What’s the big ****ing deal about swearing?

Mandy Hager

Warning! Warning! Bad language alert!

I’ve just started work on a sequel to my book The Nature of Ash. I never intended to add to it, but now, five years on, it’s prodding at me to take the issues further and I can’t resist!

For the last three years I’ve been working on a book about a 12th-century French nun — a very different voice from 18-year-old Kiwi Ashley McCarthy. To refresh Ashley’s voice in my head, I’ve just read the book again — and, after my medieval nun, I must say he uses a lot of colourful language. And I mean A LOT!

Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t worry me at all. I love swearing! I love the emphasis such words can bring and the way they can help defuse a head of steam when I’m excited, shocked or angry. There’s something very solid about them — lots of good, grunty descriptors that can transmit a wide range of emotions, depending on how they’re said, and aren’t afraid to say what’s what.

When I was growing up, we used to religiously watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus on TV, laughing fit to burst at their risqué, bad-taste comedy. One skit, in particular, stuck in my head, in which they categorised words into two kinds only: woody or tinny. “Woody” words are the ones you can say with a certain weightiness and power; “tinny” words are weasel words, lightweight and shrill. To me, most swear words come into the “woody” category (stop that, no pun is intended!). It’s about the way they roll off the tongue, with a satisfying sense of emphasis and decisiveness that I like.

In truth, I find it strange that these days such words are still found offensive. Yes, they were once considered the height of rudeness and obscenity, but so was bathing undressed, or the sight of a woman’s ankle. Now, such words are used and heard so commonly that I suspect the vast majority of under-30s aren’t even aware that they once held such repellent power. Most of the swear words frequently held up as inappropriate for young people originally referred to body parts or bodily functions, with many derived from Old English. Why is this so offensive? Do we not all have bodies? Do we not call body parts all sorts of other random and ridiculous names?

There are many things I find much more offensive: racism, sexism, xenophobia, violence, abuse, the gap between rich and poor, political lies, weapons and war. Surely these things cause more damage than the odd salty or “woody” word? When I hear people complaining about the “bad” language in children’s books it both saddens and maddens me; I can’t help thinking that all that righteous indignation could be better directed, at books and games riddled with gratuitous violence and sadistic cruelty recounted purely for entertainment’s sake. If the argument is that we want our young people to grow up with the “right” values, then hate-speech, misogyny, and acts of cruelty seem far more valid targets.

The Roastbuster’s incident or the recent episodes at St. Patrick’s and Wellington College weren’t the result of naming body parts and functions via archaic language. They were all about power imbalances, an underlying lack of respect for women, and blurred, dodgy misrepresentations of what is considered as consent.

If the protectors of children want to hit out at something, why not fire up over the abundance and accessibility of pornography, or music videos’ overt misogyny and their exploitation of the pornographic gaze?  Or, what about the dreadful bullying we see on social media? This isn’t the product of a few expressive f-or-c words. Instead, it’s the end result of the culture of meanness perpetrated by competitive and amoral reality TV and mass entertainment, naming and shaming, voting people “in” or “out”, and the sense of security provided by online anonymity.  All these things deeply offend me — and, I believe, are a whole lot more damaging to our young people and to our society as whole.

So, I won’t be reining in Ashley’s language, I’ll let him talk any way he wants. He’s a kid with a good moral conscience and a heart filled with love. And, in the long run, isn’t that what really counts?

Mandy Hager is an award-winning writer for adults old and young; her latest YA novel is Singing Home the Whale, and her latest adult novel is Heloise.

We asked a young adult reader what they thought about this issue, and this is what Caitlin Walker, 16 years old, had to say:

Young adult books are written for teenagers and generally in a teenage voice, and the truth is that most teenagers swear (shock horror!). Following that logic, it seems obvious that young adult books should also swear. I believe that it is important to have young adult books that reflect what it is actually like to be a teenager and not a romanticised, sugar-coated version of that. This applies to the themes, the plot, and the language.

What should be taken into consideration is that readers often advance from children’s books to young adult books quite young, as I did. I remember a conversation my friend and I had after reading the same YA book when we were about 13. She loved it, but I didn’t like it at all. When she asked why, the first thing that came to mind was the use of swearing. The age bracket of 12 to 18 has immense differences of personal preference and maturity. On the older side of the spectrum, I personally find that swearing in young adult books can make the characters more relatable and realistic as they reflect the people that I see in my daily life.

In the end, it comes down to trusting young adult readers as responsible readers, able to make their own decisions. I never finished that YA book with the swearing, as I recognised that as good a book as it might be, it wasn’t the right book for me. Teenagers need young adult books both with and without swearing so that every teenage reader can find the right texts for them, that share the messages they need to hear and that reflect their own life experience – and, sometimes, that means they need to hear the characters swear.

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