Part 2 in Our Series on the Grammar of Swearing
Written by Taylor Dennis
It's time to continue our awesome exploration of swearing by looking at the role historically played by swearing in written work. Last week, we looked at the etymology of seven swear words. This week, we'll be looking at the history of swearing and censorship in writing. So, what are we waiting for? Obscenity laws and Victorian prudes await!
A Brief History of Swearing in Writing
Have you ever had someone tell you that "kids these days" swear more than the young adults of days past? Maybe your grandfather has expressed disbelief at the expletives he's heard of late, or perhaps your great aunt regularly comments on how polite conversation is firmly on its way out.
Well, you can tell them that people have been laughing at their own sacrilege, bodily functions, and sexuality for as long as language has existed. Yes, those are the three topics that most swear words refer to—God, poop, and sex.
That's right. Swearing in spoken speech has always been a thing, and it has always been offensive. Though censorship and decency laws have changed drastically over the years, thereby affecting the use of swear words in published works, I can guarantee you that people have always sworn—even your grandfather.
Book Banning and Obscenity
The rules about using offensive language in writing have evolved over time. Consider, for example, the literary classic we all know and love—that incorrigible work of fanfiction, Fifty Shades of Grey.
This incredibly popular book has sold over 125 million copies worldwide since being published in 2011. But Fifty Shades isn't the only work of erotic fiction out there. Indeed, there is an entire thriving genre of literature resting solely on its sex-based laurels. And while today's sexually liberal society may be cool with characters who exist solely to copulate like bunnies, all we have to do is go back about 60 years to see how not cool people used to be with the erotic fiction scene.
By today's standards, Lady Chatterley's Lover is a very tame book. Sure, D.H. Lawrence tells the story of a married lady having an affair with a lower-class man. Yes, there are scenes in which the two do the deed in his shack. And okay, a few choice expletives are used to describe said deed and the parts used to perform it.
But Lady Chatterley's Lover is not just about sex. It's a story about repression, about classism in British society, and about the importance of having an attractive gamekeeper just in case you should find yourself experiencing a quarter-life crisis. Were the book published today, no one would even blink an eye at the sexual content.
Not the case in 1928, I'm afraid. The British government said, "No way in hell are we letting people read this shit" (or, perhaps more accurately, "Oh, heavens no!"), and Lady Chatterley's Lover was put on the shelf in the UK until 1960. Then, under the Obscene Publications Act 1959, the British government charged Penguin, the book's publisher, for having published obscene material. Penguin won the case, and the rest, as they say, is history.
There are lots of other historical examples of books being banned for containing obscene content, and many of these examples have to do with expletives being used in the writing. Though the rules are different in the United States than in Britain, both countries have historically shared the sentiment that people simply do not need to be exposed to offensive language. Catch-22, Tropic of Cancer, and Naked Lunch are all examples of books that have been banned at one time for being obscene.
Obscenity and Profanity in Writing Today
Obscenity laws still exist in the Western world. However, enforcement of these laws has changed. Obscenity is difficult to define. It's almost impossible to avoid offending one person without restricting the freedom of expression of another. For the creator of a work to be convicted of obscenity, that work must lack value, whether literary, artistic, scientific, or political. And you know what they say: one person's smut is another person's magnum opus.
The erotica genre doesn't qualify as obscene because it is a form of literature or art. A book full of cursing won't get you into much trouble anymore, either. If you want to drop f-bombs and poop metaphors to get your point across, go for it. Restricting the language used in books is especially difficult, because—unlike with other media, like radio broadcasts—people can generally choose what they want to read. If you don't like that asshole Christian Grey and his sadomasochistic bullshit, the solution is simple: don't read Fifty Shades of Grey.
Still, "offensive" books sometimes manage to find themselves the topic of debate and outrage. Consider Twain's classic American novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Angry parents still stomp their feet when this novel finds its way onto their child's English class syllabus.
The racially charged language used in this 1885 satire clashes awkwardly with modern-day morals, and even though the book was published over 130 years ago, no one has quite decided yet whether Twain was actually being a brilliant satirist or a racist bigot (or both).
But while school boards and PTAs everywhere can argue the merits of exposing young adults to topics that may make them uncomfortable, they can't ban adults from reading books, and ultimately, they can't ban their children from accessing obscene material for very long, either.
Swearing in writing has an interesting history, but the story of obscenity isn't over yet. For example, even though we're analyzing this topic from a purely academic and historical perspective, some people might find this post too risqué for their liking.
Nevertheless, I'll assume that if you've made it this far, you're looking to learn more about the grammatical properties of actual swear words. If that's the case, be sure to check out next week's post, which will give you the dirty details on seven of your favorite words.
Image source: "Give me liberty, or give me death!" Print by Currier and Ives now available in the public domain.
Taylor Dennis is an editor by day, a reader by night, and a dog lover at all times. She is always down for an old-fashioned debate, whether it be about the character arc of Voldemort, the merits of adding ketchup to poutine (sweet meets salty—the best of both worlds!), or the unarguable benefits of the serial comma. In case the poutine bit wasn't enough of a tip-off, she's also painfully, painfully Canadian.