4th St. swearing panel annex

I will get to my full and real 4th St. con report in a bit. But this year “That’s Another Panel” turned out to be a panel on swearing, and I realized I had more to say.

1. I have no idea how I managed to get through an entire panel on swearing without commending Bon Cop, Bad Cop to everyone’s attention. I do so now. The lesson in the uses of the Quebecois swear word “tabernac” is extremely instructive and amusing. Also the rest of the movie is great fun. Go thou etc.

2. I have heard people, even one otherwise very smart person, claiming that you could tell someone’s Real True Beliefs by how they swore–specifically, this otherwise-smart person told me when I was an adolescent that you could tell that atheists really believed in Christianity deep down, because they would say things like, “God damn you,” and would find it ridiculous to say, “Donald Duck damn you.” And I said to myself, “By Jove, he might have something there!” No. No, he did not have something there, and no, the late Victorian period was not filled with a resurgence in sincere devotion to the father of the Roman gods. Swearing, like all other language and proto-linguistic kipple, is highly, highly cultural. If your secondary world characters have grown up around people who say, “Oh, Blaxnorg!” when they step on a rake, they too are likely to say, “Oh, Blaxnorg!” even if they think Blaxnorg is a sham, or even if they think he’s kind of a wimpy god and they’ll do much better with Blarzoosh. Conversely, if Blarzoosh is a forbidden god, they are not likely to swear by her aloud even if they believe with a deep and heartfelt faith.

You can make all sorts of arguments for how people swear in a secondary world fantasy. If you have imagined highly interventionist gods, people might be more careful, or they might mean different things by swearing than you do, since you do not expect Jesus Christ to appear and cart some household object off to hell simply because you were unwary enough to say, “Oh, Jesus Christ, what is this damn thing doing in the middle of the stairs? I could have broken my neck!” Or you might well be careful about your own god, who has been known to grant petitions of yours, but swear freely by a neighboring god, who never did a thing for you. My point here is: swearing and belief: it’s complicated. Do not oversimplify in your writing. Do not oversimplify in your reading.

3. The Biblical prohibitions on swearing are on blasphemy and oaths, not on vulgarity. Many modern Christian subcultures have the idea that good Christians ought not to say “shit,” but in fact that’s because of purity codes/laws, the more general idea that your body–including your mouth and/or typing fingers–should be a temple, not because anyone writing any book of the Bible anticipated modern English bodily function language and divided the poops from the shits, with the former as sheep and the latter goats. Elise mentioned swearing as making a crank call to the Almighty, and I love that metaphor. That’s more or less completely separate from purity codes, and replicating the “religious groups should have neither in their language” divide from this specific moment in our culture when imagining religious groups in a completely different universe is weird and limiting and probably oughtn’t to be done without a good reason.

8 thoughts on “4th St. swearing panel annex

  1. Swearing really came into focus in western culture during the later Middle Ages. Among other groups, the focus on swearing became a shibboleth for Lollardy. The classic example is in (as with so much else) Chaucer, the Man of Law’s Epilogue:

    1163 Owre Hoost upon his stiropes stood anon,
    And seyde, “Goode men, herkeneth everych on!
    This was a thrifty tale for the nones!
    Sir Parisshe Prest,” quod he, “for Goddes bones,
    Telle us a tale, as was thi forward yore.
    I se wel that ye lerned men in lore
    Can moche good, by Goddes dignitee!”
    The Parson him answerde, “Benedicite!
    What eyleth the man, so synfully to swere?”
    Oure Host answerde, “O Jankin, be ye there?
    I smelle a Lollere in the wynd,” quod he.
    “Now! goode men,” quod oure Hoste, “herkeneth me;
    Abydeth, for Goddes digne passioun,
    For we schal han a predicacioun;
    This Lollere heer wil prechen us somwhat.”

    Which is to say that the host invoked God as a “God bless it you sure can tell a tale!,” and the parson rebuked him, so the host called him a heretic. In 1994, I argued that this scene demonstrated one aspect of tri-partate shape of Lollard identity (what lollards thought, what the church thought, and what the orthodox majority thought – as seen through the Host).

    All of which is to say that the western focus on religion and swearing emerges, I think, in the context of the Reformation and pre-reformation movements.

      • I’m sure there’s scholarship on this from the literature side of things, because it’s the kind of thing those cool people study.

        Also, as a secular Jew, I say, “Jesus Christ!” all the time. I only discovered this when my daughter started to say, “Jesus Christ!”

        • It’s amazing what people discover about their vocabulary when they’re in charge of newly verbal people. One of my friends describes a couple she knew who would have reported that what they said when they didn’t hear someone was, “What?” or, “Beg pardon?” Instead, they learned from their kid that they uttered the most unappealing, idiotic-sounding, “HUH?” possible.

          Every day a learning opportunity, I suppose.

  2. This was completely different from what I expected. But I do like the idea of making sure any culture developed is full and complete even with its vulgarities.

    I thought this was going to be about the general use of swear words in literature. Sort of a sore spot with me since I am personally anti-f-bomb. All of the other swear words don’t chafe me nearly as much as f***. And it is complicated because my distaste for the word stems from my religion. AND it seems that as I comb through submissions many authors like to throw in that word for cheap emphasis instead of using strong writing. Excessive swearing, for me, is the same as excessive use of adverbs.

    One thing that I find interesting are the futuristic and dystopian novels that have ‘evolved’ swear words. I laugh and think ‘those are ridiculous and not harsh at all’ but then again I think the same when my mother tells me, her 30 yr-old son, that ‘butt’ is a swear word.

    I am very interested to hear more about this panel.

    • One more thing, though, Mike:

      I think you will find it difficult to get writers to agree precisely on how many adverbs they get per thousand words of story, and I think the same is true for swearing. “Excessive” to one person is not “excessive” to another. It’s a style question, and a worldbuilding question, and a characterization question.

      I think there’s a certain problem in overascribing authorial intent in this field. Nobody on the panel talked about cheap emphasis when using vulgarity and profanity in their work–I’m sure there are people out there who feel that way, but I’m also sure that you’re more likely to read it that way if a particular word choice is not in the set of words you’re comfortable with. It’s fine for you to not be comfortable with something and/or not like it, but that doesn’t mean the author did it for that reason.

      One of the things that *did* come up is that several people were cited as making sure that if they were going to use swearing and dark themes in their books, they put something (words or events) in the first few pages, so that anyone who picked it up and started to page through it would know what they were getting into and could decide whether they wanted it. That’s not cheap or unconsidered.

      • Aw crud. I didn’t mean to be condescending. I am truly finding it difficult (in my amateur and isolated state) to find opinions on swearing in literature. So I really appreciate the feedback.

        And the adverb thing was supposed to be a joke… which when I ran it by some friends I sort of got the same reaction.

        I do agree that it is nice to have disclosures at the beginning of stories. Daily Science Fiction does it and they are very tasteful about the process. My friend and I that run our new spec-fic site have received a lot of submissions where we have asked authors to edit out some vulgarities (some times it was because it didn’t belong with the world or voice that the author created) and the general response was positive and the edit made the author focus on strengthening the surrounding writing.

        Anyway, I look forward to your report.

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