YfL4: Expletive

Can you say the word fuck in a newspaper?

An edited version (with most of the objectionable bits asterisked out) appeared in yesterday’s EdEx.


Expletive: an exclamation or swearword; an oath or a sound expressing an emotional reaction rather than any particular meaning.

Watching a programme about Oscar nominees last week, I was surprised to hear that a Quentin Tarantino film called “Inglourious *silence*” had been nominated for a number of awards. It took me a few moments to work out that the film in question was the director’s Inglourious Basterds (misspellings deliberate).
Lots of people don’t like swearing, in films or on TV. There are plenty of possible reasons for this. Perhaps they simply think swear words are crude and ugly. Perhaps they are afraid that children will hear them and use them or, worse, ask what they mean. In the case of the word fuck, which generally forms a part or the whole of the offending statement, people might even complain that adds to the unfair negative connotations around something as amazing as sex.
Literature and film must deal with the consequences of this disapproval. Films with swearing in them are frequently rated for older audiences (and the DVDs eventually released with the cryptic “contains language” warning on the back, in case the audience expected a silent film or a mime). They will also inevitably have to submit to constantly having words “bleeped” or “blanked” out – the offensive word is replaced either with a beeping noise or with silence. I’m sure Tarantino expected it.
An obvious way to avoid this problem would be to create works of art in which no one ever swears. Which would be fine if you made a film about your grandparents, but perhaps less authentic if you made one about murdering drug smugglers.
So what do you do if you want to depict swearing but don’t want your movie filled with silences and beeps? The answer: substitute other words and make sure your audience knows what you’re substituting them for. Neither I nor anyone I knew in school was ever fooled by a string of teachers who used “sugar” as a substitute for another word beginning with a “sh-” sound.
The internet provides any number of alternative f-words, should you choose to use them. My favourite so far has been “frak”, which originated on Battlestar Galactica when it was first aired in the 1970s. From 2004 to 2009 a revamped version of the original series was aired, and in this the meaning of “frak” became a lot more detailed. “Frell”, a similar word from Farscape, was not nearly as recognizable.
Alternatively, there’s the route that writers like Terry Pratchett and Larry Niven have taken in their books where they embrace the censoring of swear words and throw it right back. In Pratchett’s The Truth, one character’s dialogues are interspersed with the word “- ing”. It looks reasonably normal until other characters begin to ask why this man keeps saying “ing”. Likewise, in Niven’s Known Space stories “bleep” itself has become an insult.
It seems silly to go to all this trouble to mask words when everyone knows what they are intended to signify in any case. But I’m willing to put up with it – contrary to what a number of English teachers in school told me, language is made richer by a good dose of profanity.


4 Comments to “YfL4: Expletive”

  1. This column is fucking awesome. And frakking, and frelling, and also bleeping, perhaps.

  2. I agree with Vishal. :D

    Maybe there's some worth to euphemising swearwords, at least it keeps them…you know…special. Over here in Poland people swear a lot. I mean a A LOT. Mothers, fathers, little old ladies, young drunks…

    On any given day I can go outside and see a family with kids strolling past and hear a parent shout "Watch where you're fucking going, fuck!" to their kid. And it's so common,no one raises their head. It's not a sign of pathology, everyone does it- those who do not are considered EXTREMELY cultured people. But if they do not stay within their cultured circles, they are bound to catch the habit from their neighbours.

    "Kurwa", a nastier word for "whore" peppers people's conversations to a ridiculous degree. I wish I was exaggerating when I quote this conversation between a girl and her boyfriend on the bus: "So, kurwa, I told him, kurwa, that I would kurwa go, but, kurwa, the kurwa bus took 20 kurwa minutes to get there. I mean, kurwa!"

    She added that last one to accentuate her frustration, you see.

    Some words should be kept sacred.

  3. LOL. I love this post. In the late nineties a whole bunch of us Irish animators went to work for 20C Fox in Arizona. I think our language was a bit of a culture shock for the 'locals'. I recall one very bemused mid-westerner commenting that he could imagine the priest at mass in Ireland solemnly intoning,'our father who art in fucking heaven, hallowed be thy fucking name, a-the fuck-men.'

  4. Vishal – As are you!

    Madzia – I *do* take issue with swearwords that promote sexism or homophobia and the like – I try not to use them myself. But profanity *in principle* is still something I approve of wholeheartedly.

    Celine – I find that not at all hard to imagine. :D

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