09 October 2013

Dirty Words

by David Edgerley Gates

Back in August, Leigh Lundin posted a piece about PINs and passwords that I found very instructive. Birthdates, for example, are too commonly used, and easily penetrated. In fact, I just got a phishing e-mail, purportedly from my cousin G, stranded and broke in the Philippines, urgently in need of money, which is almost certainly the result of a password compromise.

But that's not the point I want to take up here. Leigh also mentioned that people often choose catchphrases, for example F**KU2. Leigh didn't used asterisks. It's not in my nature to censor myself, either, but I'm doing it this time so as not to scare the children, and because one of Leigh's readers took offense, and told him he should clean the column up, and bleep out the foul language. My first reaction was, sheesh, what an uptight prude, but on further reflection, I realized the guy had a point.

Language is extraordinarily powerful, and poisonous. If you use derogatory slang, for instance, to describe gay men, or black people, or Jews, to name a few obvious ones, you perpetuate stereotypes. You can argue, of course, that this is how people talk, which is true enough, and political correctness leads to a kind of homogenization, or Socialist Realism, but I'm a straight white guy, raised as an Episcopalian, so I can't claim to have a dog in the fight. I had a running argument for years with Cathleen Jordan, my editor at HITCHCOCK, who held the line resolutely against graphic violence and colorful profanity. I'd say it was realistic. She'd say, not on my watch. I once heard a cop use a phrase to describe lowered physical requirements for police recruits, the result of Affirmative Action, to bring in more women and minorities, that the applicant pool was all "runts and c**nts." I knew I'd never slip that one past Cathleen, and it took me days, literally, to come up with something. (I finally settled on "midgets and Gidgets," which doesn't have quite the same flavor, or shock value, but any woman will tell you they deeply resent being characterized, or dismissed, as no more than a fold of flesh.)

There's a fascinating conversation in Mary Renault's THE MASK OF APOLLO—fascinating to me, anyway—that takes place between the first-person narrator, an actor, and another dinner guest, who turns out to be the philosopher Plato. (The story takes place in classical Greece, the 3rd century B.C.) They're talking about theater, naturally enough. Nico, the narrator, has just performed Aeschylus' THE MYRMIDONS. After a while, they get around to Euripides, and it turns out Plato doesn't approve of him. He thinks Euripides mocks the Gods. Nico answers, he's the first to show men and women as they really are. Plato say, why not show them what they can be? Nico can only think to tell him, "But it's such marvelous theater." This produces, of course, a deafening silence.

You can see where both of them are coming from. Nico is, after all, a working actor, who goes where his trade takes him, and wants a good play. Plato believes men are base, but can be taught to turn from evil. He sees in his mind's eye a city, a body politic, that rises above itself, and aspires to the ideal (for which there's his REPUBLIC). The dialogue, in effect, turns on the purpose of art, drama in particular, because it's a popular, accessible form, but Renault's novel itself becomes a sort of meta-fiction, both an illustration of seeking the ideal, and also marvelous theater. There is, perhaps, a balance. The audience delivered from outer darkness by sleight of hand.

Where does this leave us? I have to say I lean toward the theatrical, not to say sensational. Those dirty words, and ugly epithets, are part of my vocabulary, and I'll keep them in my toolbox, along with fear, and violence, betrayal and despair. They describe the human condition. Not that we shouldn't seek the ideal, or honor, or heroics---or that we can't rise above ourselves. The trick is in the doing.


  1. What a treat to come across someone else who remembers Mary Renault's work in great detail. She had a gift for giving the ancient Greeks the values and attitudes of English gentlemen. :) As a New Yorker writing about addictions, I come by my four-letter words honestly, but I've used fewer and fewer of them since I began writing my series. A street addict or drug dealer cannot credibly say, "Oh, fudge." But my recovering protagonist doesn't really have to say "It's four-f***ing-thirty in the morning!"

  2. Very interesting piece. In my novel, still looking for a home, my mobsters say a lot of naughty things I would never utter (in fact, I made sure the first scene had only language I could do at a reading). My wife points out that there is a reason curse words are called that, they aren't supposed to make you feel good. I know a man who worked in a juvenile prison years ago and he discovered that when he was lax on the rules against profanity, violence shot up.

    By the way, I discovered Mary Renault last hear, reading The King Must Die, and loved it. have to get around to the sequel.

  3. Ah, language. Word choice, inflection, sentence structure (or lack of it) shows so much about each of us, and our fictional creations. In the interest of showing not telling, language is a great tool to have in the writing toolbox. And a change in word usage also shows a character's journey or transformation.

    Curse words are powerful, or should be. Recently, on my last visit to NYC, I played a game. Each time I left the hotel, I guessed how long it would be before I heard the word f**k bandied about. Everyday, less than ten seconds. I even used to challenge the guys in the gym (my friends--don't think I'm a member of the language police)to come up with a different adjective than f**king for each inanimate object they spoke of. They were hard-pressed to do so. Which of course, conjures a stereotype--and stereotypes, although maligned, can be used quiet effectively in fiction.

    And sometimes, only a four-letter word will do....

  4. Ah, profanity - so much maligned, so flavorful as it rolls off the tongue, so easily used... and so addictive. At least up until a certain age. I know in my misspent youth, f**k was used with a constant enthusiasm and brio that is now lacking. Now I save it for things like politics and sudden physical pain.

    In writing, I finally learned to NOT use it, or cigarette smoking, as a tag-all. It helped that I made one character in a sci-fi story British, because then I could use bloody as an adjective left and right and it went fine with American sensibilities. It's a strange transition, especially as the profanity goes up and up in movies and TV.

    I love Mary Renault - especially "The Mask of Apollo," "The Praise Singer", and "The Last of the Wine". Yes, her ancient Greeks had some of the values and attitudes of English gentlemen (most would not appreciate Nico's sexuality), but then we need to remember that English gentlemen were raised, for 500 years, on the literature of ancient Greece and Rome - it was, quite literally, the only thing that was taught in university until the mid-1800's. Basically, English gentlemen were aping the ancients because they were taught that theirs was the behavior of civilized men.

    By the way, had a great time on vacation, great to be back. Except for the current government shut-down, on which I am currently doing a symphony in F major.

  5. I'm glad to learn I'm not the only one who struggles with striking the right level of profanity in stories.

    And, thanks for mentioning Mary Renault. Sounds like I've got a new author to explore.

  6. David, I enjoyed both the philosophy and the humor in your article, as I also did in the various comments by others. We have a great and diverse group here. Makes my day sometimes just to read that morning's post.


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