WARNING! STRONG LANGUAGE ALERT!
This post is about, shall we say—at the risk of stereotyping—‘sailor friendly’ language, though not to imply that all sailors use ‘colorful language’ or that only sailors use such language, but rather just to indicate what follows if you read on.
I was ten years-old and in the middle of a heated argument with George, one of the boys in our neighborhood. While standing in my driveway, we reached the point where I’d had enough and used ‘that word’ as an exclamation point, hoping to end the discussion. George took another tact and shouted in a loud voice, making sure my father, who was working in the garage would hear him. “Oh Randy! You said F-U-C-what?”
“Cut it out!” Fearing his tactic would be successful I agreed with whatever his position was in our pointless argument just to avoid punishment.
Now, don’t think my father wasn’t a practitioner of the colorful language arts. In fact, one of the frequent stories in the family dealt with how my older sister, when she was little, had acquired an unacceptably colorful vocabulary. It seems that when she drove around with my father she picked up a thing or two, chief of which was goddamn-son-of-a-bitch. Today that might make for a viral YouTube video, but in the early 50s little girls weren’t supposed to talk like that. The point being, my father’s colorful language was familiar to me, though it didn’t include F-U-C-what up to that point.
I don’t think I ever heard my mother swear, even mildly, until she was in the end-stages of her pancreatic cancer—even then it was very mild. I guess that’s why I was shocked the first time I heard a girlfriend in seventh grade say fuck. I thought that word was reserved for the male sex. Silly me.
Of course, my argument with George was in the early 60s with pretty clear boundaries about acceptable and unacceptable language. It’s amazing what three or four decades can do to the common language. Back in the early 70s I didn’t see fuck in the novels I read. As a result, and because of my family environment, when I began creative writing I consciously kept that word out of my work. In fact I continued to refrain from using it until the last year or so. What changed my position?
I suppose it’s waking up to the cultural reality. Obviously there was a big flap a while back when fuck entered use on network television—within proper context and acceptable usage. Interesting thing about fuck, it’s one of the few words in our language that’s a noun, verb, and adjective. Though, I’m unaware of its use as an adverb, as I’ve never encountered something like, it was a fuckly situation. The other sign that changed my mind was during my year’s subscription to the New Yorker magazine.
Another writer told me the New Yorker was the pinnacle for modern short fiction. Each issue features one story by published authors. I found that many of the stories contained the word fuck, which surprised me. I guess it had been a while since I read a New Yorker. In any event, it struck home that language usage had changed and that fuck was now very much a mainstream word.
Armed with this new realization, I reviewed my work that didn’t use fuck and wondered if that was appropriate. This is especially true of my memoirs. Having worked construction, underground mining, logging, maintenance, and hanging around a broad slice of Americana, I asked myself should I refrain from using the word. If memoir is supposed to be an accurate recollection, as best as possible of actual events and people, and if I use representative dialog to imbue an entertaining storytelling quality to my work, which of the following sentences makes the most sense?
Jack, a hulking man, born into a third generation mining family, swung his sixteen pound double jack hammer onto the rock, which glanced off and mashed against his shin. “Oh fudge!” he shouted, clutching his bloody shin.
Jack, a hulking man, born into a third generation mining family, swung his sixteen pound double jack hammer onto the rock, which glanced off and mashed against his shin. “Oh fuck!” he shouted, clutching his bloody shin.
Personally, I believe the latter is the more believable approach, certainly based on personal experience. If memoir—or fiction—is going to ring true about certain types of characters, their use of language needs to be believable. In that vein, I don’t think the use of these forms: f*** or #@&* make any sense. These substitutions do nothing to hide the true words, as everyone reads the actual word in their head.
Discussing the coarsening of language, culture, and society is outside the scope of my topic to cuss or not to cuss. However, regardless of the merits of the larger discussion, in the end, as far as current standards go for adult reading, which the fiction in the New Yorker seems to reflect, I’ve arrived at the following conclusion. What the fuck, to be truthful to some of my characters, my work needs to reflect the language I know those characters would use.
What are your thoughts on this issue? How have you decided to handle the use of certain colorful language?