Saturday, 13 November 2010

Willies and Bums

Warning! There are some potentially offensive words in this post.

I’m working on a new text for reluctant teen readers (14 and under), primarily boys, and the question of just how bad bad language can be in kid-lit has presented itself. It’s always an issue, but this particular text, which is slap-stick and energetic, just cries out for some fruity language, especially with very grown up bad guys. For example, I can’t have sleazy nightclub owners and their hard men say ‘Golly!’ or ‘Come back here, you ruffian! We have the measure of you!’

There’s a lot of scope for ingenuity in cooking up faux swearwords, and famously this is where literary pirates get their cheesy vocabulary, (arr!) but even the best faked-up obscenities tend to bring a text down in age range, a sure way to drive off teen readers. The problem is, real swearwords often drive off the people who control what those teenagers read.

I’m fortunate to have editorial guidance on this though, and after reflection, the spectrum of language and acceptability looks something like this:

‘Cunt’ and ‘fuck’ are right out on the edge, and I hesitate about using them even here. I wouldn’t even use ‘WTF?’ for this age range.

‘Arse’ and ‘shit’ are tamer, but still too fruity for most gatekeepers. They might work for older readers, but are best avoided if you want your book to be stocked in a school library.

‘Bloody’ and ‘crap’ inhabit perhaps the most interesting part of the spectrum, which seems to form the crossover point between rude and tame. Many people would still object to their use in a children’s book, but for an audience over 12, and if deployed with care, a great many wouldn’t.

‘Ninnyhammer’, ‘lumpus’ and ‘poo-brain’ are at the fun end of things. This is my natural home, though I have to turn my back on it while I write the teen story.

Do you have any thoughts on this? At what age should young readers be exposed to bad language in literature, language they are more than likely hearing around them anyway? Or should children’s books be a refuge from the crappier side of life? Where would you draw the line?


  1. it's weird isn't it? It is context and necessity and not the words themselves. For example, despite a love of swear words, I almost physically choked (then nervously tittered) when you wrote, 'cunt,' there! I wasn't expecting it.

    I actually do think there are some examples of books for kids that would have done better not to have swear words in them. Mrs Weasley yelling at Bellatrix LeStrange in 'Deathly Hallows', 'Not my daughter, you Bitch!' jars everytime I see it. It doesn't fit in with the rest of the fantastical Harry Potter world. Somehow it seems to mundane.

    Yeah, so my answer would be I'm probably less against using each swearword at any particular age, and more about using the right words to fit individual characters and plot.

  2. And speaking of which, my verification word was just 'Lardo!' An excellent non-swearing insult if ever I heard one!

  3. Where do you think 'bitch' falls? I used the word in my ms the other day, and I thought it was fitting for the situation and not gratuitous. But, now you have me wondering...

  4. I think it's a bloody difficult call. Thinking back to when I was that age - some time in the nineteenth century - we certainly knew all those words. There can't be many 12-14 year old boys who would be shocked by them. I think it does come down to the tone of the book too; in some books not to use "street" language would be silly and artificial. In others - like Harry Potter - it would jar.

    So, erm, no help at all then ...

  5. Sorry to make you squirm, Cass. It has to be one of the most objectionable words in the English language, whatever the context.

    The Harry Potter series is firmly MG/9-12 in tone, regardless of the author's attempts to move it up the age range later. I think any swearing will seem out of place there, though I suppose 'bitch' might be okay in an extreme situation.

    So take that, Lardo head!

  6. Hi, Anita. Are you talking about Product Of An Illusion? From what I've read of it, I'd say 'bitch' would be perfectly acceptable in the right circumstances, since the story -- which is clearly going to have a romantic element -- is firmy YA. I'd keep it in, though maybe 'bitch' is stronger in the States? I know that some words aren't consistently offensive everywhere.

    Thank, Simon. I think comedy helps soften hard language, which will help. But you're right that when bad, street-smart people get angry and start chasing your MC, a little blue language is unavoidable.

  7. Bugger, bum, tit and willywarbler are about the extent of my swear words, with an occasional arse and lots of pooh! But that's not in my writing and not much help to you. My daughter reads masses, outside her age range, too, which I allow with guidance though I patrol the graphic novel section like a starved monkey in a box of nuts. I think most kids know most words. I think if the words are in context and not just for the sake of sounding edgy then they're mostly OK, but all kids and teens like new and funny swear words and insults. Before I moved to NZ I worked with kids from really deprived areas and they LOVED anatomical insults, "scrotum" was popular. Educational, too :) I know lots of innovative swear words but I would not do myself any favours if I repeated them here!

  8. Hi, Rachel. There's something strangely satisfying about shouting 'arse' at one's problems, isn't there? And 'scrotum' proves that we can still swear in Latin too, which is nice.

  9. We read lots of books with our year 9 students(14 year olds!) that contain swearing, both premier league and vauxhall conference league swearing. My students love it and we have only had one or two parents complain (that could be because of the catchment in which i teach)

    Mark Haddon's 'Curious Incident of the dog in the night time' contains all your premier league swearing and Swindells' 'Stone Cold' has the odd smattering of Division two words. I think if a novel needs swearing then you should go with it. Let's be honest, most teens know more swear words than we do, and many use it more than we ever would. My sixth formers now tell me it is acceptable to swear with/at parents...i would have been grounded for an eternity if i had even thought about swearing around my dad!

    Good luck old bean.

  10. They're more than likely hearing swear words around anyway, and if it's something they hear in real life then I don't see why they shouldn't also read them in books.

    I think "gatekeepers" should give kids more credit. Just because they read about someone swearing or having sex or doing drugs in a book, it doesn't mean they're going to go out and copy that behaviour.

    For the record, my mum is a school librarian and she's never taken a book off the library shelves due to swear-word content.

  11. Thanks, Anni. It's great to have a teacher's perspective, and I'm glad you play it straight with your students. If this text comes off, I'll send you a copy.

    It's worth noting though that Mark Haddon's book wasn't written for younger readers at all, just successfully promoted that way, language notwithstanding.

    Thanks, Helen. That's reassuring. However, the editor i'm working with, who works for a publishing house who sell a lot to school libraries, gets a plenty of letters of complaint over the course a year, and is not surprisingly very cautious. The morning I sent her my email about swearing, she'd had a complaint through about the use of 'oh my God!' in a school book!

  12. That's funny, we both had warnings on our posts this week. Great minds:)

    What about bullocks? Isn't that considered profane in the UK? Sounds pretty harmless to me but then so does, bloody. They aren't curse words in the states.

    In the US we use bullshit a lot. Not sure if that's better or worse than plain old shit. Asshole is quite common and it seems pretty mild. Dipshit is another one that's often used and isn't considered profane.

    "I don't give a rat's ass" is popular too and that seems harmless but with a little edge.

    Good luck with it!

  13. Hi Terry.

    It's 'bollocks' that's rude in the UK (bullocks being young bulls. Is it the same in the US?), though it's not as strong as it once was. Actually, it's more comical than profane these days.

    We say 'bullshit' too, and BS, but anything involving an ass might misfire over here because an ass is mostly an animal.

    It's a minefield! I want my books to sell in the US too:-/

  14. Never heard anyone in the US use bollocks in any way shape or form. Of course cowboys or cattle ranchers may use it. I heard it on British crime dramas.

    I see what you mean about ass. Doesn't pack the same punch.

  15. We have bullocks, meaning young bulls, and bollocks, meaning testicles (though often used to describe something as rubbish). But I'm sure you knew that.

    Actually, it's funny that you should mention seeing 'bollocks' on crime dramas, because my story involves some bouncers from the east end of London who would certainly use 'bollocks' on a daily basis, but can't for the age range. Instead they use 'cobblers', a fine cockney word that carries virtualy no stigma whatsoever, despite meaning exactly the same thing.

  16. Oh now it's funny that you mention cobblers.

    I have an English character in my WIP. She's a war bride (WWII). I did some research on British English for her. I have her use the expression, "a load of cobblers." I got the general drift of it but had no idea it meant bullocks.

    And I didn't know it was cockney. Do other English peole use it, or is it used exclusively by east Londoners? Thanks. This will help me.

  17. Terry, I think (though I don't know for sure) that your bride would have to be a working class cockney girl to use a phrase like 'a load of old cobblers' at that time. Do you have any other information about her background?

  18. Thanks, Thomas. I'll have to go back and read it. I'm afraid I might have made her hail from Kent:) OOPs! I know it's late in your part of the world, so I'll find it and comment tommorrow. Thanks so much for your help:)

  19. Hi Thomas, She's an executive secretary in a Boston architectural firm. She moved here when she married an American. I have her say she comes from London, actually, but I didn't say which part. But since she's an executive secretary, she probably doesn't speak with a cockney accent.

    The British expressions she uses are: daft, load of cobblers, having a carry-on, and mugs, meaning foolish people. She also says, "came away with us" rather than, "she left with us." I think "came away" is British? Now I'm worried I have her accent all wrong. I don't understand all the dialects.

    Any advice would be greatly appreciated whenever you get the chance. Thanks so much.

  20. Terry, it sounds like 'load of cobblers' isn't the kind of thing your character would say, because in the 40/50/60s, that would mark her out as lower class and probably from the East End of London (Cockney). I think that goes for 'carry on' too. Unless of course these things work for her as a character. But it all depends on her social background.

    I think I see what you mean with 'came away', but it's a very subtle point. 'She left with us' is entirely natural over here too.

    If you want more middle class expressions, then 'daft' certainly works, though that one's universal I would say.

    The problem is that many of those colourful British expressions that Americans notice are working class in origin, and while these days that's all mixed up a bit (though only a bit), in the 60s the way people spoke was a strong class indicator.

    Would you like to send me a sample? A couple of passages say, where your lady is speaking. I'd be happy to comment on them and send some vocabulary.

  21. I really appreciate your help on this. I'm glad you brought up the cobblers. I have got it wrong. You're so right Americans are attracted to the more colorful British expressions, in complete ignorance of where they come from and often even what they mean. It's nice to have a consultant who knows what's what.

    I'll email you some dialog at lunch. Thanks again:)

  22. What about the Irish 'feck'? Completely harmless ;-)


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