What The F**k?

Before you start thinking I’m an uncouth young man, there is a reason for today’s post title – which is all about reactions to expletives in books. Oh ok, I also did it because my aunty bet me I wouldn’t dare put a title like that on the blog after we discussed this very subject. But I have because I bet you had an initial reaction to the last word in it.

Language is a powerful thing, including those more, erm, controversial words. I admit that in real life I do swear a bit, not quite like a trooper but one of my favourite words is an expletive… Shocking I know but I just love the way it sounds.

So why does it occasionally jar with me in books? Why do I find myself coming across a certain word in a book and flinch before exclaiming ‘oh gosh and golly’ like an old dame in an Oscar Wilde play?


It happened most recently, that I can remember, when I read ‘Grace Williams Says It Loud’ by Emma Henderson and out of nowhere Grace suddenly let out ‘the c-bomb’ and I admit it made me stop in my reading tracks. I couldn’t work out if it was because of the context it was used in, which was rather graphic, or because it didn’t seem to match the narrative up to that point. Or was I just being a reading prude?

After a small pause, whilst I collected myself, I asked the question ‘was that specific word needed?’ I thought about it and tried said sentence with other alternatives (my face must have been a picture) and could see it wouldn’t have worked. So maybe it was just me being a slight fuddy-duddy in my older reading age?

I discussed it with aforementioned youngest aunty who told me to ‘get over it’ as people in real life swear so what’s the big deal? Quite right, and as you can see from my review it didn’t take away from how much I enjoyed the book. Yet it made me stop and shook me out of the world a little before I carried on again. Im aware that I’ve not really answered my own question here, but I think it’s because there’s no right answer, like certain ‘out there’ subject matter I guess it depends on the book?

What are your thoughts on certain language in novels? Are you not bothered, fine with it when its called for or in a characters nature, or can you simply not abide it? Does it depend on the book?


Filed under Book Thoughts

58 responses to “What The F**k?

  1. Personally, I don’t have any issues with swearing. As long as it’s not…stupid. The c-word means next to nothing to me, but that’s because I’m Scottish – it’s essentially punctuation here.

    • You see thats interesting Bethany, I don’t like the c-word as a whole, which is rather interesting as (once her kids are in bed) the aunty I live with is quite a fan. Though don’t tell Granny Savidge Reads.

  2. lubylou12

    I know what you mean Simon, as long as it’s not used stupidly though as Bethany says, then I don’t mind. I can’t stand it when writers use words like that just to be clever or shocking when really you don’t need, or shouldn’t need to rely on swear worlds to do that. I remember being shocked when I heard the same in Grace Williams and at times it did put me of her a little but I guess the result of her speaking like that stops her from being a perfect saint which wouldn’t have been realistic, and instead gives her a more humane, realistic edge.

    • Aren’t I dreadful at replying to comments? I am playing catch up over the next few days.

      I think language should occasionally be shocking, that is one of its many great powers, the thing is (as you say) this can be used in a lazy shocking way. I don’t mind in a book like American Psycho which is a monsterous piece of genius, but randomly when its uncalled for I can’t be doing with it.

  3. lubylou12

    P.s. I was totally shocked when I got an email through about this post : )

  4. Mae

    I’m not that big a fan of swearing in literature. Sure, it might add ‘grit’ to it but it generally takes me out from the world and never quite sounds right.

    Initially, I thought your post was about this awesome picture book called “Go the F*&@ to Sleep”!!!! I’m trying to persuade my library to purchase it…

  5. Depending on the book I think. It doesn’t bother me generally.

  6. I think it depends on the narrative. I’ve just read The Keep by Jennifer Egan and she had a few ‘What the f@&$!s’ in the book however they were totally ‘What the f@&$’ moments and I don’t think any other expression would have fit. It was actually funny. I think if done right then it’s ok.

  7. Kim

    I don’t like the way most of those words look. sounds stupid, maybe, but while reading a book I do pay attention to the words I read. how do they sound in my head, what do they look like on paper? mostly I don’t like it.
    I do understand writers use it, but in contemporary books I find them distracting. the language they use is the language everybody uses. I do understand. but I don’t like it. especially when every character in a book uses it. sometimes it belongs in a story, most of the time it fits.
    but I do find them distracting. a sentence doesn’t flow with nasty words in them. I don’t think so, anyway.

    nice topic by the way! I remember reading some explicit scenes in certain books and I just kept thinking: there are other words you can use, you know.. but not according to the writer, apparently.
    and my second thought was: is it just me?

    • Its a funny one because I don’t mind how swear words look in fact one of them I think looks brilliant. Its also one of my favourite words because it sounds brilliant… but maybe I should keep schtum on that.

      I do like the look of words but the sound in my head is what sticks with me.

  8. Eva

    For some reason, reading swear words bothers me much more than hearing them! Now that I live with my 5 year old niece, I’ve had to cut out all ‘reflexive’ swearing, which makes it even more delicious when the house is a childfree and an expletive fits the context perfectly. 😉 I think a lot of it comes down to tone: in speaking, we can mitigate the harshness of the word, whereas in writing it’s just there in bald terms. I can’t remember the last time I read a book with a character who swore though!

    • “I’ve had to cut out all ‘reflexive’ swearing, which makes it even more delicious when the house is a childfree and an expletive fits the context perfectly” – oh I know that feeling Eva, I am living with my nearly three year old cousins and have had to adapt quickly.

  9. gaskella

    If it fits the story/character etc then I really don’t mind swearing. I do, however, get effing fed up of every other effing word being the effing f-one. The c-word for me, still retains it’s power to shock when used sparingly – just read it in the new Sophie Hannah – it worked!

    Then, when I looked up the origins of a slang word ‘Berkshire’ which I encountered in a book set in the 1930s, nowadays abbreviated to berk and not generally offensive – it comes from the rhyming slang for Berkshire Hunt – nuff said! 😀

    • Ha effing ha ha. That comment has just made me laugh and laugh.

      I know what you mean about the c-word. I would have been a Berk if my Mum hadn’t made me have her surname. How random is that… and how rude.

  10. may

    It was the hope of finding a smart and savvy book blog that made me sub to your yours, but between your lack of understanding of “The Tiger’s Wife” and subject of this post, I’ve decided to unsub. I’ll keep looking.

    • I am sorry to hear that May. I had hoped people might understand why I did this post but you are not alone. I don’t think the fact I didn’t love The Tigers Wife is a reason though. maybe you could come back and explain how I misunderstood it or, in a nice way, argue why it’s better than I think it is?

  11. It doesn’t generally bother but like Annabel says, if it’s overused it’s boring. But a carefully chosen placing of the f or c-word will still shock me.

  12. If a character would swear in a particular situation, then I have no real problem with swear words. The only time I have a problem with it is if swear words are used simply because the author wants to seem edgy or controversial; in that case, it tends to get very irritating very quickly, as you’re effectively being pulled out of the narrative.

    • I think that was almost the problem I had with the swearing in the book I mentioned. The description made me frown and almost snapped me out of the book. Almost, the author then saved it all with the rest of the characters and the wonderful plot.

      • Although a well-placed swear word where there haven’t been any beforehand can be very effective as well. I guess it just depends how the book is overall.

  13. In my own reading, I’ve no problem with swear words. I do have a problem with words being used in a way that diminishes their power. Swear words should shock the reader. That’s their point. If a narrator is a character who swears a lot, and there are many people who do swear a lot, the words lose their power.

    However, I also read many Y.A. books in my never ending quest to get my students interested in reading. Swearing in Y.A. books is another matter. I won’t nix a book just because it has swearing in it, see above requirements, but it does have the potential to bring me a lot of grief with parents if I select it for classroom use. I’ve learned to choose my battles over the last 20 years in the classroom.

    I think it comes down to knowing one’s audience and to selecting words with purpose.

  14. Erika W.

    I find it obnoxious when it goes on and on as sometimes happens. I am more offended by it in films. I grew up without hearing or even knowing many swear words–coming first to England and then to the US was a quick education in them! I am really offended if they occur in children’s books and films. I am sure being 70 years old has a lot to do with this.

    • Do you think age has something to do with it?

      I am 29 and yesterday in the library at lunchtime these blokes were just swearing every other word and I was clearly wincing and giving them the ‘for goodness sake’ look.

  15. meh

    I have no qualms with authors using those words. I don’t bat an eye when I come across them, admittedly I used to in my younger days when coming across “fuck” nestled in a sentence was akin to your first time seeing boobies.

    Yet, like anything too much can be a bad thing. If a book is loaded with swear words then it can become tiresome, yet that is not down to the actual word moreso the fact there is too much repetition.

    but honestly, swearing has been a part of literature for centuries, hell John Wilmot’s poetry was full of them:

    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 reknown
    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.
    Nor are his high desires above his strength:
    His scepter and his prick are of a length
    And she may sway the one who plays with th’ other,
    And make him little wiser than his brother.
    Poor Prince! thy prick, like thy buffoons at court,
    Will govern thee because it makes thee sport.
    ‘Tis sure the sauciest prick that e’er did swive,
    The proudest, peremptoriest prick alive.
    Though safety, law, religion, life lay on ‘t,
    ‘Twould break through all to make its way to cunt.
    Restless he rolls about from whore to whore,
    A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.
    To Carwell, the most dear of all his dears,
    The best relief of his declining years,
    Oft he bewails his fortune, and her fate:
    To love so well, and be beloved so late.
    Yet his dull, graceless bollocks hang an arse.
    This you’d believe, had I but time to tell ye
    The pains it costs to poor, laborious Nelly,
    Whilst she employs hands, fingers, mouth, and thighs,
    Ere she can raise the member she enjoys.
    All monarchs I hate, and the thrones they sit on,
    From the hector of France to the cully of Britain.

    saying that, the word fuck is a very expressive word that can be used as a verb, noun etc

    • Yes, valid point – swearing has been in our vocabulary for years. In fact some of them originated for years and years and years. I think though they should ahve a limit in a book, though what that limit is I am not sure.

  16. novelinsights

    Bad language in books or in life doesn’t bother me at all as it can be expressive and of course reflective of reality.

    My only problem is (as a lover of language) people becoming lazy with their words. Shakespearean insults are quite entertaining but you might sound like a wierdo muttering them in day to day language:
    “you bull’s-pizzle …you sheath” (Henry IV apparantly, thanks Google)

    Also what will happen when the c-word loses it’s efficacy I wonder. Where to go for shock value after that?!

    Great topic indeed!

    • I was wondering about what will come next after the c-word is just a regularily used word, look what happened with f**k. Maye its time to make them up… or bring back ‘you bulls-pizzle’ I really, really LOVE that one. Or maybe the non offensive ones will come back ‘oh you blinker’. Ha.

  17. Louise

    Swearing doesn’t bother me at all, although i’m not a huge fan of the c word and only in extreme cases would i ever say that, but it doesn’t bother me to read it..i’ve read some of your older blog posts (from an older blog) the swearing did surprise me at first, but it was very funny 😉

  18. Swearing doesn’t bother me, though I have to admit I hate the “c” word in any form or fashion.

    What does bother me – and this isn’t about swearing only – is when a character acts differently than he or she is written. That will drive me crazy unless there is some explanation for it.

  19. Mij Woodward

    As to coming across swear words in books–no problem, as long as it fits the character.

    As an aside, just this morning, I came across a reference (in The Millions) to a new book coming out, titled “Go the F**k to Sleep,” by Adam Mansbach, of interest mostly to parents and grandparents. Looks hilarious, and I plan to purchase for my son and daughter-in-law, who have two adorable little children. The other night, I put my 4-yr-old granddaughter to bed, and I was amazed at her ability to get me to re-open the door again and again to answer her queries.

    • We watched this, by we I mean me and my aunty who has two year olds, and we laughed and then sort of got over it, it does go on almost too long. Even if initially we were wetting ourselves.

      • Mij Woodward

        Thanks for answering! I agree with you about that book (Go the F**k to Sleep). It does go on a little too long.

        As an aside again (I seem to come up with asides), I am currently reading The Proof of Love, which I decided to order based on your review, so thank you.

      • Yeah it’s funny but it does go on a bit.

        I really hope you love The Proof of Love, it’s one of my favourite books of the year! Let me know!

  20. Good post, Simon.

    I’m Glaswegian so strong language in person and in prose doesn’t faze me in the slightest. I used to have issues with the c-word but I learned to embrace it; sometimes no other word will do and I even have a book with the title! If it’s something that’s written well though, a proper use of strong language still has the power to shock and emphasise.

    I don’t think it’s that much of a modern tendency, though; D H Lawrence was using the c-word almost one-hundred years ago and it still has as much resonance today.

  21. JoV

    I am reading “Slap” now by Christos Tsiolkas. I was first put off by many that said there are lots of swearing and profanity in this book. I’m reading it and once I get past those swearing, the underlying message of this book is a strong and urgent one. Highly recommend this book, despite truck loads of swear words. One book which put itself in a different league for swearing!

    • JoV, The Slap is a good expamle of a book where swearing is needed, though did you not find it almost got too much, or maybe I found that because I had to read it so many times for the Green Carnation Prize last year.

  22. Looks like I’m going to be on my own here, but never mind, here goes…

    I really dislike swearing, both hearing and seeing it. I’ve no objection to a vented expletive in response to a stubbed toe or something broken, (as long as there are no children nearby!) but I can’t abide its use as filler material in a sentence. Just finish the ******* sentence already…

    I found the language in both The Slap and the one and only James Patterson book I’ve ever picked up so repellent that I put them straight down again. That said, I read plenty of thrillers in which bad language doesn’t really disturb me – Clive Cussler and David Baldacci both write novels where one would expect the main characters to swear copiously, but I can’t remember it bothering me at all. Therefore either they don’t (unlikely), or it’s true to character and/or necessary in the context.

    I’ve run across isolated incidents such as you describe in Grace Williams… and agree with you that they can be very effective; I’d still rather not have them.

    • I do wonder if maybe the use fo swearing in novels is quite a craft. I think some people can make it work and some don’t. I didn’t find ‘The Slap’ that bad, but it bordered on it I have to say.

  23. Thought you might like this – very apt considering today’s topic…

    Enjoy 🙂

    • Mij Woodward

      This is great! Loved it. This is the book I mentioned yesterday, and I had no idea I could listen to it. Thank you!

    • Thanks for linking this Tony, it does make me snigger, though it does go on a few minutes too long – it treads on the verge of too much hahaha. Part of the point I guess.

  24. Oh yes, and in the words of Coventry’s famous poet, Philip Larkin –
    “They f**k you up your Mum and Dad…”
    The video reminded me of that poem!

  25. Words used appropriately are an important part of well written literature (plays, films etc.) and I think that bad language is, in my mind, not directly connected with using words such as fuck and cunt. The inappropriate use of these words might, not unreasonably, upset many more readers than the inappropriate use of “love” or “hate” or “intercourse” or “vulva” but I would argue that “bad language” really means “inappropriate language”. What I find much more irritating is the tendency for a rather coy, but nonetheless obvious, replacement of some letters by asterix and the words “c-bomb” and “f-bomb” which is are particular dislike of mine.

    • Hahahaha you mean like I have the whole way through this post. The thing is, even with just the stars, I had some furious comments about me doing a post with such language in it – how bizarre. It shows how widely people agree/disagree on the subject of language – thats what makes it so interesting though.

  26. I’m not bothered by swearing in general – I work in a fairly high pressure environment where people let off steam quite a bit verbally. I prefer the swearing to fit the situation in a book rather than going for the old ‘shock factor’. I think I am getting a little more prudish of late, my book for the train ride this week contained ‘F**k’ more times than regular words on some pages so I literally had my nose in it so others couldn’t read over my shoulder!

    • Hahaha we have all had those moments I am sure. I know once on a train I had about three pages of utter filth (sex and swearing together – shocking) taht came from nowhere and I was sat next to a very elderly man and I was so worried he would read what I was reading.

  27. As long as it is used in the context of the character and the story I don’t mind it, it is when it feels unnecessary and perhaps used to a shock effect that I don’t enjoy it.

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