Monday Motivation: The authenticity of filthy language

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

Are you offended by the ripe language that so many modern novels seem to relish? By their apparently gratuitous use of the f-word and the c-word, to mention just the two most egregious examples of curse words that I don’t think ever passed my mother’s lips?

I’ve been thinking about this subject since I read that book on Latin I mentioned a few weeks ago.* I noted then a comment that the writer, Prof Nicola Gardini, made, and I’d like to share my thoughts on the subject with you now.

But first let’s consider again the poet Catullus. He was the author, I mentioned in that earlier piece, of a number of the most obscene and scatological poems not only in Latin but in any language – and for that reason was politely ignored, or roundly condemned, for centuries by scholars offended by his use of profanity and obscenity.

A gorgeous example of the indignation Catullus inspired in right-thinking gentlemen is contained in a complaint in the 1960s or so by a man called Norman Taylor to the president of Purdue University in Indiana. He’d just bought a copy of Catullus’ verse (prescribed for study at Purdue) and was horrified by what he read. Tucked in amongst the glories of the poet’s art, were these… excrescences, these vulgar, awful poems which offended him so deeply that he could hardly wait to pen his letter not only to the head of the university, but to the very governor of Indiana.

“This book,” he expostulated, “was named Carmina of Catullus (the songs of Catullus). I think it is one of the most FILTHY books I have ever had the misfortune to see…”

He attached to his letters to the president and the governor copies of the volume in question. (Interesting that he bought two copies, wouldn’t you say?)

The Governor of Indiana, a certain Gov Branigin, was outraged, and wrote by return of post that “Better such tripe died untranslated than exposed to students who had a thousand times better read of virtue and valor. I join you in your condemnation”.

I can’t pretend to understand Catullus in the original Latin – although out of interest I have read some of his work out loud – but I have read a number of translations. And Taylor has a point: the filthy poems really are gloriously scatological, bursting with the most vulgar images, hurling the ripest insults at their targets.

Now here’s the observation Gardini makes:

“… (C)urse words have nothing at all to do with grammar books; curse words are true by their very nature – they’re authoritative, they’re authentic. No one can curse on another’s behalf.”

Curse words – the new vernacular that would have shocked at least some fraction of previous generations – are, he says, authoritative and authentic. They emerge as the true expression of deep feeling.

Now I know that some of you are probably repulsed by the curse words that feature, sometimes prominently, often repetitively, in modern novels. But consider: this is the way that many people speak and, if Gardini’s right, (and I suspect he is) the use of curse words accompanies the expression of true and authentic feeling.

And that’s something writers treasure.

Happy writing,


* Long Live Latin by Nicola Gardini.

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