Best of the Blog: Would You Please Fucking Stop

This blog post is included in:

No Time to Spare
Thinking About What Matters

by Ursula K. Le Guin
Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler

December 5, 2017
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Editor’s note: The Book View Cafe blog has been around since 2008 and we’ve run at least 1,500 entries. Today we’re starting a weekly series reprinting some of our favorites. Up first: Ursula K. Le Guin and our all time most-popular blog post. This post first appeared in 2011.

By Ursula K. Le Guin
I keep reading books and seeing movies where nobody can fucking say anything except fuck, unless they say shit. I mean they don’t seem to have any adjective to describe fucking except fucking even when they’re fucking fucking. And shit is what they say when they’re fucked. When shit happens, they say shit, or oh shit, or oh shit we’re fucked. The imagination involved is staggering. I mean, literally.

There was one novel I read where the novelist didn’t only make all the fucking characters say fuck and shit all the time but she got into the fucking act herself for shit sake. So it was full of deeply moving shit like, “The sunset was just too fucking beautiful to fucking believe.”

I guess what’s happened is that what used to be a shockword has become a noise that’s supposed to intensify the emotion in what you’re saying. Or maybe it occurs just to bridge the gap between words, so that actual words become the shit that happens in between saying fucking?

Swearwords and shockwords used to mostly come out of religion. Damn, damn it, hell, God, God-damned, God damn it to hell, Jesus, Christ, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ Almighty, etc. etc. A few of them appeared, rarely, in nineteenth-century novels, usually as “——” or more bravely as “By G—!” or “d—n!” (Archaic or dialect oaths such as swounds, egad, gorblimey were printed out in full.) With the twentieth century the religious-blasphemy oaths began to creep, and then swarm, into print. Censorship of words perceived as “sexually explicit” was active far longer. Lewis Gannett, the book reviewer for the old NY Tribune, had a top-secret list of words the publisher had had to eliminate from The Grapes of Wrath before they could print it; after dinner one night Lewis read the list out loud to his family and mine with great relish. It couldn’t have shocked me much, because I recall only a boring litany of boring words, mostly spoken by the Joads no doubt, on the general shock level of “titty.”

I remember my brothers coming home on leave in the second world war and never once swearing in front of us homebodies: a remarkable achievement. Only later, when I was helping my brother Karl clean out the spring, in which a dead skunk had languished all winter, did I learn my first real cusswords, seven or eight of them in one magnificent, unforgettable lesson. Soldiers and sailors have always cursed, what else can they do? But Norman Mailer in The Naked and the Dead was forced to use the euphemistic invention “fugging,” giving Dorothy Parker the chance, which naturally she didn’t miss, of cooing at him, “Oh, are you the young man who doesn’t know how to spell ‘fuck?’”

And then came the Sixties, when a whole lot of people started saying shit, even if they hadn’t had lessons from their brother. And before long all the shits and fucks were bounding forth in print. And finally we began to hear them from the lips of the stars of Hollywood. So now the only place to get away from them is movies before 1990 or books before 1970 or way, way out in the wilderness. But make sure there aren’t any hunters out in the wilderness about to come up to your bleeding body and say Aw, shit, man, I thought you was a fucking moose.

I remember when swearing, though tame by modern standards, was quite varied and often highly characteristic. There were people who swore as an art form – performing a dazzling juncture of the inordinate and the unexpected. It seems weird to me that only two words are now used as cusswords, and by many people used so constantly that they can’t talk or even write without them.

Of our two swearwords, one has to do with elimination, the other (apparently) with sex. Both are sanctioned domains, areas like religion where there are rigid limits and things may be absolutely off-limits except at certain specific times or places.

So little kids shout caca and doo-doo, and big ones shout shit. Put the feces where they don’t belong!

This principle, getting it out of place, off limits, the basic principle of swearing, I understand and approve. And though I really would like to stop saying Oh shit when annoyed, having got on fine without it till I was 35 or so, I’m not yet having much success in regressing to Oh hell or Damn it. There is something about the shh beginning, and the explosive t! ending, and that quick little ih sound in between….

But fuck and fucking? I don’t know. Oh, they sound good as curses, too. It’s really hard to make the word fuck sound pleasant or kindly. But what is it saying?

I don’t think there are meaningless swearwords; they wouldn’t work if they were meaningless. Does fuck have to do with sex primarily? Or sex as male aggression? Or just aggression?

Until maybe 25 or 30 years ago, as far as I know, fucking only meant one kind of sex: what the man does to the woman, with or without consent. Now, both men and women use it to mean coitus, and it’s become (as it were) ungendered, so that a woman can talk about fucking her boyfriend. So the strong connotations of penetration and of rape should have fallen away from it. But they haven’t. Not to my ear, anyhow. Fuck is an aggressive word, a domineering word. When the guy in the Porsche shouts Fuck you, asshole! he isn’t inviting you to an evening at his flat. When people say Oh shit, we’re fucked! they don’t mean they’re having a consensual good time. The word has huge overtones of dominance, of abuse, of contempt, of hatred.

So God is dead, at least as a swearword; but hate and feces keep going strong. Le roi est mort, vive le fucking roi.

– UKL

Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe.

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14 Responses to Best of the Blog: Would You Please Fucking Stop

  1. P.L.Reiter says:

    What a fucking breath of fresh air!

  2. Elizabeth Moon says:

    Although my verbal language took a turn to the profane a few years after I left the military (where I heard very artistic language by two master gunnery sergeants in the Marine Corps), I made the decision not to use several words in my writing. Partly to see if anyone would notice I didn’t, and partly because (after some time doing rural EMS on a road traveled by soldiers from a nearby base) I was just plain tired of the unimaginative overuse of shit and fuck and Jesus Christ by the drunk and/or injured soldiers we transported. (Sorry, Army, but you have much to learn from the Marines in terms of cussing.)

    When I had some military-heavy books out, none of which had the S word or F word in them, but were being read by active duty personnel and veterans who didn’t seem to mind the absence, I wrote a spoof scholarly paper on my writing for a magazine’s April Fool edition. The paper went to great lengths to explain the peculiar psychological quirk causing the author to write about digging latrines while avoiding the word “shit.” Lots of fun to write.

    But in the meantime, those two words (of all the other terms that might be used instead) continued to take over, so now, yes, they’re common and have reduced every situation to either feces or sexual intercourse. A poverty of imagination.

  3. Rick Sewell says:

    Brave, Dear Lady, Brave!!!
    I have been trying to stop swearing all my adult life. T’aint easy.
    Thank you for so concisely stating one of my pet peeves.

  4. Lif Strand says:

    The last sentence made me laugh out loud. Thank you!

  5. Wolf Lahti says:

    “Snot” is just about the only four-letter word left that retains any impact.

  6. Kathleen Haney says:

    I was taught that people who had to resort to profanity in any form to express themselves were functionally illiterate. When I was a child my mother’s favorite swear word was damn or damn it. It is sad that our society cannot seem to understand or enjoy a book, a movie, or even a song without profanity being included. I realize that depending on the genre of a book or the subject matter of a movie swear words may be considered necessary in the development of a character’s personality but far too often these days the two words you listed are used so gratuitously that it ruins the book or movie, at least for me.

  7. Linda Nagata says:

    I’ve written books with no profanity (Memory), and books overflowing with it (The Red: First Light — although this one does come with a warning. 😉 ), and others that fall in between. To me, it depends on the needs of the story, the mood of the book, and of course, the characters.

  8. Jennifer says:

    This is brilliant.

  9. Asakiyume says:

    Junot Diaz gave a thoughtful response when asked about all the cursing and profanity in his books. He said, “Official language and the discourse of respectability guarantees enormous silences,” and that people who didn’t want to hear the profanity often didn’t want to hear the more substantive things he had to say.

    There are lots of stories that can be told without much or any profanity, but there are lots of stories that probably need it, stories in which the profanity isn’t just filler, but necessary to make the story real.

    If it’s just something you plop down into your story with no good reason–kind of like just upping the contrast in your digital photo in an effort to make it better looking–then that’s just lazy writing, and tedious to read. But I don’t think this is the case for all stories that have lots of profanity.

  10. michel says:

    Bad writing of any kind is bad writing, including overuse of particular words. But language changes and develops, and if the natural discourse of human life has moved since we were children, there’s not much we can do about it. Leaving out or altering the way people actually speak does not make for more realistic characters. I live in downtown Toronto. I hear this language every day, everywhere I go. It belongs in literature which seeks to portray the world as it is.

  11. Jean Lamb says:

    This reminds me of the time I came home from military training and asked my mother-in-law to pass the (bleep) potatoes. Oops. She was stunned, while my father-in-law was desperately chewing on his tongue to avoid laughing. Needless to say, I corrected my habits forthwith. This way, when one of my characters swears, it *means* something. Or if I have a habitually profane character, I try to make it interesting, at least. Have a frelling clue!

  12. Anon says:

    No one will take your book or movie seriously as art unless it’s full of fucks, shits, and lots of gratuitous sexual stuff. Violence is optional.

  13. Georg Wrede says:

    I’d like to see what kind of reception a modern action film would get if the strongest words were “oh, my” and “annoying”. I wouldn’t, however, want to be financially involved in it.

  14. FrancisT says:

    I’m not impressed with people who are unable to vary their cussing, particularly when they over use the limited words they have. Fuck(ing), especially, seems to be used as a synonym for very which I find to be fucking odd.

    Going on, why limit yourself to those two 4 letter words when there’s genitalia both male and female ( dick/cunt and more) to use?

    [I’ve noticed that americans don’t like cunt but it seems common in the UK & Ireland. And used FWIW totally indiscriminately by both sexes to refer to others of both sexes. ]