Dan Piepenbring: “Writers like to emphasize the psychology in their work, their strenuous labor toward depth and verisimilitude; they’re less inclined to talk about how few decent synonyms exist for ‘good.’ The stats speak a cold truth: there are dozens of prosaic choices behind every artful sentence. […] Even in great books one word follows another, all of them slaves to grammar, sequence, and probability.”
People who swear tend to be more honest than those who don’t. A 2016 study found “a consistent positive relationship between profanity and honesty; profanity was associated with less lying and deception at the individual level, and with higher integrity at the society level.”
When it comes to swearing, as with everything else, grammar matters.
David Adger: “In English, when we ask why, we do not distinguish between different kinds of reason. This is not true for all human languages. In Pitjantjatjara, an Australian aboriginal language, one asks: nyaaku (for what purpose?), nyaanguru (from what cause?) or nyaangkatawara (to avoid what?).”
There is something powerful in the whispering of obscenities, about those in power. There’s something delightful about it, something naughty, secretive, forbidden, thrilling. It’s like a spell, of sorts. It deflates them, reduces them to the common denominator where they can be dealt with.
― Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
At the end of 2009 there was a small media storm in Spain when it came to light that the Junta de Extremadura, in socialist hands, had organized, within its curriculum of sex education for students, masturbation workshops for girls and boys over fourteen years of age, a programme that it entitled, somewhat mischievously, ‘Pleasure is in Your Hands.’
[…] How many things have changed since my childhood when the Salesian Fathers and the La Salle Brothers – who ran the schools I went to – scared us with the idea that ‘improper touching’ produced blindness, tuberculosis and madness. Six decades later we have jerking-off classes in schools. Now that is progress.
Or is it really?
My curiosity sparks any number of questions. Do they take notes? Do they have examinations? Are the workshops theoretical or also practical? What feats will students need achieve to get a good grade, and what fiascos would warrant a fail mark? Would it depend on the amount of knowledge that the students could memorize, or on the speed, quantity and consistency of the orgasms produced by the girls’ and boys’ tactile dexterity? I am not joking. If one has the courage to set up workshops to enlighten child development in the techniques of masturbation, then these questions are pertinent.
– Mario Vargas Llosa, Notes on the Death of Culture (2015)
It is of course far from true that artists are the only honest and compassionate men and women to be found or even that all artists are decent people. But it is true, I think, that the best sort of artist is always, has always been, an enemy of all that is shoddy or false in the world around him and will not hide the fact.
– John Gardner, On Moral Fiction (1978)
He begins with a series of case studies. There is Jonah Lehrer, a pushy young pop science writer in the Malcolm Gladwell mould whose career was all but destroyed when it was discovered he had invented a quote; there is Justine Sacco, who made a bad-taste Twitter joke about Africa and Aids and, when it went viral, lost her job in PR; and, most upsetting of all, there is Lindsey Stone, a US careworker who was promptly sacked when a private photograph of her goofing around in Arlington National Cemetery suddenly became public and she was accused of “disrespect”. […] All these people’s punishments by far outweighed the gravity of their so-called crimes. […] But why should this be? Alas, their tormentors suffer from a peculiarly 21st-century disease. Beneath every stone Ronson lifts there hunkers a scuttling crowd of people who want nothing more in life than to be offended. Offence, for this lot, is not a straightforward emotional response, instinctive and heartfelt. It’s a choice, something they actively seek.
– Rachel Cooke, “Think Before You Tweet,” The Guardian, March 15, 2015.
If an intelligent and sensitive writer would rather communicate with the general public, let him learn the conventions of popular fiction and turn them to his purpose. As John le Carré, Isaac Asimov, Peter Beagle, Curtis Harnak, and many others have shown, one need not be a fool or a compromiser to write a mystery story, a sci-fi or fantasy, or a book about growing up in Iowa. The fool is the man who arrogantly denies the worth and common sense of the people to whom he pretends to speak. In short, another test of creative energy is the test of efficient communication: to what extent does the artist know whom he is dealing with, telling him what he needs to know, not less.
– John Gardner, On Moral Fiction (1978)
My hair is coming out from under my cap. Red hair of an ogre. A wild beast, the newspaper said. A monster. When they come with my dinner I will put the slop bucket over my head and hide behind the door, and that will give them a fright. If they want a monster so badly they ought to be provided with one.
– Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace (1996)
Sven Birkerts: “When I was in my late teens, the time when the words of other writers blazed most brightly for me, […] I made all kinds of vows to myself, solemn vows precluding conventional paths, vows of the ‘If I ever grow up to become ______ [fill in the blank here], I hope I have the guts to _____ [and fill in that blank as well] …’ How do we finally live with ourselves? Or, rather, how cruelly — with what rationalizations — do we end up repudiating our arrogant younger selves?”
On the regional distribution of swearwords in America: “Hell, damn and bitch are especially popular in the south and southeast. Douche is relatively common in northern states. Bastard is beloved in Maine and New Hampshire, and those states – together with a band across southern Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas – are the areas of particular motherfucker favour. Crap is more popular inland, fuck along the coasts. Fuckboy – a rising star* – is also mainly a coastal thing, so far.”
From Language Log: “The unspoken assumption behind masking taboo words is that they’re invested with magical powers—like a conjuror’s spell, they are inefficacious unless they are pronounced or written just so.”
Zadie Smith, Paul Auster and Arundhati Roy are on the Man Booker prize 2017 longlist. Colson Whitehead has won the Arthur C Clarke award. And The Commuter’s Pigkeeper has won the Diagram prize for oddest book title.
I think of all the things that have been written about me – that I am an inhuman demon, that I am an innocent victim of a blackguard forced against my will and in danger of my own life, that I was too ignorant to know how to act and that to hang me would be judicial murder, that I am fond of animals, that I am very handsome with a brilliant complexion, that I have blue eyes, that I have green eyes, that I have auburn and also brown hair, that I am tall and also not above the average height, that I am well and decently dressed, that I robbed a dead woman to appear so, that I am brisk and smart about my work, that I am of a sullen disposition with a quarrelsome temper, that I have the appearance of a person rather above my humble station, that I am good with a pliable nature and no harm is told of me, that I am cunning and devious, that I am soft in the head and little better than an idiot. And I wonder, how can I be all of these different things at once?
– Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace (1996)