  24. tinylittlepixie
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    tinylittlepixie Member

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    Obviously, it all depends on the age of the reader and whether or not certain levels of language are expected for the context. I suppose it's similar to questions about vocabulary.

    Swearing within the dialogue of a character? Yes, if it's within the context.
    Swearing within the narrative? If it sounds appropriate for the narrator's voice, then yes.

    As an example, I was friends with a guy a couple of years ago who would do everything possible to avoid swearing in general conversation, regardless of the situation. There was only so much of him saying "Golly, that was close" or "Gee whizz, did you see that?" that I could take before it just felt clunky and unnatural. The day that he broke his ankle playing football and lay on the turf, writhing in agony, screaming "Gosh, that smarts!" was a classic...
     
  25. Breath
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    Breath Member

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    It all depends on if you want your character to be shown in that light. You haven't given any detail about his personality, so if he was a brutal man it would make sense yes. Or you could come up with a slang word that he uses when he's upset.
     

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