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Bitchface: Swearing in Historical Fiction

What did you just call me?

Luckily, I enjoy swearing. It's an essential part of British English. Doing swearing right is key to fitting in and getting on in my society. When you swear, how you swear, what you swear about and who you swear to says so much about your status, education and values, and I’ll have you know that my favourite insult is noble and ancient.

Bitchface is one of the oldest swears on record. Homer deploys it when Helen of Troy describes herself. At first reading that seems a little odd, given that the literal translation of kynops is “dog-eyed”. Not inherently derogatory, nor is it clear how it fits a woman so beautiful every arrogant piece of shit from Laconia to Lycia spent ten years fighting over her.

Then as now, dogs were associated with both loyalty and base behaviour. The canine-based insults were gendered female, just like ours. So Helen is saying that she’s a shameless bitch. Misogynistic, but apt in the context of the story.

All the indications are the ancient world was far more relaxed than we are about post-watershed content. Which leaves me wondering why so many people get swearing so wrong in historical fiction. And by “wrong” I mostly mean “absent”. But there is also the question of how you swear in a way that feels right for the world of your story. The two are connected, I think.

As I’ve been preparing to publish my own book, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the market for historical fiction. Inevitably you read a lot of reviews, and I’ve been struck by how often people complain about the swearing. Over the last weeks I’ve read several reviews saying that there was too much, and it pulled them out of the story. Often because it’s “too modern”.

There are really only two reasons why swearing in a historical novel can be too modern for you. It’s either not been well written, or you think historical fiction ought to be a salubrious escape to a simpler, tidier time.

There’s so, so much to be said about how you might do historical swearing right, so I won’t waste too much time on the second reason. It deserves a rant-post all of its own some time. Briefly, I think that in these cases the problem is definitely with you, not the swearing, because there’s something deeply dangerous in the belief that encountering the past ought to be salutary or simple. This attitude explains why bitchface still doesn’t get the column inches it deserves. If Homer, founder of the great We that is the Western cannon, wrote kynops he couldn’t possibly have meant bitchface. You certainly can’t translate it as such, because we don’t want to be that.

If there is one thing I can do for Ancient History it is explode this idea that Ancient Greeks or Romans or Persians or whoever are “us”. They are not. Cultures change, absorb, diverge and sometimes disappear.

A great illustration of the amount of slippage between ancient and modern obscenity is something that happened to my ex, a Classics teacher. When he started a new job, he found that all the references to erections, penises, fannies and swearing had been carefully scored out in the set texts of Lysistrata.

If you’re unfamiliar with this fabulous play, it’s the story of how the women of Greece withhold sex from the men until they end the Peloponnesian War. If you take out all the erections and knob gags there is literally nothing left to talk about. My ex realised that his predecessor simply couldn’t cope with speaking the Name Of The Penis aloud before a class of teenagers.

I’m not arguing that everyone swore all the time in Classical Athens, but it’s clear they had different boundaries. Lysistrata wasn’t the equivalent of a late-night stand-up gig in an off-off-fringe fleapit. It was performed at a major religious festival in the main theatre of Athens. My ex ordered new copies of the books, and guess what? The teenagers coped. It also offered a great opportunity to talk about the society the play is satirising, and what our own norms about violence, gender and sex really are.

If you don’t already, I strongly recommend following #PhallusThursday on Twitter. It is partly just fun (flying penis earrings, madam?) but also a good reminder that what is considered offensive is culturally and historically situated. In many cultures of the Ancient Mediterranean penises were onstage, on shop signs and on your table ware. They were deployed for humour, for luck and for purposes we find mystifying these days. It’s not the dick itself that’s obscene, it’s the associations and mores surrounding the dick. Or something like that.

My argument here isn’t simply that taking the swearing out of the past is inaccurate, although it is. It’s deeper than that. It tells us that we are unwilling to engage with the past unless it is used as a screen for projecting our stuff into others unlike us. So if you don’t think people should swear because it’s common or the sign of a weak intellect or just because your god told you not to, that’s your own stuff talking. Avoid it because you don’t like it. Not because it’s “inauthentic”.

We are not the punchline of history. We are not its inevitable destination, and our beliefs are not necessarily enlightened. We could have turned out so many ways, been so many people.

But let’s assume that you’re up for a voyage into ancient effing and blinding. Let’s say that you want to make use of kynops in your own writing, perhaps. I would encourage you to go for it, because if you get it right you get to the heart of not so much on what makes a person from ancient Ephesus or Carthage relatable, as what makes them different to us. Because swearing and how it’s done tells us so much about who and where we are.

I also think that the demographics of who consumes fiction about the past is shifting. Perhaps not so much in books so far, but from Marco Polo to The Tudors (neither of which I endorse) there’s a great appetite for films and television among younger audiences. They seem to tolerate or even expect spicier dialogue. There’s a tendency to see these shows as braindead entertainment because of the sex and swearing. I’d say it’s often the least problematic aspect of their engagement with the past. Too often they dress modern people up in vaguely olde worlde clothes and swear using concepts that haven’t been invented yet. But it’s not inevitably the case, and when they do world building well they use swearing to enhance it.

HBO’s Rome was over too soon and clearly too faffed around with by execs who demanded random incest subplots (I hope they have now found the help they needed), but it got many, many details right about the world building. And one of its purest joys was seeing Mark Antony bellow “Juno’s cunt!” at people.

Yes, that word is there to shock us, but what it gets right that watching Henry VIII wank into a napkin on The Tudors does not is the way it’s used. It’s a giant neon reminder we are in a different place with different rules. We’re just looking at wanking for the sake of wanking in The Tudors. Rome carefully constructed a complex and utterly alien religious landscape and Antony invoked and subverted it by saying that.

Coming face to face with the past ought to be a shock in a very specific way. It should disturb our security about our own place in history or feel at home morally and socially. It is a different country, as the cliché goes, and they do things differently there.

Rome is a demon-haunted world with no good and benevolent father in the clouds. Mortals are tossed about by the primal forces of Fate, Luck and the elements with no promise of a pleasant afterlife to compensate them for what they suffer. Winning here today, being talked of for eternity, is what matters. Whether you’re offering a pigeon or a dozen perfect bulls, sacrifice makes sense because it shows what you’re prepared to do to buy the favour of a powerful protector. It’s a world in which you should choose the Republic over your own children’s lives if you have to. Like your mortal patrons, gods are to be bought off, played against one another, perhaps defied. Godhood is something extraordinary mortals might even achieve, if they have the brass balls to overcome their humanity. Rome laid all this groundwork, and its characters inhabit it and are shaped by it. Including their swearing.

Antony knows all this, and he knows how low women’s status is in his society. We do too, because we follow many different women’s stories in Rome. That’s what he's riffing on with “Juno’s cunt”. It’s a shocking thing to us, and it’s shocking to the other characters. Just for very different reasons.

As I keep saying, it’s how you swear that makes or breaks profanity in historical settings. Historical novels are some of the fussiest narratives for showing their ball-aching research about exactly how many buttons an 1873 pair of lace gloves might have, but too often are some of the worst for actually allowing the past to be inhabited by alien, non-modern people. In fact one of the best explanations of how to world-build with swearing in historically-inspired settings I’ve seen came from fantasy writer Joe Abercrombie.

I am an Abercrombie fan for the most part (his women get better, they do). His writing is way more thoughtful and nuanced than it usually gets credit for, probably because it’s fun to read. The swearing is no exception.

When he got complaints about the amount of swearing in his first book, The Blade Itself, Abercrombie justified his approach by pointing out that “the inclusion of swearing isn’t about trying to inject grittiness… It’s a question of honesty”. Especially in historical settings, “an author has to select the mode of expression which he feels best communicates his meaning, or the meaning of his characters, to a reader of modern English”. I think that goes double for any fictional setting in which your characters wouldn’t have spoken any English in the first place. Abercrombie points out that a lot of his characters are, as he puts it, “scum” and that it wouldn’t be very honest if they didn’t swear when something awful happened suddenly to them. And not in an elaborate, quaint or exotic way. Just an expletive.

Not all my own characters are scum exactly, but they do live in a social and cultural context that is not my own, in which people have different boundaries and norms about sex and swearing and getting naked in public. It feels emotionally dishonest, and actually destroys the social mechanics of the world they live in, if they aren’t allowed to swear in ways that reflect who they are and what they believe. Or have a serious chat in the gym with their bits out. Or whatever.

I’m unashamed to say that I often take more of a lead from fantasy writers than historical fiction writers, because they are the people who tend to offer the best masterclasses in worldbuilding. I bore Joe Abercrombie’s advice in mind while I was writing my own swearing in The Very Wolf. I went back to the cultural landscape they would have inhabited as far as I could: the plays and poetry they were surrounded by, the shops and paintings that they walked past. I did a great deal of research and careful ethnographic thinking about profanity, taboo and religion and how that related to gender, say, or power. I wanted their inner worlds to drive their thoughts, words and actions, and for them to be uncanny and unlike me if need be.

Some people in my book have a singular godhead they can call upon when they swear. Most do not. The religious landscape of Hellenistic Anatolia was utterly unlike our own. I’ve used “fuck”, “shit” and “cunt”, because these are words with direct Koine Greek equivalents that were common and much-used, although we might find them far more shocking now. I haven’t used “bloody” because even though it’s useful in where it sits on the spectrum of British English profanity (i.e. not too bad) it’s got Christian origins. I avoid Freudisms for the same reason: these are not concepts available to my characters.

The usual rules about characterisation and world building apply to swearing. My best tip is to not get so hung up on the words themselves but to pay attention to the concepts behind them. That’s what drags us out of the historical moment, that’s what makes swearing “feel too modern”. Helen of Troy is a bitch, but in a time long before Kate Moss and long-haul air travel she will never be a basic bitch.

On the other hand, for all I think you’ve got to let the past be foreign you can’t ignore what the audience brings to all this. Believe it or not, it’s completely authentic for one of my characters to yell “Eat shit and die, motherfucker!” Aeschylus is full of people telling one another to fuck themselves, fuck their mothers, get fucked, eat shit, get shat on and many other things besides. The problem is that a modern Anglophone audience will hear an American accent if they read that phrase, and not a particularly high social status accent either, probably.

That’s why I’ve used “bollocks” where Joe Abercrombie thinks it’s too “English rugby club”. I think an English rugby club isn’t always a bad thing to evoke when, say, describing posh, all-male environments in Hellenistic Greek cities. I need to lean on my own context a little to convey things like class in a way that’s meaningful to my readers.

The paradox is that fictionalising history always involves analogy to some degree, because it’s inherently about translation. It’s a balancing act and overall it’s about truth more than accuracy. That’s the fiction part of historical fiction.

Abercrombie rightly skewers overly elaborate culture-specific oaths, because they’re so often about trying to avoid swearing while still swearing and that’s inherently risible. Similarly “by the God’s private parts” is something we should deploy carefully in historical fiction, mostly because it’s a cliché and it’s lazy. Also unless you’re dealing with a culture in which there are *no* serious taboos around genitalia and/or disrespecting the gods, it wouldn’t occur to most people to say something like that routinely. If they do, then they are crossing a line. How well they get away with it will tell you something about their social status and/ or competence. I live in quite an atheistic society, but I still don’t reach for “Santa’s ballsack” as a first resort.

The only reason Antony can get away with yelling “Juno’s cunt” where, say, it would grate if Cicero said it is because it says something meaningful about who he is in the context of the world of Rome. There’s character truth in it as well as social shock value.

Antony might be posh but he’s a boor, the kind of guy who’d gate-crash your birthday party, take a wee in your favourite urn and throw up on your couch. But he’s privileged enough to get away with this sort of behaviour more often than not, and he enjoys transgressing because it reminds him of that privilege. He’s got no respect for the mores of polite society, including any religious piety. He’s a misogynist womaniser and a thug and this works for him because ordinary soldiers think his locker room banter is relatable in a way, say, Brutus’ patrician poise is not. He’s a ruthless, scary populist and a genuine threat to Rome and her institutions, and the way he swears sends a message to his political and military opponents. His swearing works towards the world-building of Rome, not against it.

Now go back to the Iliad, to kynops and the problem of bitchface. What is happening, what is being said about the characters of both men, when Achilles calls his king Agamemnon “bitchface” more than once and gets away with it? What does that word say about power and masculinity and abjection in that world and in that tent, and can you really tell the story to a modern audience without it?

As it happens, the “Wolf” of the title of my novel refers to a woman, and it plays on the gendered, ambivalent associations dogs had in Greek literature with loyalty and vicious behaviour. My female protagonist might be a bitch, but if it’s good enough for Helen of Troy it’s good enough for her.

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