I had to smile the other day when a character in a book I was reading felt she had to draw attention her partner’s use of damn in her presence. Apparently this man, who appeared normal in all other respects, and was very well-realized by the author, was so restrained when it came to the kind of situation which usually gives rise to expletives that this was the first time in a long-standing relationship that she had heard him say it.
I smiled because no fan of crime fiction who regards ‘bad’ language as a no-no is going to get beyond the cosy sub-genre (which I should say this was.) For myself, I enjoy a good cosy as much as the next reader, but my tastes run quite a lot further as well. I do like to ring the changes. And I review, so if I edited out anything containing questionable language, my choices would be severely limited. Fortunately the f-word has never fazed me, and I even stopped wincing at the c-word, at least in print, some time ago.
Provided, of course, that the context is right.
There are some authors whose work I choose not to read. One expletive after another really doesn’t make for interesting reading, and soon loses its impact. It’s become a cliché, but clichés only become clichés because they’re true: over-use of ‘bad’ language is quite simply lazy writing. There are always more imaginative alternatives.
On the other hand... I’m reminded of Billy Connolly’s view of the weather: there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes. Which is why I’ve put the word ‘bad’ in quote marks several times.
While over-use of those words beginning with f, c and sh (and no doubt others I’m less familiar with as well – I did have rather a sheltered childhood, though I can swear in Welsh) rapidly becomes repetitive and tedious, the simple fact is that people use them in real life, (yeah, OK, me too, especially the sh-word, far too often for polite society), and without them there would be an awful lot of unrealistic dialogue.
So as well as smiling at the mild-mannered character for who a sotto voce damn was, um, out of character, I was moved to wonder how he would have reacted if he had, for instance, dropped a hammer on his toe.
When I was publishing, I exercised a little editorial privilege, and asked my authors not to use the c-word. I can cope with it in print, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it; call me sanctimonious if you must, but it strikes me as the very acme of the worst kind of sexism to take a word which applies to an intimate part of the female body and use it as a term of abuse usually aimed at a man.
I suppose the analogy can be stretched a lot further. There are other words for female parts which get used in much the same way. And why use a word as an abusive adjective when, in its correct context, it refers to an intimate and usually pleasurable act between consenting adults? So yes, I have to agree, my little personal prejudice against one word doesn’t bear close scrutiny. But wearing my editorial hat, I object just – OK, almost – as strongly to alright instead of all right, and onto instead of on to. And don’t get me started on apostrophes...
But it always depends on the context. Reading a wide range of crime fiction means putting individual bias aside, and that’s what I aim to do. As long as it’s in dialogue, and it’s what the character would say, I can even cope with solecisms like different to if I have to! The occasional f-word I take in my stride.
Which could be why I blinked a little at an out-of-character damn.