You Can’t Say That On Television

Saturday we talked about sex, so today I thought I might open up another big can o’ squiggly words and talk about expletives. Since I don’t plan spare any ears in the rest of this post, the title is a nod to those who might not want to see certain words.

I won’t judge you if you flutter away. I debated for eight hours whether to post this, knowing full well how much Americans detest the word that appears many times in this post. So proceed if you will. If not, that is fine too.

As this is now the body of a post on expletives, I will now give the post its proper subtitle:

You Can’t Say That On Television: Can They Say Cunt?

For those of you who really detest that word, know that I’m not going to edit out any of them for the duration of the post. Sorry if you hate the word. Ye’ve been warned, argh.

My most recent novel is written from the perspective of a Scottish accountant living in Edinburgh. In addition to the myriad differences between Scottish English and American English, I had to think about how people curse. And there’s that word used in the British Isles that Americans absolutely loathe. It’s a word you can say in a crowded room that will make everyone squidge about in their seats.

That word is, of course, the word cunt.

(I can see some of you squidging about in your seats already.)

To squidge, v. — the act of your buttocks dancing around the outskirts of your chair when someone says the word cunt.

That word used to make me squidge about in my seat as well, before I moved to Scotland. My first few months there were an exercise in pure amazement as I heard the word cunt everywhere I went. He’s a cunt. She’s a cunt. What a fucking cunt. It simply doesn’t carry the weight of negative connotation that it does in the States.

Sure, it’s a negative word there, but it isn’t as squidgy.

Squidgy, adj. — The way you feel when someone comes up and whispers “cunt” in your ear.

After a time, I came to terms with the word.  From a feminist perspective, there are of course arguments to be had about the lack of an equally abhorrent male equivalent. I can deal with that. I find the word cock to be on a similar level, and it makes me more squidgy than cunt.

While I don’t have an emotional argument for use of the word, all I can say is that when I allowed it to make its case, I decided it was ultimately four unobtrusive letters arranged in a way many people find obtrusive. I decided it was just a word. I gave it a cordial nod, and it gave me a pat on the back. Picture that how you will.

And unsurprisingly, my Scottish characters did use the word on occasion. I could have censored them, but I chose not to.

To most Americans, I suspect hearing the word cunt is like looking at a medieval leper who also happens to be covered in boils and suppurating sores and pustules. It’s a word that, when mentioned, comes far closer than you want it to. Close enough for you to see the bits that have fallen off.

I know. Gross analogy. But say the word cunt in a room of Americans and photograph their faces. I bet I’m close.

Australian comedian Jim Jeffries has this to say about the word:

“You don’t like it, do you America? Every time I say it, there’s women who go, ‘Ugh, Jeeeesus!’ You just don’t like it, and you accept it from me because ‘Oh, he’s foreign and doesn’t know better.’ I do know better, I just don’t give a fuck. You’ve got worse words in America…You don’t hear me say ‘motherfucker.’ It’s ridiculous, that word. The word motherfucker is much more offensive than cunt …Cunt is in Chaucer and Shakespeare. It’s the oldest swearword in the world. It’s lovely. Motherfucker is so brash — let’s break down the word motherfucker. It’s a boy fucking his mum…in the cunt. It’s horrible.”

Even if you look up the clip on YouTube (or simply watch it below), they will spell out motherfucker and use c-word for cunt.

Expletives in writing and film are the subject of some debate. I’ve discussed the subject in depth before, which you can read here and here if you feel so inclined.

Here’s my take.

I believe authenticity is what makes the best writing. That can be as simple as making up a world and staying true to it if you write fantasy, but if you are writing something set in the contemporary world, without authenticity that world implodes.

Writers should first be observers. Observers of dialogue, observers of behavior, observers of culture. Dialogue, behavior, and culture come together to create believable worlds. Without believable worlds, books fall flatter than a steamrolled pancake.

One of the first things most writers are told is to write what they know, and while some might thumb their nose whilst saying, “Pooh-pooh, write what you know, pooh-pooh,” you can always tell when a writer doesn’t know the dialect of a drug-addicted meth head from a five-year-old daughter of a premier pastor.

When Bella Swan exclaimed, “Holy crow!” I spent a solid fifteen minutes trying to recall if I’ve ever heard those words out of anyone’s mouth. Anyone who wasn’t debating the sanctity of crows, that is. The answer was no. Nope. Nada. Never heard anyone say that before. Maybe you have.

The time I spent shuffling through the file my brain keeps on “shit people say,” I could have spent reading Twilight. I’ll leave you to debate which was a more effective use of my time.

You have to listen to people to know what they’d say. While that five-year-old daughter of a pastor might say, “Oh, darn,” she might just say, “Oh, damn,” because she heard her older brother say it when he smashed his thumb in the door of the church van.  Use what you think is authentic to your character, but don’t try to stuff your readers’ eyes full of wool.

If you listen to people, you’ll hear some of them say cunt. More will say fuck, bitch, damn, ass, bollocks, bugger, arse, shite.

Some people really hate expletives. If you write fantasy, you can get around using the words that upset those people by making up your own — but they still need to be believable. Of course think of your audience and their sensibilities, but if you’re trying to write a gritty urban thriller without using any swear words, be mindful that glossing over the grit of language will probably look, well, glossy.

I personally write for adults, and that gives me a bit more glorious freedom.

Robert Jordan created a slew of curses and expletives for the Wheel of Time series. Light! Blood and ashes. Mother’s milk in a cup! Sometimes they were effective, sometimes they left me scratching my head. Making up your own better show the reader the meaning and the intensity of such words, or they’ll just sound like you pulled them out of your arse.

Words are words, and they only have as much power as you give them.

I’ve always had a bit of a potty mouth, and when I listen to people around me, I hear a lot more of the same. I’m not advocating gratuitous expletives, nor am I encouraging you to shout cunt from the rooftops. This post is merely a discussion of a rather hated word and an attempt to give it a little legitimacy — as well as to shine the torch on those four little letters to show that they cast a bigger shadow than their relative size would imply.

Oh, and a final note to people who try to tone down the word fuck by using the word bugger: bugger is to sodomy as fuck is to sex. You tell me if that’s toned down.

The point is, if a character is dying to say cunt, let her say cunt.

What words have your characters wanted to say? Have I softened the word cunt for you, or did you cringe the whole way through this post?

About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on July 9, 2012, in Shrike, urban fantasy, writing process. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I admit it. I cringed. But I don’t typically swear, either. I work around kids a lot and never developed the habit so I wouldn’t have to watch my mouth. You did give me something to think about, though. I do appreciate it when an author is authentic and writes the way a character would speak. It makes them seem more real.

    • Yeah. Ultimately I think it is important to observe people who are similar to the characters we’re trying to portray and let our characters speak for themselves without us putting the author filter over their mouths. Whenever I see parts where an author obviously edited the words coming out of a character’s mouth, it makes the author look a bit childish to me.

      People say things we don’t like all the time — why should our characters be any different? 🙂

  2. Kristin McFarland

    I puzzled over “holy crow,” too. Eventually I decided it must be a regional variant of “holy cow,” i.e., the non-Midwestern version, spoken by those who don’t see cows on a daily basis or watch Bart Simpson regularly. People who live under rocks, in short. But Bella Swan might fall into that category.

    Perhaps I’m giving the author too much credit.

    Currently, I’m dealing with language in query letters. I’m trying to write a query-friendly synopsis that hooks agents with my main character’s voice without offending the agent… and it’s proving tricky. So far, I’ve been dancing around the word “tight-ass,” which Mitzy would use, but I don’t want to be the girl who said “tight-ass” in a query. But “uptight” just doesn’t have the same Mitzyish ring… and there’s really no better word than tight-ass for describing her partner.

    Ah, the dilemmas we face.

    • Yeah, I don’t know what I would say about using “tight-ass” in a query letter. My gut instinct is that agents are savvy enough to see it as a descriptor and not an act of rudeness, but who knows?

  3. I let the curse words flow freely in my writing, if it fits the scene of course. The real problem I see is to put a certain word in the wrong lips. An American male using that word would certainly seem out of place.

    True story, when I went to study Law in Michigan I was shocked by how freely people used the word “bitch” especially women. That was something I did not expect, but got used to.

    • Yeah, I have similar feelings about curse words. In real life, people say them often and edit them less. Staying true to the characters is what counts.

  4. I also try to let the curse words run natural in my work (though I do try to be aware that I may have a more open view of cursing than a lot of people). Like sex, it is part of life. Hiding it makes the writing feel less honest in my opinion. Another great post! 🙂

    • Thank you! I agree with you — hiding curse words makes things ring hollow to me a lot of the time. People swear a LOT. And in fiction, there’s usually something dramatic going on, which makes people curse even more. Avoiding it ends up looking rather silly.

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