[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.
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.
I’m only as far as p.3 in Redmond O’Hanlon’s “In Trouble Again” and already I have to read this… pic.twitter.com/cwLvLtOHiW
— Mark Horrell (@markhorrell) March 17, 2019
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.
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.