Saturday, May 10, 2014

Swearing in Literature: Share Examples of Bad Language in Good Books


When swearing is needed ... A still from Trainspotting. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext Collection/Sportsphoto

If Vladimir Putin gets his way – and he tends to – any book published in Russia that contains "foul language" will soon have to be sold in a sealed package and marked with a warning. Swearwords will also be banned and fines issued to anyone who sneaks them into films, plays, music gigs and any other public performances, according to the law passed this week by the lower house of the Russian parliament.

Not only is vulgar slang a vital component of Russian literature and art, but the clampdown is completely preposterous per se, argued Irvine Welsh

It seems to be an attempt to erase and/or marginalise certain cultures, ie the working class, the ghetto, and so on. Language is a living, organic thing. If you start to try to control that and prescribe what people say, the next thing is prescribing what people think.

Welsh may well have something of a vested interest. It's hard to see how Trainspotting would pass the Putin test – but as he pointed out, nor would James Kelman's Booker prize-winning How Late It Was, How Late, or John King's Football Factory.

Coincidentally, one of our readers recently shared a great example of a literary work made richer by its swearwords on our Tips, links and suggestions series. edinflo said:

Jenni Fagan's The Panopticon gets top marks just for the swearing. I mean, really, this is top-tier stuff: profane, inventive, funny and gob-smackingly offensive. I'm not being facetious: dialect is hard to get right and can be hard to balance. Fagan has a great ear for dialogue and has captured Lothian/Edinburgh Scots perfectly (and, yes, that means a huge amount of profanity). Coming from the area, there was an extra pleasure for me in reading familiar words, some of which I hadn't heard since school, e.g. spraffing, shan, chore, ken, ay (pronounced like a capital A) used as an interrogative, the word "how?" used to mean "why?" and something giving you the boak).

Do you agree that literature would be the poorer without profanity? Prove your point by sharing quotes in the thread below. But we want to keep this civil: please don't make it gratuitous, or offensive to others.

Here are some examples from British literature to get you going:

Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh
Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye've produced. Choose life.

How Late It Was, How Late, by James Kelman
Ach it was hopeless. That was what ye felt. These bastards. What can ye do but. Except start again so he started again. That was what he did he started again … ye just plough on, ye plough on, ye just fucking plough on … ye just fucking push ahead, ye get fucking on with it.

This Be the Verse, by Philip Larkin
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

The Miller's Tale, by Geoffrey Chaucer
This Absolon gan wype his mouth ful drie.
Derk was the nyght as pich, or as a cole
An at the wyndow out she putte her hole,
and Ansolon, hym fil no bet ne wers
But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers
Ful savorly, er he were war of this.
Aback he stirte and thoghte it was amys,
For wel he wiste a womman hath no berd,
He felte a thyng al rough and long yherd,
And seyde, "Fy! Allas! what have I to do?"

Here is a selection of what you have suggested so far:

User avatar for drdcrog
08 May 2014 2:16pm
This comment has been chosen by Guardian staff because it contributes to the debate
For those French-reading or -speaking Guardian fans, Figaro's unforgettable foray into the English language in Beaumarchais's "Le Mariage de Figaro" :
(Acte III: sc. 5)
The Count: Premièrement, tu ne sais pas l'anglais.
Figaro: je sais God-dam.
Count: Je n'entends pas.
Figaro: Je dis que je sais God-dam...Diable! c'est une belle langue que l'anglais! il en faut peu pour aller loin. Avec God-dam, en Angleterre, on ne manque de rien nulle part. -- Voulez-vous tâter d'un bon poulet gras: entrez dans une taverne, et faites seulement ce geste au garçon (Il tourne la broche). God-dam! on vous apporte un pied de boeuf salé, sans pain. C'est admirable! Aimer-vous à boire un coup d'excellent bourgogne ou de clairet: rien que celui-ci. (Il débouche une bouteille). God-dam! on vous sert un pot de bière, en bel étain, la mousse aux bords. Quelle satisfaction! Rencontrez-vous une de ces jolies personnes qui vont trottant menu, les yeux baissés, coudes en arrière, et tortillant un peu des hanches: mettez mignardement tous les doigts unis sur la bouche. Ah! God-dam! elle vous sangle un soufflet de crocheteur: preuve qu'elle entend. Les Anglais, à la vérité, ajoutent par-ci, par-là, quelques autres mots en conversant; mis il est bien aisé de voir que God-dam est le fond de la langue...

This comment has been chosen by Guardian staff because it contributes to the debate
'No One Writes to the Colonel' by Gabriel García Márquez (last lines)

“And meanwhile what do we eat?” she asked and seized the colonel by the collar of his flannel night shirt. She shook him hard.

It had taken the colonel seventy-five years – the seventy-five years of his life, minute by minute – to reach this moment. He felt pure, explicit, invincible at the moment when he replied:



Mistress Overdone- How now! what's the news with you

Pompey- Yonder man is carried to prison.

Mistress Overdone- Well; what has he done?

Pompey- A woman.

Mistress Overdone- But what's his offense?

Pompey- Groping for trouts in a peculiar river.

Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

User avatar for James Loxley
James Loxley
08 May 2014 4:09pm
In th' isle of Britain, long since famous grown
For breeding the best cunts in Christendom,
There reigns, and oh! long may he reign and thrive,
The easiest King and best-bred man alive.
Him no ambition moves to get renown
Like the French fool, that wanders up and down
Starving his people, hazarding his crown.
Peace is his aim, his gentleness is such,
And love he loves, for he loves fucking much.

That's Rochester on Charles II - and it's one of his milder pieces. No chance of familiarity dulling the impact, though: the language of 'A Ramble in St James's Park' can still horrify the unwary.

This comment has been chosen by Guardian staff because it contributes to the debate
Continuing the Scottish theme above, Alasdair Gray's second novel 1982, Janine contains a vast amount of swearing - probably the highlight is during the main character Jock McLeish's attempted suicide and delerium towards the end of the book.

Jock's mental disintegration is reflected in this chapter in crazy typography, which includes both vast amounts of swearing and (if memory serves) an obsession with upside-down letter Ys and their perceived resemblance to spread female legs. Vulgarity in both the meaning of words and the appearance of the print used to form them - but an excellent novel.

(An example of the typography can be seen here:

edinflo got in touch to kindly share the bit of The Panopticon that made her laugh out loud.

It's towards the end of the book and some pretty traumatic things have happened. Anais, the main character, is in yet more trouble for badly beating up a local girl and is due to be sent away from The Panopticon – the current unit she's in. A group of younger children have just arrived at the home for a visit and Anais, somewhat unwillingly, is befriended by one of the little girls. They are sitting outside:

"So d'ye get tae leave soon and get a house?" She squints up at me.
"Why hopefully?"
"Well, they want me tae stay on a few years, maybe until I'm eighteen."
Alice is horrified. "Why?"
"Cos. I did some bad things."
"Did you say some bad words?"
"Like shit?"
"Dinnae say that!" I laugh at her.
"Like fuck?" she asks me, her eyes going round. "Did you say cunty-balls?"
"Uh-huh, stuff like that."
"I bet you didnae mean it, though," she says, and picks up a stone and throws it. "I can tell you didnae mean it. D'you want me tae tell them for you?"
"No, it's okay," I say.
She leans in against me.

Over on Twitter, when we asked @GuardianBooks followers, responses included:

Guardian Books ✔ @GuardianBooks
Swearing in literature: share examples of bad language in good books
Birben Karan @birbenkaran
@GuardianBooks ..or with more style: “Thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool,thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch!” Shakespeare
8:50 AM - 8 May 2014

The Guardian ✔ @guardian
Swearing in literature: share examples of bad language in good books @GuardianBooks

bo butler @TheRealBoButler
@guardian @guardianbooks "They're in love. Fuck the war." Thomas Pynchon in Gravity's Rainbow. #Pynchion2014
8:26 AM - 8 May 2014

Guardian Books ✔ @GuardianBooks
Know any examples of bad language in good books? Open thread in light of Putin's ban: swearing in literature

almu @almuenlaluna
@GuardianBooks The Catcher in the Rye, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, On The Road, The Naked Lunch, In Cold Blood...
11:05 AM - 8 May 2014