Monday, 7 November 2011

GUEST POST: S****! by Sally Prue

My, my - do I have a treat for you today. Today's guestblogger is Sally Prue, author of the Truthsayer trilogy and the Tales of the Tribe series that began with Cold Tom and continued with one of my favourite books this year: Ice Maiden. (It's a story mostly about love, but also featuring a fearsome tribe of elves, and is sad, funny and beautifully written - just so you know.) 

Sally also has a blog - the Word Den, where I like to lurk on a daily basis learning things. Every day it has a different word every day to use/avoid/rave over or rant about. This weekend I have learnt the origin of the word bonfire, found a new book to read and decided never to listen to a ukase. 

Sally is going to share her thoughts on swearing in books. This is Sugar! by Sally Prue (you knew the word with the asterixes was sugar didn't you? Good. Just checking you're not FILTHY minded.)



as my friend Sarah says when things go wrong.

Well, as she says when things go wrong during lessons, anyway. Saying what she really means at school is completely banned, obviously.

It always has been, of course. I think I used to say flipping heck when teachers were listening (this was, obviously, way back). The Mayor of London still lets fly with the occasional cripes! at times of high emotion, which must surely originally have been a school usage.

Not-being-able-to-say-what-you-really-mean is a real problem in fiction, too, and particularly in children’s fiction. Any writer worth his salt will, obviously, be putting his characters through every kind of agony known to man, and, hopefully, a few so far entirely undreamed-of ones, too: but if you’re a children’s writer it’s doubtful whether any of your characters, however appalled they are at their best friend’s tendency to snog boys who are Clearly Already Taken, will be at liberty to tell the little ****  to get the **** out of here; or even to express the considered opinion that they are ******** *****es who should just **** off before  they get a **** shoved up their ****s.

So, what can a writer do?

Well, the answer to that, as always, is they get it wrong.

That’s the trouble with anything creative, you see. Whatever you do, lots of people won’t like it: and if lots of people do like it, then that’s probably a sign it’s not much good.


But anyway, what have writers done about swearing?

Well, of course what most writers have done through the ages is leave the swearing out altogether. And, yes, it can be done (just about) even nowadays, if you avoid direct speech. Something like: he crouched in the darkest corner of the cellar, massaging his bruised knuckles and swearing miserably.

Other writers, on the other hand, put in so much swearing that it practically doubles the size of the book. Personally I find this gets a bit boring after a while, and from a business point of view swearing will stop some schools and libraries, especially in the USA, buying the book. I came across an online post from an American librarian just now refusing to stock a book because of a single use of the word damn.

Let’s face it, a writer needs all the readers he can get – though of course if you can manage to write something really spectacularly unpleasant then you may well get publicity, and possibly sales, out of that.

If neither of these routes appeals then you can go the ******* blanked-out words route. This can be done either fully or partially. Villains in the eighteenth century tended to be partial blankers, and were often to be discovered saying ‘By G–d!’ or even, shockingly ‘D–mn!’ That sort of thing is still used quite a lot in newspapers.

Personally I think this is the worst of both worlds because it draws attention to itself so horribly. It’s asking the reader to stop and work out a flipping puzzle, for heaven’s sake, while simultaneously reminding him of the gaps between the character, the writer and the reader.

Mind you, being a total blanker creates problems, as well. For a start, what is someone reading out loud supposed to do? I ran into a different difficulty when I tried to use this technique. My editor wouldn’t have it. The kids would assume, she said, that people were saying the very worst words there were.

But they are, I pointed out: but that got me precisely nowhere. I ended up using the fifth fictional swearing option, which is the most fun (even though, of course, some people will scorn you for it) and which involves making up your own swear words.

Yes, yes, I know, you’re despising me already, but creative swearing has a long and distinguished history. I mean, Shakespeare was a compulsive oath-coiner. And thank heavens he was, because without the delights of cream-faced loon and bull’s pizzle illuminating my English Literature classes I might have died from sheer earnestness.

With Shakespeare as an example, it’s no surprise that people have been using fake swearing in children’s fiction more or less from the word go. An early (quite dreadful) example is in Louisa M Alcott’s Jo’s Boys, where a boy with a habit of cursing is encouraged to say thunder turtles. (I must point out in Louisa M Alcott’s defence, though, that it isn’t she who makes up thunder turtles, but a not-too-sophisticated character in her book.)

There are many examples. Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings uses ozard, which is the opposite of wizard and is based on the Wizard of Oz. Giving us the derivation is a brilliantly convincing trick.

Kids in American books sometimes say shoot! and perhaps American kids do say shoot. But I doubt it.

These swearing-substitutes can work brilliantly – I still have occasional private recourse to the Ewoks’ kvark, and the TV series Red Dwarf’s smeg was a seamless joy. The way I wrote the substitute-swearing which features prominently in MARCH OF THE OWLMEN was to write the whole thing with proper swearing, and then go back and substitute a quite similar word later.

It’s fun putting in small clues as to the meaning of the fake words, too.

I’m still rather proud of soft as goose-grot...


  1. This is a fabulous post and I am going to post a link to it on Twitter! Fantastic. QUite agree with all Sally says.

  2. David Lodge used 'fugging' in one of his early books. He had a chance to substitute the real word in a later but declined.

  3. It does infuriate me that the readers swear all the time and yet we can't represent this normal facet of their life because adults wished they wouldn't swear. Made-up swear words are probably the best we can do. I blogged about swearing and other things we aren't allowed recently too. But with less generosity than your lovely post, Sally!

  4. Yes, I agree with Stroppy Author - we are being forced into making up a cloud-cuckoo land for kids to read about, denatured and sanitised. Mind you, I am an author who has been criticised for swearing, but I don't go further than sh**t or similar things. Oh, dear, goodbye US contract. The sex rather rules it out, too..

    But I'm listening to Terry Pratchett's The Truth, my current in-kitchen audiobook, and Stephen Briggs is doing very well with reading aloud Mr Tulip's ongoing -cking habit!