As a thirteen year old, Adam had recently had something of an epiphany when it came to the word fuck. He’d said fuck at primary school, of course, but he understood now that he’d used it crudely and clumsily. Even in the first year of secondary school, his use of fuck had been poor, showing off to friends or fit in with the hard kids. It was only now as a more cultured second year that he could really master the word and all its nuances. He knew, for example, that there was a subtle difference between fuck you and fuck off. He knew that being called a fuck was more insulting than being called a fucker and that no matter what, you were guaranteed a laugh by telling someone to go fuck an animal as long as you used a different animal each time. Adam’s most recent witty comebacks had been go fuck an otter, go fuck a panda and the one which got him thrown out of Chemistry, go fuck a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig.
Fuck was a good word but it was not Adam’s favourite word. In Adam’s opinion the undoubted finest word in the English language was bollocks. Other boys used bollocks to talk about testicles as in “did you see Fatty Spencer getting hit in the bollocks with that fucking football?” That was fine but also a bit unrefined . Adam preferred to use a bollocks – a singular noun and a kind of synonym for dickhead, wanker or nobhead. “History homework’s not due ‘til Monday. Don’t be a bollocks.” That sort of thing.
He’d first heard the word used in this manner when an Irishman had shouted it at a policeman outside of the Wetherspoon’s in town. He’d been Christmas shopping with his mother at the time and she’d quickly led him away muttering about common people and the decline of society but Adam had thought it sounded wonderfully sophisticated.
From that day forward bollocks became his go to swear word. The word had just one flaw, it was only useful in relation to one person at a time – there was no appropriate plural of a bollocks. When Coley got himself killed playing Call of Duty, Adam could say “why did you do that you stupid bollocks?” and all was fine. But when Shitstain Billy and Darron Clyne got caught pissing on Mrs Arwin-Jones’s car tyres, the word was useless. He could have tried “what a pair of bollocks!” but that was too literal. It made you think of a hanging nutsack and that wasn’t the effect he was looking for at all. He could have gone for “did you bollockses think you were dogs or summit?” but bollockses didn’t really ring right. Fortunately Coley had stepped in and called them a couple of nobbers which, although Adam thought it somewhat inelegant, got the job done in an unambiguous fashion.
That was a passage from Chapter 3 of my new book which I just penned this morning. Okay, I know the writing is a bit clunky in places and I know there’s a fair bit of stuff which I’ll rewrite in my second draft but fundamentally I’m quite happy with it. I think it does an OK job of representing the pleasure young teenagers take in swearing. That joy of discovering whole sections of language which were previously hidden from you because they were unseemly and wrong. The feeling that you and your friends can rebel against the whole world by sharing these terrible, forbidden words.
It was also hellishly enjoyable to write. That is probably because I am, myself, an immature manchild who still giggles at farts. Swearing is not big and it’s not clever but it is, particularly in writing, damn good fun.
Actually, I kind of take issue with that second assumption that swearing is not clever. Certainly there is a lot of unclever swearing about, particularly on TV, where in a post Game of Thrones world it seems every series must be loaded with fucks, cunts and full frontal nudity just to make it clear that what we’re watching is ‘grown-up’. But swearing is after all just vocabulary and it is the usage, not the words themselves, which is either smart or stupid.
Just look at Peter Capaldi’s Malcom Tucker from The Thick of It, possibly the best swearer in television history.
The ubiquity of swearing in modern culture has generally reduced its impact but the sheer inventiveness of Armando Iannucci’s writing means Tucker’s ranting diatribes retain their power both to shock and to make you fall off your chair with laughter.
Irvine Welsh is another master swearer. Enjoy the wonder of that profanity filled Edinburgh dialect.
Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life. – Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting
I’ve spent much of my last two posts whingeing about the difficulty of writing convincing dialogue. I think one of the major mistakes I made in my first novel was that my characters didn’t swear properly. To write realistic conversations I need my characters to swear realistically. Not every character. If I’m writing a rural priest talking to an elderly parishioner after a church service, it may not be appropriate for him to say, “For fuck’s sake Mrs Bobbins, will you please stop your incessant wittering. I couldn’t give a pointy rat’s dick about your cunting cake sale. Now kindly be a dear and piss off home, I’ve got two episodes of Westworld to watch and giant bag of weed. I’m going to get fuuuucked up!” (although actually I do quite like that. Note to self: Next book – The Irreverent.) But most people do swear, some of the time at least, and therefore most of my characters need to swear – but to keep things interesting for the reader, they should do so creatively.
Sound right, Malcom?
Thanks for reading.
If you have any examples of wonderfully sweary characters, leave me a comment below.
Chris C Barnett