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. You’ll be happy to know that up here in Montréal (and the whole province of Québéc), we have maintained the diversity of our “jurons” (or “sacrés”). It’s very common to hear long chains of colourful, varied, and unique curses.

    The vast majority are either religiously based or are horribly misogynistic, aggressively directed toward women, particularly prostitutes. Interestingly, “fuck” and “shit” have been adopted into the language and are quite commonly used as spice, and are generally considered less offensive than the french swears. Eg. something that is “fucking stupide” is less stupid than something that is “stupide en tabernac.”

    One of my favourites, because it almost makes sense, is the common québécoise phrase: “Hostie de Christ de calice en tabernac.” (The body of christ of the chalice in the tabernacle). Also high on my list of are the very common euphemisms like: taberwouche (nonsense word for tabernacle) or, the best of all: câlin (hug) instead of calice (chalice).

    I know that this strays a bit from your entry, I agree that the proliferation of shit/fuck in english language is dreary at best and often offensive. In québéc french, the palette is much richer, albeit much more offensive toward women, yet it still is greatly overused.

  2. An SF/F critic who calls himself a feminist recently wrote a review on his blog in which he repeatedly characterized the protagonist of a story by the term cunt. He used the word more than twenty times. I made the point that the term does not sound exactly friendly to female ears and that even within his own parameters it shouldn’t be used to describe what is essentially a psychopath.

    He first tried to sandbag me by saying that only Amurrican barbarians misunderstand the use of the term. I pointed out that 1) I’m not American and presumably he wants to be read by people beyond Britain and its former colonies and 2) even in British terms, cunt does not mean psychopath. He essentially told me to fuck off. Several others showed up to support him, some pointing out that in fact cunt is often used as a term of endearment (which would then make his review a paean?) and that, hell, even wimmins have reclaimed the term.

    Did I mention I was the sole woman on the comment thread? Later private exchanges with a couple of his friends led to use of the following “arguments” (found in Derailment for Dummies):

    1. You are not advocating (ominous pause) CENSORSHIP, are you?
    2. But male Chechnyans/Darfurians/Trafalmadorians are ALSO SUFFERING!
    3. Your personal experiences don’t translate to larger issues.
    4. Plus, I do half the housework!

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  4. But here’s the thing. Using the word “fuck” this frequently actually reflects real-world situations. Not everywhere by everyone, obviously, but I’ve certainly heard people from particular sub-cultures use the word “fuck” three or four times in each and every sentence. Is it not appropriate for writers to reflect that usage if it’s an accurate rendition of the culture their characters inhabit?

  5. Excellent work, as always, Ms. Le Guin!

    My OED fails to confirm this, but I’m sure I’ve read that “fuck” has carried its double meaning of sexual intercourse and violent hostility since the word’s origin in one of the Germanic languages. Used in the second sense, “fuck you” meant “die before your time.”

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  7. Great post. It reminded me of the Cole Porter lyrics…

    “Good authors, too, who once knew better words, now only use four letter words, writing prose. Anything goes.”

  8. I guess only a writer who wrote excellent books like A Wizard Of Earthsea or Left Hand Of Darkness would be able to write this post and be frustrated by the constant repeating of curses’ stupidity… I’m not a native English speaker, though i know English well enough to write and publish in the English speaking countries, so I don’t feel so irritated by these curses… I don’t like them at all, but I’m really frustarted by Bulgarian curses… Trust me, they are the worst you could imagine, English versions sound like children’s talk compared to Bulgarian’s… I guess that proves once again that all the problems in the world lead to one – narrow-minded people… (from my Incredible Future).
    I even post suggestions to other blogs, sites about the way I use sites like zazzle.com, caffepress.com, fiverr with healdlines, quotes, pictures from my books. Such sites could be a perfect way to remove stupid headlines on t-shirts, cups, fridge magnets, etc like My Boyfriend Kisses Better Than Yours, FBI – female body instructor, etc. Wouldn’t be better if there were more wise thoughts on t-shirts in the streets, pictures of creratures, landscapes from fantasy genre… Like One can fight money only with money. my Tale Of the Rock Pieces.
    Even in the hottest fire there’s a bit of water. The Opposite Of Magic.
    You cannot hold open the jaws of a great white shark with your bare hands, yet anyone could do it with their brain. Kids’ Funny Business. I guess more people should follow my example?

  9. I don’t use the word fuck by itself very often, I prefer ‘fuckaduck’- mostly said in quiet desperation- it usually relieves me from a moment of pain or frustration by making me laugh at myself.

    I have noticed that the English seem to use it often and yet it does not in any way diminish their command of an impressive array of insulting and naughty words- i love git, snog, wanker, bollocks, pillock and the lot.
    If it didn’t make me sound like some anglophilic poser I’d use them with gusto.

    I don’t mind shit and fuck and asshole etc, but I do find myself wincing at incessant swearing- it seems much more violent to me to condemn someone to hell, even if I don’t really believe in the place.

    My real pet peeve is the regular use in entertainment and day to day conversation of a word I don’t use- one that is a ‘special’ term for women, comparing them to dogs. I consider it on par with other offensive words to describe other groups of people.

  10. In my years-long search for British profanity predating the Great War, I did find “fuck an old rat.” Inserted it into novel immediately.

  11. Ya know, I don’t fucking give a shit if characters curse in books or movies. What annoys the shit out of me is when they clean up the language of characters who you know would be cursing in real life. Mafia members, active duty soldiers for fucks sake, teenagers, just about anyone who’s just stubbed their toe. If they keep it all squeaky clean the whole movie/book loses all fucking believability for me.

  12. Brilliant.

    When my son was two I, too, had an encounter with the “Oh Sit”s that made me realize I needed to watch my language. I’m not much for standard cursing anyway, since my parents told me at a very young age that the standard F-Word “represents a lack of creativity, and we know you can do better than that.”

    Ironically, the first time I ever dropped an F-bomb, I immediately followed it with “And at the moment I am not feeling very creative.” which earned me some hilarious looks from the other teenagers in the group (No, my parents were not present).

    I retrained myself to use “BOTHER” and it mostly sticks. (My son was a big winnie-the-pooh fan at the age of two, which explains my choice.)

    I kind of like “rat salad” though…

  13. Thank you
    Some words like some people wear out their welcome. This noun,verb, adjective or however it is used is just to possessive of some people. Darn I just hope that in anger my vocabulary doesn’t shrink! Again

  14. Thank you so much for this wonderful exposition on the degradation of imagination supported by meaningless swearing.
    When I was in college studying technical writing, back as an adult who was failing life as a dishwasher, I decided that I needed to expunge swear words from my vocabulary. They were a crutch, I was being lazy. Plus, given I was planning a career that involved working in offices with people who may have some weird notion that peppering conversation with swear words was somehow, I don’t know, inappropriate? I wanted to get along in this new career; I was fucking done with dishwashing.
    For a long time, I held to this promise; at first rigidly until I could converse and write profane-free without effort. Lately, as my 25 year career buys me nothing and the remnants of my careful savings are dwindling into cat litter, I find that swearing has been a release, numbing me to the humiliation I experience each day I wake up and find myself in this same ridiculous mess.

  15. “Whenever you get the available answer to a straight question, like, say, where does the most famous and worst of the four-letter Angle-Saxon unprintable words come from, the answer raises new and discomfiting questions. Take that particular word. It comes from /peig/, a crawling, wicked Indo-European word meaning evil and hostile, the sure makings of a curse. It becomes /poikos/, then /gafaihaz/ in Germanic and /gefah/ in Old English, signifying “foe.” It turned from /poik-yos/ into /faigjaz/ in Germanic, and /faege/ in Old English, meaning fated to die, leading to “fey.” It went on from /fehida/ in Old English to become “feud,” and /fokken/ in Old Dutch. Somehow, from these beginnings, it transformed itself into one of the most powerful English expletives, meaning something like “Die before your time!” The unspeakable malevolence of the message is now buried deep inside the word, and out on the surface it presents itself as merely an obscenity.”
    –Lewis Thomas, “Living Language,” in /The Lives of a Cell/ (New York: Viking Press, 1974).
    It seems to me that if we want some REAL swear-words, instead of whimpy-words like “fuck,” we should follow up on your implied suggestion (also implied by the reader from Bulgaria) and start speaking other languages–and I don’t mean Germanic. I heartily recommend !Kung for the true and honest foulness of its curses:
    !ki du a !gum, “death on your vagina”
    !gum/twisi #dinyazho, “long black labia”
    !ki nuwa n!u, “may death pull back your foreskin”
    This last is especially nasty, as the Bushmn do not practice the barbaric art of circumcision/genital mutilation. These have everything “shit” has, and more: imperative-sounding clicks, snappish monosyllables, and the obligatory imagery of sex-n-death. AND pedigree: the Bushmn have been around for 100,000 years. I await my Nobel Prize for Literature.

  16. I find it terribly ironic that you use “fucking” in the title to garner attention to a post completely dedicated to complaining about using foul language to garner attention. Fuck. I mean, fuck..it’s as if you are using particular words in order draw attention to the inane things you have to say…

  17. In scanning the comments above I caught only one mention of the etymology of fuck’s dual and opposite meanings: coitus and condemnation. They stem I think from the old meaning of fucking as ‘cultivation of the soil’. So it became coitus, as insemination (or in modern slang “hiding the salami”) and also burying as in being killed and buried. Thus the dual meaning of an erotic activity or a terminal one. In modern parlance, where the cultivation sense is mostly missing, we are left with this contradiction. Am I an object of lust or hostility?

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  19. May you be reborn on Anarres is a reference to how the toilet on Anarres is named a shitstool, how the word “excremental” is used to describe excess and waste, in line with the times it was written in. Also how “an artist might paint a nude for money” (since the days of patronage by the nobility might be over.. ) Well that was a point of view expressed several years ago by a fictional character on a fictional world.

  20. Indeed, cuss-words have definitely destroyed the English language to a degree. There is a whole lost art to swearing, which was present in Shakespear’s time. Those were the days. It is interesting how the Maori of New Zealand have a war dance, the haka, in which they taunt and insult their opponents. I believe the spirit of Elizabethan England is with them in some way, in terms of swearing.

    By the way, I’m a fantasy writer working on publishing m first novel manuscript, Battles of Rofp. Check out my website:

    http://www.freewebs.com/matthewrettino

  21. Dear Ursula,

    In the way that only you can, you have accurately summarized the devolution of the English language as practiced by so-called “writers” who obviously are as barren of vocabulary as they seem to be of imagination and actual writing skills. It takes no intelligence to boil down a conversation to excrement and copulation and the lame justification of “keeping it real”, whatever that means but obviously nothing good, continues to astound me by its baseness.

    Please keep writing magnificent, non-excremental, non-copulative prose. As a long time fan, I will tell that the craft needs more like you.

    Best regards,

    Chuck

  22. I’ve enjoyed from time to time promoting a totally non word as a swear of sorts. ‘Ga geetch-ga’ is both onomatopoeia (general sound of annoyance) and completely non-sensical to the point of encouraging those that hear it to inquire what it is I just said. So instead of saying shit, which more and more would be ignored unless one says it loud enough, they’re attention is focused on what the heck is wrong with the situation as suddenly their expectations on what one should be saying have been destroyed.

    All the same though, I’m still a fan of god damn it, despite my agnosticism. Partially because I think it sounds funny.

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  25. For reasons unknown to me (turning 65? getting tired of hearing “fuck” and “shit” as every second word on the streets of New York?), I’ve involuntarily started saying “oh crap” when the shit hits the fan.

    This is a good place to say (can’t say it too many times) that I STILL recommend The Lathe of Heaven every time I turn around, and it is a constant reference point in my head.

  26. My father-in-law, a linguist and a professor of some type, claims that “fuck” is the English language’s only example of infix. As in “in-fucking-credible” or “un-fucking-believable”.

    He may be right; I haven’t been able to think of other instances.

    [I re-read the _Tombs of Atuan_ every 5-6 years. I read it when it was first published, which will date me. Wonderful writing, thank you. My son is reading Harry Potter now, I suspect he’ll love the Earthsea books when he discovers them on the shelf.]

  27. Yeah, I think this is a case of tl;dr, What I got was, U mad because people say oh fuck, or oh shit or fucking hell or w/e too much in movies or books now days…

    You know why? – Because thats what people say in real life now. So books will replicate that for the realism factor.

    Just saiyajin…

  28. Whilst I understand that these words have entered the vernacular and that they should therefore appear in literature as a way of making conversations realistic…I just can’t see that I would ever finish a book where the novelist is so limited in their vocabulary that a sentence like “The sunset was just too fucking beautiful to fucking believe.” appears. I just couldn’t do it.

  29. Thank you. That’s lovely and, since I also must have the mind of a 12-year-old, funny. I sincerely apologize for still finding the gratuitous overuse of “fuck” and “shit” funny.

    For the sake of dealing with others’ children and my parents, I have had to keep my language flexible. I don’t care what Dorothy Parker says, I like making up my own swear words, too.

    But it is a delight to encounter a writer and/or character with a rich style of language, and I agree that this “shock” approach isn’t shocking anymore. Thank you for the inspiration.

  30. This is a wonderful article! I totally agree with you – swear words have lost all meaning except as emotional exclamation points.

    As for myself, I’m saving it up, almost as a secondary virginity. I haven’t sworn in 10 years, and I don’t intend to until the situation warrants it. When that situation does arise, my swearing will be a bolt of lightning out of the heavens, leaving stunned and dumb the people who have only known my mild side for so long. If and when something so terrible does transpire, and I’m left with no recourse but words, I want those words to MEAN IT.

  31. Ms LeGuinn,

    I grew up in rural east coast Canada. Swearing when I was growing up, was not only commonplace but it even marked a right of passage. That first moment where you felt brave enough in your rebellion to actually swear in front of an adult.

    I’m in the infancy of my writing en devours. I include swearing not as a crutch, but because that’s how I think in certain situations, that’s what I would hear in real life in front of me every single day. It’s an injection of realism into my dialogue.

    So, while I love you as an author and an icon the the genre that I hold so dear to my heart, I must disagree with your obvious disdain for profanity and have to say that I’m still going to use it in my work when I find it appropriate to the scene.

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  35. There was a period in the 90’s – before the complete ascendancy of “shit” and “fuck”, I would say – when “crap” was a word you heard about 20 times an hour. It always hit me like a little burst from a dentist drill. As a new high school English teacher, I finally resorted to making my students come up with 15 synonyms for “crappy” in 5 minutes, all of which had to be acceptable for use in formal writing. You’d be surprised what a stretch it was for many of them to go beyond “poopy.” But I made my points: 1) that over-reliance on that weak-tea cousin of “shit” was both unacceptable in my assignments, and 2) it indicated a real poverty of imagination.

  36. Welcome to life in the Fox/HBO/Youtube generation. George Carlin opened the door, The Sopranos tore it off the hinges, and now everybody’s playing amongst the rubble.
    I view the use of such language, at least in literature and media, much as I view the abundant and ridiculous overuse of CGI in films….it’s a toy that creators are learning to play with, and once the novelty wears off through overuse, they’ll figure out what it’s really for and get down to telling stories.

    The words, like any words, have a place for any writer who knows how to use them. Andrew Vachss uses profanity forcefully and well. Warren Ellis uses it creatively and still manages to, quite intentionally, shock. Spider Robinson uses it naturally and often humorously. Most other writers that I’ve read who overuse it do so because they lack the imagination to come up with a better way to achieve whatever effect they’re aiming for. In a more polite age, those same writers would probably still be ending stories with “My name is Eve…my name is Adam” or “And then he woke up.”

    As it is, the overuse of profanity should be a barometer for the quality of any written work…the earlier and more often an intensifier is used, the lower the quality of that work can be said to be. Just as, according to Horowitz, “Nothing lowers the level on conversation more than raising the voice”, nothing lowers the quality of a story more than raising the four letter word count.

  37. “Oh, NUN’S KNICKERS!!!” [from “The Norman Conquests”, of course. Rat salad, though, that’s pretty good.]

  38. My usage, written or spoken, varies on a daily basis. There are days where I simply do not swear-which lends itself to some interesting creativity…days where I curse a lot. Anyhoo, I consider this an opinion piece-because the ‘problem’ with language is that it’s elastic-people are going to use language, written or spoken, in any way they see fit. And it can be used brilliantly. In the comic 100 Bullets, profanity is used very liberally-with astonishing frequency-and it works. Then again, I could just as easily point out other works that don’t use profanity, and also work. Back to the point-it’s kinda like pedestrians on the sidewalk-they’re gonna move the way they move, and best bet is not to rant and rail, and get mad, but to adjust, and go with the flow.

    That being said, I like the sunset sentence, particularly because I’ve read so many loverly descriptions of the sunset, and it’s nice to read something real.

  39. One day at my high school’s writer’s club meeting, for which I was the adviser, a student read a poem with fuck in it (not an ordinary occurrence–and it was the first one of that school year). It didn’t phase me, and I said nothing. This changed everything that students read for the rest of that meeting. They all were pulling out poems with fuck in them–some likely wrote impromptu revisions to incorporate the word where they had previously neglected it (out of fear or punishment, likely). As painful as the poetic uses of the word were that day (it quickly became cliche, conspicuous, distracting), it was conversely entertaining as a phenomena. I was boggled.

    Why did they all do it? Why did fuck take over the meeting? Why is fuck a fissionable material in kids just waiting to react?

    Kids want to use that word in their poems; I’ve since realized this in my writing classes. It’s ever at the tip of their pens, taunting some, freeing others who aren’t so inhibited.

    I’ve lately been telling kids to stop using the word so much, as they deprive it of its power. I don’t suppose I can get away with making this piece required reading.

  40. “Jesus H. Rubbernecking Christ on a goddamned skateboard, numbskull, any Jody-assed civilian who thinks he can fucking curse needs that faggoty baby shit fucked out of his skull by a military motherfucking professional.”

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  43. Good woman! The first time I heard the word ‘fuck’ on TV I gasped with delight – my Stepfather showed me an episode of a British TV show – my mother would have freaked if she had been there. The first time I read ‘shit’ was in ‘The Making of The Empire Strikes Back’ and was rebelliously delighted – I never told my mother – she would’ve confiscated the book. But you’re so fucking right. Nowadays every second word is fuck/ing/ed… I’m by no means a prude – as I mentioned I was *delighted* when I first heard *gasp* the F word on TV (and up until then I wondered if it was too rude to be used on TV and in movies) but shit, all the fucking time, shit it’s so fucking boring. Alien 3 (and I counted) had the eff word around 75 fucking times (and only 2 times was it effective or needed). Gone is the shock value, the impact, the naughty rebellious feeling or any effect whatsoever and says perhaps that the scriptwriters/actors of some of these movies and shows (or the intended audiences) have a very limited vocabulary.

    Goes to show I’m not the only one fucked off by people who can’t think of intelligent alternatives. That said, when cuss words are used effectively, they give that oomph, though goes flat fast when it’s overdone like an overcooked soufflé.

    So thanks for the article! And for EarthSea!