Swearing in travel writing: when is it acceptable?

[WARNING: ADULT CONTENT – THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS RUDE WORDS – NUNS AND VICARS SHOULD CLICK AWAY NOW.]

In the course of writing my first book Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest a few years ago, I asked my 74-year-old father to beta read it and provide feedback prior to publication.

The book was aimed at a broad audience – I wanted it to be accessible to readers of all ages. Of course, this didn’t mean readers of all ages would enjoy it equally. My father made the following observation, which highlighted an aspect of the language which I hadn’t considered.

In particular, the use of the word ‘penis’ is so great that there is a danger that those who don’t know the writer will suspect a fetish or obsession approaching a clinical level. I don’t think that they should be omitted altogether – they are part of the character of the book and writing style. But reduce their number to a few sharply witty ones.

My father is a retired academic, in case you’re wondering about his own writing style. After I’d finished wetting myself laughing, I decided to investigate this observation further. I opened up Microsoft Word to find out how often I had used the word penis. The answer was four. I couldn’t get rid of all of them, because they contained some of my best jokes, but I cut them down to two.

History has a habit of repeating itself, particularly if you don’t learn from the past. I’m currently working on my second book about a series of climbing and cycling adventures culminating in our somewhat unusual ascent of Chimborazo in Ecuador two years ago. Once again, I asked my father to provide feedback, and he made a similar observation.

Fuck: In your first book, some of your reviewers – who were not ‘phased’ ourselves by the use of the word as such – felt that you might upset some potential readers by over frequent use of the word ‘penis’. Is there a risk that ‘fuck’ might have acquired that potentially aversive (to some readers) role in this book?

If I’m honest, my first emotion upon reading this was jealousy. I’d sweated blood trying to craft jokes on every page. How could my father be so effortlessly funny without even intending to?

Aside from this initial reaction, though, I wasn’t unduly concerned. I didn’t bother counting the number of times I’d used the ‘F’ word, because one of my other beta readers – who I’m going to call Charlie, in case his employer is reading – had already pre-empted dad’s comment.

I wondered (as I’m sure you may have done too) if some readers might not agree with the very rare use of stronger swear words, but I personally like it as 1) I’m quite a big swearer myself(!) and 2) I find it sincere.

In fact, I hadn’t wondered about this at all. I’m so used to swearing in this blog and my other writing (as some of you bloody well know) that I no longer think twice about it. But Charlie also made a good point which I fully agree with. While I certainly don’t agree with swearing gratuitously, there are a number of good reasons for doing it.

The first, most obvious, reason is comedy. There is no doubt that in certain contexts (as my father had inadvertently proved) swearing can be funny. A second reason, as Charlie stated, is sincerity. In the case of dialogue or narrative as conversation, if you replace rude words with something less offensive, the writing can sound less natural.

Here is a video example of me on the summit of Chimborazo, trying to do a piece to camera without swearing. I end up looking awkwardly polite, and it comes across as odd.

Watch on YouTube

Swearing can also be used to build character. I’m currently reading In Trouble Again by Redmond O’Hanlon, another masterpiece of comic travel writing about a journey by boat up the Orinoco River.

Early in the book Redmond is having a conversation about one of his guides, a bit of a rogue whose father was a murderer, and who was thrown out of the police for drinking and womanising, and whose problems with money meant that he couldn’t be trusted.

‘Fuck a priest,’ said Redmond’s friend Simon, ‘he sounds just like me.’

I can’t recall ever hearing the phrase fuck a priest used before, but it sounds plausible. The standard expletive to denote surprise – fuck me – would not have been as effective here because it’s not as shocking. By using fuck a priest Redmond is helping to show that Simon is also a bit of a rogue.

Later in the book, Simon uses the phrase fuck a pig in a similar context. This phrase is also more evocative than fuck me. Redmond is a naturalist (though he keeps his clothes on throughout the book). They are on a wildlife expedition in the jungle, trying to catch a glimpse of piranhas, tapirs and jaguars. The phrase fuck a pig helps to build the scene.

Incidentally, my father might also be interested to know that Redmond uses the word penis as early as page 3. In this case the effect is to bring tears to the eye.

While you might expect a 74-year-old man to object to swearing, I was more surprised when my brother (whom I also asked to beta read the book) returned the manuscript with his comments. My brother is only a year older than I am, but he scribbled the following comment in one of the margins.

I have to agree with the Old Man here. There are 28 counts of the F word in the book, and it starts to lose its impact after a while. Bill Bryson uses much more sparingly! Suggest reducing.

He obviously hasn’t read Bill Bryson’s book Mother Tongue, about the English language. This has an entire chapter on rude words, and uses more of them in a dozen pages than my entire book. Bryson’s travel writing is also freely peppered with expletives, and he’s not afraid to use some stronger ones too. For example, in his book The Road to Little Dribbling, he attends a soccer match where he’s surprised to hear the fans objecting to the referee’s decisions by chanting the name of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue contains an entire chapter on swearing
Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue contains an entire chapter on swearing

By coincidence, when my brother returned his comments, I happened to be reading the book You Are Awful (But I Like You) by Tim Moore about a journey to discover some of Britain’s shitholes (for want of a better word). Tim is another comedy travel writer who is not afraid to use rude words. I was reading the book on my Kindle, so I was able to count no fewer than 41 uses of the ‘F’ word.

You may be wondering how. Shouldn’t 41, or even 28, be considered excessive? Actually, both Tim and I use clusters of swearing, where a cascade of obscenities is used for comic effect. Here’s an example from You Are Awful (But I Like You), of a conversation overheard in a pub (you may not be surprised to learn) in a suburb of Glasgow.

‘All right there?’ intoned an elderly voice behind me. ‘How the fuck are you doin’?’

‘No bad. Aw, but this bag is fucken killin’ my shoulder.’

A while later, from two rows in front: ‘Aye, I saw that last night. What a fucken belter. Fuck me.’

The swear count is therefore inflated by these clusters, as it was in my own book. If you consider these as a single instance, then the swear count is halved.

Luckily I also use milder expletives from time to time, and these sound equally natural. To avoid offending members of my family unnecessarily, it was a simple matter to run through the book replacing some of the fuck offs with sod, piss and bugger off instead.

Anyway, I will be doing one further draft of the book before publishing it later this year. Obviously some of you may enjoy it more than others, and don’t give it to your mother for a Christmas present.

Let’s finish by reminding ourselves of the opening scene from Four Weddings and a Funeral, one of the finest examples of excessive swearing in British cinema.

Watch on YouTube

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13 thoughts on “Swearing in travel writing: when is it acceptable?

  • March 27, 2019 at 5:22 pm
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    Seriously!!!! how many of us go on expedition and dont swear , I think it adds to the sincerity but to your point it might not suit everybody , If you want to read about expedition life then it should be warts and all , I remember reading one of Jim Hodgskins books about being on Aconcagua and nearly peeing myself with some of the humour and thats whats great about your diaries , it tells it as it is , sometimes thats the only way to vent or describe a situation , but hey thats just me

  • March 27, 2019 at 7:24 pm
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    So, am I correct in assuming that these people who complain would rather prefer a turd of a book as long as it’s wrapped in nice shiny paper then? You can’t please everybody, but to try and avoid any use at all of these words would certainly make the whole read artificial, I’d say. Keep it honest and sincere and, yes, if that means making use of the occasional F-word I’d seriously hope you keep using them.

    ***hat0rs gonna hate, f*ck them!***

  • March 28, 2019 at 2:19 am
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    This reminds me of a passage from Jim Curran’s book Suspended Sentences in which he describes the legendary Joe Brown:

    “His language was quite appalling when he was out with the boys, though in normal company Joe was the perfect gentleman. Attempting to mend a broken Primus stove at Base Camp, Joe gave up in disgust. ‘The fucking fucker’s fucked,’ he explained succinctly. ‘Fuck it,’ he added as an afterthought.”

  • March 28, 2019 at 3:55 am
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    I swear plenty in my vocation and my hobbies, but I confess I do not get a lot of value from reading excessive profanity (nor from listening to it on a podcast). After reading your post I felt I agreed with your father and brother. You have explained your choices and justified your resistance to their feedback, but I think they are sincere and correct. If you ask for feedback… You will get it. How you respond is telling.

  • March 28, 2019 at 7:40 am
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    It depends on the book, of course. For a serious exploration of the culture, history and politics of a region I would tend to agree with you. But a humorous caper about a grumpy old bugger on a bike? I would find it a bit weird if all the characters speak like grandma is listening. But we’re all different. Sorry if this one’s not for you.

  • March 28, 2019 at 7:48 am
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    That’s the last time I’m giving you Beta reader feedback (you bell-end !! ⛺️)

  • March 28, 2019 at 8:17 am
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    Aw, but it was good feedback. I now only use fuck 17 times and bell-end twice. 😉

  • March 28, 2019 at 9:08 am
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    What the f is a bell-end?

  • March 28, 2019 at 5:56 pm
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    bellend
    /ˈbɛlɛnd/

    noun VULGAR SLANG•BRITISH

    1. the glans of the penis.
    2. an annoying or contemptible man.
    “he is a total bellend and should step down as soon as possible”

  • March 28, 2019 at 6:24 pm
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    Err what is this country coming too. Have folk nout better to do or indeed in this case write about than to mither you with trash PC comments re a few words that they might take offense at? My advice is ignore them they might then get a life though I doubt it.

  • March 29, 2019 at 7:56 am
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    Oh, come on, I’m sure Romans swore in Latin! I don’t understand why some people don’t stomach expletives. My mother, for example. She seems incapable of watching a film whose characters say “mierda” o “follar”. “Oh, mum”, I say to her, “take it easy. People just speak like that. It’s a Mafia movie, for God’s sake”. But it’s useless.

  • March 31, 2019 at 7:09 pm
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    Romans did indeed swear. We had a Latin teacher who refused to translate some of the Martial epigrams we were supposed to be studying for O-level. I looked them up later of course! Interestingly, some of the swear words are apparently quite rare – you don’t find them in official inscriptions or in most literature, so it’s graffiti and bits of old pot as your main source.

    The job I always wanted was Swearing Consultant on The Thick of It. Now, that was a series with some elegantly over-the-top swearing.

  • April 1, 2019 at 11:27 am
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    I stumbled across your article while compiling a roundup post for my website of the best travel writing articles for March 2019, and have included this fabulous article—I write travel guides and so I’ve never considered the swearing question, so I’m pleased to be sharing this content on my website.

    Also … I host an author interview series … https://www.birdsofafeatherpress.com/category/author-interviews/ … and would love to share your writing and publishing journey. Email me if you’re interested in participating to showcase your books.

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