A recent article in The Guardian told how Joanne Harris turned down a book deal with an unnamed mail order book club in the USA when the publisher demanded she removed what is referred to as an ‘f-bomb’ from her novel.

She is the author of the well known 1999 novel Chocolat that many of you might better remember as the 2001 film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. On that Saturday she tweeted: “Today I turned down a book deal in the US because they wanted to edit out my use of ‘the f-bomb’. I refused for two reasons: one, because I don’t use words accidentally. They matter. And second, because I don’t believe my use of the word ‘fuck’ harms anyone.”

At present, but not for the first time, there has been an outbreak of hysteria about particular uses of languages, down to individual words, but more absurdly mass book burning, including seven Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling and Twilight Saga series of vampire themed fantasy novels by Stephenie Meyer because of what Tennessee pastor Greg Locke claims are ‘demonic influences’. What is most outstanding about such forms of censorship is that it defies what for many people is common usage and, in the case of the novels most certainly, themes that are in reality no more fantastic than claims in many religious texts, the Christian bible included.

There was a time, when the word fuck was almost but not quite taboo. It is a very flexible role word, that is grammatically a transitive and intransitive verb, also used as an adjective, adverb, noun or interjection (an expletive or swear word, in other words). Its origins are probably, but not certainly, Germanic or perhaps Old French, but almost certainly not Old English as often claimed. It does not necessarily mean what is most often implied, but then if that was right its use would not be anything like as simple as it is. There is no particular evidence to attach the assumed sexual connotation to it originally.

All good and fine, we may not expect to hear a three year old child use it, but then would we expect them to use an exclamatory word or expression, perhaps innocuous rather than profane or obscene? How often do children say rather outmoded things like ‘Golly gosh’ or ‘Holy mackerel!’, less out of trend ones like ‘Good grief!’ or ‘Oh, my goodness’, let alone ‘Fuck!’. Yet it is not unlikely that once they go to primary school, perhaps even pre-school, it will fall in place. Abbreviated usage in texting, which begins increasingly early in life, includes WTF, FFS as common language currency. I live in a non Anglophone country where children use it, perhaps naively, before they would feasibly begin to learn English at school.

It is not so long ago that there were words like ‘shit’, now considered of no consequence, that were never used in polite company. Yet in France ‘merde’ meaning the same or German ‘Scheiße’ and slightly milder ‘Mist’ are common use of little consequence; we could run through most European languages then beyond to do the same. Then ‘bugger’ which has a far more vulgar sexual connotation than ‘fuck’ was considered mild, albeit it hearing it from a woman or child would be at least frowned on. But now that that ‘f word’ is common currency in most media, except for algorithms that seem to suffer some kind of linguistic constipation, part of entertainment and appears not infrequently in printed media such as Joanne Harris in the article about her book in which it is used that a delicate petal of an editor in an unnamed publishing house decided had to be removed.

Having looked at this one word in particular in a bit of detail, then briefly a couple of others, the question now is whether I will be censored? If so, then how can the Oxford English Dictionary that first appeared in 1884 and has never yet been censored appear on those sites that ban use of ‘bad’ words? They are bad because somebody said they are, so perhaps if I add ‘toothbrush’ to the list of profanities that a few obsessive moralists and mad clergy tell us are demonic, will I be chastised for all eternity for my obscenity?

I’m not sure what to describe this nonsense as but I am not playing the game of scaring people with tittle-tattle, to use a wonderful medieval expression that the same fanatics might wish to ban, when grownups (usually anybody aged roughly six and over) can decide themselves and when stopped in their tracks for using profanities may quietly utter something like ‘Oh fuck!’

Image created in house using Canva.

Brian Milne
A Social anthropologist who specialises in the human rights of children. In practice Brian Milne has worked on the street with 'street children', child labour, young migrants, young people with HIV and AIDS. Brian’s work has taken him to around 40 countries, most of them developing nations; at least four of them have been in a state of conflict or war, thus taking him to the front line in two. Brian’s theoretical work began with migration; working on, written and publishing on citizenship and generally best known as an 'expert' on the human rights of children. Brian has a broad knowledge of human and civil rights for all ages, environmental issues and has been politically active most of his life. An internationalist and supporter of the principle of European federalisation.

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