How to Swear

Strangely, I was inspired to write this post after my virtual trip to Nepal with Bob, although ever since the unfortunate and divisive events in the US and the UK, I have been inundated with a request from my follower to produce this guide.

This guide, then, is intended for those who find themselves in situations of such extreme frustration that a safety valve needs to be opened before anything useful and practical can be done about the problem. Or, indeed, before a physical injury is sustained unnecessarily.

I feel your pain, I truly do.

And so I humbly offer you, the reader, this handy cut-out-and-keep Guide to Swearing.

Swearing loyalty, swearing allegiance to something, swearing to tell the truth…that’s not what this is about, even though it’s a related subject.

No, this is about swearing!

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The swearing we might indulge in when someone or something irritates us beyond simply acknowledging that fact.

The swearing we might indulge in to demonstrate to others, or even just ourselves, how remarkably annoyed by that situation or person we are.

Something along the lines of ‘Blistering barnacles!’ for readers of a certain age. Or the mutterings of Mutley in ‘Wacky Races’ for other readers of a certain age. I’m afraid these cultural references will be lost on some…you’ll just have to swear at me for using them.

Firstly, and most importantly, one should choose the correct moment. I would not advocate swearing at any random time, for it is unlikely to have the desired restorative effect and, indeed, leaves the unwary user merely looking like a pillock.

Examples of bad moments might be during a marriage proposal, or an important meeting with your boss.

Whereas an example of a good moment might be, for the English cricket supporter, the following. Let us say that after losing an early wicket, in comes number 3, a contentious choice in any case, given his recent form, and promptly gives away his wicket with an ill-advised and airy shot to the first ball he faces. That would be an excellent time.

I used to find that a really good occasion would sometimes arise when I worked night shifts. Being awoken in the middle of the day, when I had just managed to get to sleep, by an insistent caller at the front door who demanded to know whether I had invited Jesus into my life, invariably worked.

A little bit of research might be helpful, here. Since you are unlikely to be the only person indulging in a bit of swearing (unless you live in a convent, or somesuch…and maybe not even then), you could stand out from the crowd by using some of the less-commonly heard swearwords. You might derive a certain amount of satisfaction, for example, by comparing your unfeeling relative to the intimate parts of a mammal, but how much more interesting for both spectators and participants to employ some rarely heard Viking term for the feeling one gets when an unusually cold gust of wind catches one unexpectedly just as one begins to perform on the privy?

That’s class, that is.

A few key words:

Adjectives. A careful use of adjectives will enable the Swearer to not only modify and enhance the power and meaning of the chosen epithets, but also, with a certain amount of skill, extend the outburst for up to a minute without the need to introduce a new noun, keeping those in reserve in case a second assault is required.

Breathing. Remember to breathe while swearing. Running out of breath suggests that not only have you not given due thought to the composition of your swear, but, worse still, perhaps have also lost control of the entire situation.

Cursing. Now, this is another thing entirely, and outside the remit of this post. Rather than simple (or complex) swearing, cursing implies the actual placing of a curse upon another person, with the aim of causing them injury, sickness or death. I shall deal with this more fully in my up-coming post ‘Getting Promotion at Work and Dealing With Troublesome In-laws’. There are those who hold that the two are interchangeable (cursing and swearing, I mean, not promotion and troublesome in-laws), and that the person who, in a moment of great stress and deep personal antipathy shouts something along the lines of ‘Trip over a nasty lump in the ground and hurt yourself, you frightfully horrid person!‘ is merely swearing, yet all they are doing is actually attempting to curse the recipient, albeit in an amateur and rather un-thought out way, and then tacking onto the end something that is technically a mere insult, which should only be used in other, carefully defined, situations (see ‘Using insults in carefully defined situations‘).

Happy ****ing swearing.

Pitfalls for Writers – 4) Language; a bit of a follow-up

Back somewhere deep in the mists of time, I published ‘Pitfalls for Writers 1’. In this, I discussed some of the potential problems of language in a novel.

If I am to write a story of medieval Persia, for example, I will write it in English. No one who reads it is going to be fooled into thinking that my characters were really speaking in English. But this on its own is not enough. There must be something in the language I use that reminds the reader that the story setting really is medieval Persia.

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And so I suggested using a flavour of the speech. I might sprinkle the conversation with words such as ‘dirham’ (a unit of currency), or ‘djinns’ (genies). The characters might smoke a ‘qalyan’, which is how they would have referred to what we generally call a hookah. A greeting might be ‘Salām ʿalaykom’.

In the comment stream that followed, I concluded that I might employ a glossary, but certainly not footnotes.

This has now become most relevant to me.

About a month ago, I finished reading Anuradha Roy’s ‘The Folded Earth’. It is a novel that is set in India, written by an Indian writer, yet it uses a glossary, although she is presumably writing in the first instance for an Indian audience. This glossary explains a few words and phrases that many western readers would be unfamiliar with, although I would expect the majority of Indian readers to know them all.

My own novel is being read now by generous beta readers, and some of the discussion is over the use of the appropriate Hindi / Urdu words in the text.

And so, with ‘The Folded Earth’ as an example, I shall definitely use a glossary.

Next, it is important to employ the correct voice.

Speech:

Clearly, if the protagonists of a story are sitting down to a meal, they might complain about the amount of fat on the meat, but they would be most unlikely to refer to it as ‘adipose tissue’. Unless one or both were, for example, surgeons.

Very few people would be likely to refer to two items as being ‘in casual juxtaposition’. They would be far more likely to say something along the lines of ‘oh, they look a bit odd next to each other.’ As tempting as it might be for the author to show off their vocabulary, it is something that should be used most carefully.

Narrator:

If the story actually has a narrator, then this becomes even more important. The country bumpkin relating an everyday tale of rustic shenanigans should not be employing sophisticated and subtle wordplay. He or she should only be employing language that they would naturally use.

Author’s voice:

Even if there is no actual narrator, it remains important to use only language that would be natural to the situation. For example, it sounds plain wrong to describe a group of Vikings ‘computing’ an answer to a problem, even if it is only the author describing it that way.

Generally, of course, and I know that some will disagree with this, it is usually better to avoid all flowery and showy language in novels, and use simple language well.

Finally, a jarring note found in a few modern novels set in older times, is that the characters often think like modern folk. Reading these books as against books written, perhaps, 150 years ago, it is not just the style and language of the writing that are different, but also the prejudices. The hero of a novel set in 1840 is going to have casual prejudices against, perhaps, people of another race, women, etc etc. We tend to be reluctant to set these down in print, nowadays, perhaps as if by doing so we are almost admitting to having these prejudices ourselves.

However, if we want to depict our characters realistically, we need to do so ‘warts and all’. And if the writer is going to depict them otherwise, then he or she needs to have a good reason why they do.

 

Once Upon a Time

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Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

It is a cliché that causes us to smile, yet variations of that phrase will have been used countless times in the distant past, when our ancestors gathered around the storyteller of the tribe to hear whatever tale he (or she) was about to tell.

And research http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/3/1/150645  that was published this week, now tells us that the history of fairy tales turns out to be even longer than anyone suspected, going back to the times of prehistoric tribes. Not that this theory is entirely uncontested, of course.

But I would be surprised if it were untrue.

There have always been storytellers, who performed an important role, especially before the invention of writing. In those days, when all knowledge had to be memorised if it was to be of any use, then the skills of the storyteller in the tribe, someone who was used to organising their thoughts so that they could remember what was important and then recount it to the rest of the tribe, would have been vital for far more than simply entertainment; they would have been essential for the tribe’s survival.

They would have told stories about wild animals; either cautionary tales, or how to hunt them. Stories of skirmishes with other tribes; praising the bravery of their own warriors, and recounting how the other tribe was put to flight, but warning, still, of the danger these other tribes posed.

They must have always speculated on the origins of their world, and come up with the various creation myths. It would be important that all the tribe understood the appropriate rituals they would need to follow to appease the gods and ensure their own welfare.

So these stories would have been a way of sharing information with all the members of the tribe.

Much later, after the invention of writing, these tales began to perform a different function. They would still be used as cautionary tales, but now perhaps aimed more towards children (watch out for cross-dressing wolves and the like), or purely for entertainment.

But in a society where the majority were unable to read, they would remain important.

Throughout history, there has always been a borrowing and reinvention of stories; the myth of a flood that wipes out most of mankind, for example, is found virtually all over the world.

But the difference between a ‘myth’ and a ‘fairy story’ seems a little vague. I suppose the term ‘myth’ does seem to have a little more gravitas.

Many of these stories concern blacksmiths, which might be due to an early awe of those peoples who discovered how to work stronger metal, specifically iron, and fears that they might be using magical or supernatural means to do so. I’ll return to that shortly.

Now let’s take one well-known example of a fairy tale; the story of Snow White plays out both as a royal power struggle, something that has occurred time and again all over the world, and also the classic tale of the wicked stepmother, highlighting the insecurity a child may feel when a parent dies and is replaced by a stranger.

She flees an assassination attempt to find refuge with another people. The fact that they are depicted as dwarves (in the well-known European version) serves to emphasize the fact that they are not her own people.

There are further attempts on her life, but she is finally rescued by a passing prince and lives happily ever after.

Variations of this story crop up across Europe, Turkey, Africa, Asia and America. Whether these tales were passed from tribe to tribe and spread across the world that way, or were invented spontaneously in different parts of the world, it is unlikely we will ever know. It was probably a combination of the two. What is certain, is that they tend to be reinvented regularly.

Stories of mortals striking deals with supernatural beings (i.e. the devil) occur world-wide. What they all have in common is that either the human making it reneges on the deal, and usually finds a way to cheat the supernatural being, or, of course, the devil comes to collect his soul.

It is still a well-used device in literature. There is Goethe’s Faust, and since then many other popular novels on the subject, and we are still happily reinventing this story, as well as all of the other fairy tales, into new stories today.

In Britain, there are numerous folk-tales on this subject, usually concerning blacksmiths who either make pacts with the devil, or who are visited by him in disguise and realise who he really is (the comely maiden with the cloven hooves is often a bit of a giveaway). It usually ends with the devil being grabbed by the nose with red hot pincers and running off screaming. But again, these tales surface from all parts of the British Isles, and are set in times that are contemporary to the story teller. So the fellow telling the tale in an ale-house in a sixteenth century village would mention the blacksmith in a village twenty or so miles away – close enough to be particularly exciting to the listeners, but probably far enough away for there to be no one in his audience who might confidently denounce it as false.

And then, of course, they all lived happily ever after.

The Language Barrier

As part of its strategy to counter extremism, the British Government has today announced its intention to fund a plan to help all migrants to this country learn English. For once, I think that this is a plan to applaud.

For the inability to speak and understand the language of others around you fosters fear, misunderstanding and distrust.

Having lived in an ex-patriot community myself, I remember how easy it is to become persuaded by others that you are somehow surrounded by ‘enemies’, and to develop a laager mentality. This mindset takes it as a given that everyone outside of the circle does not understand you, they are somehow ‘against’ you, and forever plotting to attack or undermine you, so you sit there muttering darkly about these ‘outsiders’, and voicing your dislike and prejudices against them…it becomes a cycle of mistrust that can possibly become violent.

It is another example of the saying that we hate what we fear, and we fear what we do not understand. And when someone is trapped in a limited social circle because they cannot understand anyone outside of that circle, their chances of becoming a full member of the wider community are severely limited.

Having travelled in non-English speaking countries, I realise how much easier life becomes for me when I make the effort to learn even a small amount of the language.

There will be some who refuse to learn the language on the grounds that they feel that they are there temporarily, possibly working on a short term contract, and can get away with using their own language in a limited circle of work, shopping and socialising.

And there will be some for whom it is a matter of pride to use only their birth language.

I think that both of these viewpoints are mistaken.

Writers understand only too well the importance of language. We worry over whether to use this or that word or phrase to get our meaning across; we worry over whether the way we have worded something may be misunderstood. But when you are attempting to communicate with others in a language that you only vaguely understand, every single conversation is full of these fears.

And when that is the norm, it becomes easier just to avoid any situations where you have to try to use that language.

But it does not actually take much to overcome these fears. Perhaps accepting an invitation to visit to someone’s home, or their place of worship, will lead naturally to conversations where people can learn about each other. But the essential thing is to be able to communicate, which becomes next to impossible without at least a few words of a language in common.

Pitfalls for Writers 3

Pitfalls for Writers, an occasional series; part 3) Spellcheck and Distractions

 

Spellcheck.

There are particular problems with the English language, when it comes to muddling words up, since we seem to be blessed (or otherwise) with a large number of groups of similar words. Within each group, they’re pronounced the same, although their meaning and spelling are different.

Did you see what I did there?

You might alter something, but then leave it on an altar.

Then there are, for example, groyne and groin; although in the US, groyne is spelled groin. Do you know which language your spellcheck uses? The default on my computer is US English, so I had to manually alter it to UK English, since I live in UK.

(This is referring to groyne / groin as in a breakwater, not an anatomical term)

Of course, if I was writing a piece to be published in the US, I would then need to alter many of the spellings to US usage.

Are you still with me?

Naturally, as writers, we should all understand the difference between ‘they’re, their and there’, but when using spellcheck it is perhaps easy, or perhaps lazy, to get them muddled up.

There. That’s what I did.

There is no substitute for a dictionary and a good knowledge of grammar.

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Distractions

Oh, I’m so easily distracted. When I am spending a day writing, be it on a novel or short story or on a piece for my blog, I turn to the internet to look something up and before I know it, I’m reading something else, which then encourages me to follow a thread somewhere to something I spotted that looks awfully interesting and then…

Obviously, if there is cricket going on, then that is understandable. Everybody needs to keep up with the score, don’t they? But it is just as likely to be an unrelated distraction.

I do understand the importance of a timetable, and I admit that I am hopeless at following my own advice, here. Occasionally I will scrawl down a note in my diary for the day that reads something along the lines of ‘Breakfast, then 9 am writing. 12 noon emails and lunch. 1 pm – 4 pm writing.’

When I do manage to have a working day that is disciplined, I invariably find that I get a lot more done. And one of the most important things, for me, is not to look at emails before lunchtime. As soon as I do, I’m no longer thinking about writing, but answering these various emails, and whatever it is they’re about.

Ooh, hang on, I need to go and check the cricket. No, no, it’s important. I’ll be back in a moment…

Pitfalls for Writers – 2) Internet Research

Pitfalls for Writers, an occasional series; part 2) Internet research

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I read it in a newspaper, so it must be true.

Ho ho ho.

We are all aware that newspapers have their own agendas, and that they interpret events to fit their own world views, ignoring inconvenient facts and sometimes even misrepresenting them. Occasionally, they have been known to make them up.

On the internet, then, which is infinitely more difficult to police, we should expect to treat a large amount of presented data with, at the very least, extreme suspicion.

For the purposes of this post, I am assuming that the Work in Process is a work of fiction, be it a novel or a shorter work.

Wikipedia; good old Wikipedia. Everyone uses it as an infallible fact checker, don’t they? No? Very wise. An illustration of the downside of Wikipedia that I particularly like comes from the time of the Ashes series in England last summer. On the first day in the fourth test, England Bowler Stuart Broad took eight wickets for fifteen runs and effectively won the match for England. At some point that day, his Wikipedia entry was altered, by persons unknown, to begin, simply, ‘Stuart Broad is God.’

Now, at the time, as an avid English cricket follower, I might almost have accepted that as the truth, in a tongue in cheek sort of way, but it does illustrate that one of Wikipedia’s strengths is also a weakness. It is updated continuously by a huge number of people, some of whom doubtless have ‘agendas’, and that it is impossible to check that all of the information is accurate, and so it must not be used as a final arbiter of true or false.

I might use Wikipedia as a first stop, but then I would go and double check the information on a site that I trust. How do you know that you can trust a particular website? That rather depends on the information, and requires some common sense. If I were looking up an accurate description of, say, a particular disease, I might opt to check the website of a well-known medical facility. If I wanted details of a particular cricket match, at any time in history, I would go to the ‘Cricinfo’ site, which is trusted by the majority of cricket followers. History? Well, I just searched ‘history of Wales’ and amongst other sites, found Wales.com, the ‘official’ site of the Welsh Government. I guess I’d trust that.

I still like to use books for research, and, of course, I can do that on the internet. There are a huge number of books available to read online for free; many are there because the copyright has expired, although the legal length of copyright does vary in different countries and can be quite complex (in the US for example, where certain categories of work can have differing terms in different states), and many are there because the owners of the copyright have allowed it. So, if you trust the book…

And many can be consulted for a fee, of course.

Google (and other) translators. Although this is not research, strictly speaking, I have included it because it may be a part of the process. If you need a demonstration of why they are not to be trusted, then type in a simple phrase and translate it to your chosen language. Then translate it back again. To enliven a dull afternoon, repeat this a couple of times, and see if any words in the final version match the originals.

Now, having said that, it will do a pretty good job of translating from, for example, English to French – presumably both because they share the same alphabet, and also because there is much in common in the roots of these languages and their grammar. And, probably for the same reason, I have found it hopeless translating between English and Hindi, where there is far less in common, and no common alphabet.

For a factual article, the author’s level of accuracy must be higher; they dare not get their facts wrong, for even one incorrect fact will invalidate their entire article. Fiction writers are not under quite that same level of pressure, although the scrutiny may still be there.

Pitfalls for writers – 1) language

Pitfalls for Writers, an occasional series; part 1) Language

Language, or, more specifically, its usage, changes so rapidly nowadays that the writer who wishes to sound up to the minute is on a hiding to nothing.

Even if I were to successfully write a blog post using the latest idioms of the street, I suspect it would be out of date by the time it had been up on my site for twenty four hours.

What sounds edgy and street one day is laughed at the next.

Of course, older readers will laugh at it anyway, so whatever I do I end up getting jeered at.

Ouch!

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Let’s go back a little. The language of the Victorian Poor or the upper classes in 1920’s England, say, is easy enough to research and imitate, and also easy enough to understand when read today, which makes it much easier to work with. The only real pitfall might be to use a word at a period of history before said word was in use. A writer could not refer to his seventeenth century English gentleman ‘shampooing his hair’, for example, since the word did not enter the English language until 1762 and even then meant ‘massage’, as was its original meaning in Hindi, and only acquired the meaning of ‘to wash the hair’ in 1860.

The language of medieval England is also fairly easy to research, but the novelist uses it accurately at his or her peril, for precisely the same reason that no one would use Latin to write a novel set in ancient Rome – they would immediately be losing 99.9% of their potential readers.

The first three lines of ‘Beowulf’, in the original Old English:

‘hwæt, we gar-dena in geardagum,

þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!’

Anyone understand that? Nope, me neither. Seamus Heaney translates it thus:

So, the Spear-Danes in days gone by,

And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.

We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

An alternative translation I came across:

Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings,

Of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,

We have heard, and what honour the athelings won.

Now, I like the Seamus Heaney translation, but I prefer the second one, since I feel that it gives me more of a flavour of the time. So, the original is fun to read for a scholar of Old English, but if it’s just the story that you want, it needs to be written in a language that the reader understands, perhaps with the voice of the time (or flavour). What do I mean by voice? Let me give an example in an imaginary sixteenth century setting:

‘By my troth!’ he exclaimed.  Or…

‘By my troth!’ he exclaimeth.

In the first case, ‘By my troth!’, true to the time, conveys the voice of the time satisfactorily. In the second, the change from ‘exclaimed’ to ‘exclaimeth’ sounds awkward and cumbersome to modern ears, even if it be yet more true to the time.

Perhaps, then, the author does not need to write authentic language, but just to sound a bit authentic; to use extracts. Give a taste.

So, back to the streets. If I was to persist in my ambition to write a post in the genuine voice of an urban teenager, I am almost certain to fail.

Even if I were to pick up the words accurately, I would probably use them incorrectly, and the majority of my readers would not understand them in any case.

And so my answer would be to attempt merely a flavour of the speech.

What of a story set in a different culture to that of the writer? The novel that I am working on at the moment is set in India, and so I use several words and terms that will be familiar to Indian readers, but perhaps not to western ones.

Do I need to explain them? Or put in a glossary?

My feeling is not. An Indian writer would not feel the need to explain them, and they obviously help to give a more authentic voice or flavour to the narrative. Their use does not affect the flow of the story, either, since the reader can choose to look up the word if they wish, or simply infer the meaning and carry on. We all occasionally meet words we don’t recognise, in any case.

Does anyone think otherwise? How do you feel when you encounter dialect or unknown words in books?