“I don’t give an obscenity.” “Who the obscenity cares?” “Go obscene yourself.”
Sentences like these were peppered through the pages of For Whom the Bell Tolls, an Ernest Hemingway novel, which I read when I was 18. Naïve and confused, I wondered, who talks like this?
Well, of course, no one does. But Hemingway’s publishers in the 1920s and 1930s wouldn’t allow the actual crude words Hemingway wrote to be published. Their solution was to take out Hemingway’s expletives and replace them with the word “obscenity.”
How published writing has changed in the past 100 years! Gradually “damn” (“Frankly, Scarlet, I don’t give a damn.”) and shit became acceptable in literature. Now the word “bullshit” is everywhere, even in The New York Times and other publications of high language standards. Profane language has slipped into writing meant for children, too, such as the graphic novel This One Summer. Within five frames on pages 246 and 247, “fuckin’,” “fuck,” and “fucking” are used four times in casual speech overheard by a preteen.
I grew up in a home where adults did not curse. (Think Atticus Finch.) As adults, my husband and I rarely curse, and even then, the words we use are mild. (Think “oh, damn” or “hell.”) Some of my children’s generation, now adults, rarely curse, but others use words like “shit” and “fuck” and “asshole” routinely, and in front of their children. Is this a change in our spoken language, or have people always spoken this way, just not in my family.
Hemingway’s novels, after all this time, are still some of the most banned or challenged classic novels, not only in the US but around the world, according to the American Library Association. Hemingway, with his almost immortal literary reputation, needn’t worry. But how about us mortals? Should we be using obscenities in our writing? Is using them an aberration reflecting our increasingly uncivil society? Or have past publishers, by censoring obscenities, provided literature which inaccurately reflected the thinking and speaking of the people of those eras?
Changes in our spoken language precede changes in our written language. Listen to the speech of people around you. Do they use obscenities? Do others censor them or walk away? Do speakers edit their language depending on their audience?
If we want our writing to reflect our times, then we need to use the language of our society. The problem is, today our American society is fragmented more than at any other time since the Civil War. Which society are we reflecting in our writing? Teenagers experimenting with adult words? Men railing against their loss of jobs and power? Immigrant women with old country values? Working women competing against men for promotions? Children repeating the words of their parents?
We also must think of our audience. For whom are we writing? Would they bristle at the use of profanity? Would they be unaware of it? Are they children?
The dilemma and the choice is ours.