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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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


Out Here coverUrsula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her most recent book is Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country, co-authored with photographer Roger Dorband.

She contributed an original poem, “In England in the Fifties,” to Book View Café’s anthology Breaking Waves, which benefits the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund.

Please visit UKL’s Book View Café poetry bookshelf for an excerpt from Out Here.

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Would You Please Fucking Stop? — 129 Comments

  1. Pingback: Please F%#!ing Stop. | Chili Dog Blog

  2. I’m reminded of M.C.A. Hogarth’s “Spots the Space Marine” serial, in which she lets her soldier characters curse as much as they want to, but uses asterisks in her text to replace the harsh words. It seemed to me to be an amazingly civilized compromise between letting characters speak in their own voices and not bludgeoning readers with the words.

    http://stardancer.org/spots/

  3. Swearing is as old as time. Don’t kid yourself Women’s Christian Temperance Union disciple, Le Guin.

    • I don’t think you quite managed to comprehend the meaning of the article. Perhaps you would like to try again?

  4. Like so much of LeGuin’s writing, it’s briefly entertaining and ultimately pointless. The word fuck is overused, but it’s irreplaceable. Try saying “Where the ass have you been?” with a straight face. And she is really, really, REALLY reaching on the whole “fuck=rape” thing.

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  6. I make my efforts to control my cussing, with limited success, using foreign, “Bloody Hell!”, “Scheisse!”, or otherwise found phrases like the archaic “Hells Bells!”. If these are not shocking, they at least might stir a moments consideration of the meaning.
    My worst moment came when I found myself thoroughly frustrated with the unexpected changes in my rapidly aging mother’s personality; her sudden lack of all flexibility and willingness to carry on a reasoned discussion, and her complete unwillingness to accept my wife into her life. Before I knew what was happening and learned some flexibility and acceptance of my own I found myself yelling, “Fuck You!” at my dearest, 90 year old, sweet as sugar, first grade teacher of a mother. It was a wake up call in many ways, including the ease with which such words had come to fall from my lips.
    Still, “fuck” and “shit” were so much a part of our speech growing up in the sixties that to hear teens or younger kids today using the words, while saddening at one level, is not so difficult to accept as a part of growing up. What gets my goat far more is that I can no longer believe that anyone under perhaps twenty five has ever actually experienced anything that was truly, “awesome”.

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  9. Once, a friend of mine was asking about my relationship with a certain girl, so he said “Were you two fucking?”

    I was surprised to hear it in a context where it actually refered to sex. It just sounded so brutal.

  10. Pingback: Would You Please Fucking Stop? | conclusions most forbidden

  11. Thank you for this, Ursula. About time someone said this! I have just abandoned reading a two-volume novel on the grounds that the language was inappropriate, and I’m absolutely no prude. When things get really bad, there’s nowhere to go, verbally, any more. Even the use of “awesome” has been abused… watching a tsunami, or a volcanic eruption, is awesome…nothing much less.

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  14. I’ve read that Fu (Afa/ava) was originally a pagan feminine figure, a goddess and Ock (Og/Ok) the masculine force. Afa-ock. Ava-ok had spiritual significance. It was probably an interpretation of the sky myths surrounding Ophiuchus and Serpens. Over years with new invasions and religions, it also became Hav-Ock and eventually the Old English was supplanted except for various ‘gutter’ language. Havoc (as in ‘dogs of war’), for more than 20 centuries, has become ever more in vogue. As for its over-misuse these days, it is part of our overall loss of language, our ‘dumbing down’ and refusal to examine our society and individual lives in any honest manner.

    Unfortunately, I don’t recall the insightful writer’s name who said, “the fastest way to conquer a culture is to destroy its language.”

    Thank you for expressing dismay that even a hugely expressive expletive can be driven into oblivion by trivializing it to death.

  15. Sometimes nothing else will do. Anthony Burgess, in his book on language, “A Mouthful of Air”, records hearing a soldier in the Second World War saying in complete exasperation with a piece of broken equipment:
    “Fuck! The fucking fucker’s fucking-well fucked!”
    Ejaculation; adjective; noun; adverb; verb. This must be the record: it is unlikely that the word could ever be used as a preposition; but ironic that it can’t be used as a conjugation.

  16. My wife and I decided to let our kids swear freely in the home. The theory was that they’d soon tire of it.

    Yes, it worked about as well as you’d expect. But we were new parents, we didn’t know, so fuck off.

    I write YA and have an 11 year old and a 14 year old whose dialog I coud never reproduce in the sort of mainstream series writing I do. Oh, I can have a character beat another character to death with a baseball bat, but neither can yell “fuck!” At home we tend to go the other way: somewhat less murdering, a lot more cursing.

  17. After my 7 years in Glasgow I’d like to point out to Ms Le Guin there is at least one more wonderfully colourful agressive anglosaxon four letter swear word out there. As used to brilliant effect in this clip, http://youtu.be/s9arSotadmY

    The in the loop/thick of it team prove again and again how artful swearing can be.

  18. When I think of f-bombs in writing, I always think of your story “The Matter of Seggri” where women go to the fuckery to pay men for sex. I very much liked that use of the word.

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  20. Romance is dead, and fuck is a tired word. Any idiot character can say fuck. Any idiot writer can use it. Surprise me. Give me a word-image I haven’t seen before. If one is under 30, perhaps they’re still impressed with the powah of the word. To me, it’s a yawn. Write me something I’ve not heard before. Write something you can’t find on the walls of Pompeii or ancient Rome. Used your idiot imagination…if you have one. Come up with something new. Not something so tired it’s worse than a common shagging.

  21. While we have not likely developed “fuck” to the exquisite heights of “chingar”, I recommend Octavio Paz’s essay on that storied word from “The Labyrinth of Solitude,” where he celebrates the multiple meanings and nuances of an obscene word. Fuck has a lot of uses beyond intensifying, and can be used to describe good bad and indifferent states. Maybe one reason it is a staple of bad writing is because bad writers don’t grasp its possibilities.

  22. I think everyone has forgotten this very important aspect of cussing: It’s hilarious and it’s really good fun. Fuck shit titty ass butt.

    See?

  23. I enjoyed the article, but it seems to me a lot of the comments are pretentious or missing the point. Anyway, while it would be cool to see more creativity in writing it is also useful to accurately reflect the culture and personality of characters in their dialogue. So while it would be interesting if someone said, “You puss-filled boil on a cunt!” it just wouldn’t fit if the character was, say, a 15 year old American, who would much more likely say, “You fuck!” So, stop being fucking pretentious fucks.

  24. “Good authors too, who once new better words now only use four letter words writing prose, anything goes.”