• 161

Using Offensive Language

I need your help. I have a concern about my use of language that might offend certain readers. I'm conscious of the fact that we live in an era in which many people are inclined to villify you over something you say, or write, if it doesn't fit their sense of what's appropriate. Which leads me to pose a question. But first, some context -- I'm writing a trilogy. My main protagonist is a young woman. She's striving to prove herself, in an effort to become a leader. And she's doing it in the most challenging of men's worlds -- 16th century pirates. Her principal detractor, a pirate captain/villain, has taken to referring to her as "the Bitch". It's not a word I actually ever use in public discourse. But it seems appropriate for both the era (16th century) and the nature of the villain. I've contemplated using a different word, such as "Wench", but it doesn't seem to offer up the same sense of feeling/emotion/resentment that my villain would actually have. So here's my question: Is it reasonable/acceptable for me to use the B word in this context? Or should I avoid potentially negative feedback and use a word that doesn't seem as true to my villain's character? I'm male, writing about a female as my main protagonist. So I'm open to a lot of criticism if I make the wrong choice here. I welcome your thoughts.

0 0 0 0 0 0
Replies (57)
  • As you say, Reidr… everything you write will open you up to criticism. Using "Bitch" will do that. "Using an alternate will do it too, only from a different group. You'll lose readers both ways. So, the simple question is: which book do you want to write?

    Also, there's always Find & Replace if you change your mind after the fact.

    0 0 0 0 0 0
    • Good point. Typical readers of pirate-fare aren't likely to have a problem with my using the word. But I'm hoping to pull in an audience of women who might be drawn to the nuances of the challenges and find interest in staying for the active expression of free will in an era of government oppression. I'd like to have them stay through the series.

      0 0 0 0 0 0
    • Sometimes I wonder if I'm living in a different universe. You are writing about 16th century pirates not running HR in a corporate. If anyone finds offence in your writing, then they are not your target audience and, in my opinion, seeking to be offended. Ignore them. Write the book as you see it and feel it. Do not let freedom of speech and creativity be eroded for the sake of trying not to to offend anyone and everyone.

      0 0 0 0 0 0
      • Absolutely right, Helen. Stick to your guns. Sounds like a book I'd read today!

        0 0 0 0 0 0
        • Hi Neal (got your name wrong first time - sorry!)

          Thank you for your encouragement! Now...this may be waaay too much to ask and feel free to refuse, but I would LOVE for a man to read my book. It is a comedy and although it is allegedly women's commercial fiction, I have a feeling that some men would find it very funny, but I would love to know for sure! . It has a male protagonist who has an equally important role as my female protagonist. Would you be interested? I can send you the book blurb if that would help you to decide. (It's set in Essex , which is where I'm from.)

          Let me know.

          0 0 0 0 0 0
          • Have sent you a private message.

            0 0 0 0 0 0
          • Funny you should say that -- I did run HR for a couple of tech companies. I share your thoughts, Neal. That said, I'd love to hear from some objective women.

            0 0 0 0 0 0
            • Are you saying that would be your protagonist’s “name” throughout your story, or just when using the words of the antagonist? I think I’d view those two scenarios differently.

              0 0 0 0 0 0
              • My protagonist has a gender neutral name whch is how I refer to her. Only the antagonists/villains call her "the Bitch"...though not on all occasions.

                0 0 0 0 0 0
                • In that case- and I’m not talking about right or wrong, simply what I as a reader would be comfortable enough to read- I’d be ok with that. I would find it a different matter it you were using the term as the protagonist’s name, as that would suggest an internalised acceptance of the abuse that I’d struggle to read. Best of luck with it!

                  0 0 0 0 0 0
                  • Thanks for taking the time to respond. Much appreciated.

                    0 0 0 0 0 0
                  • If the guy is pirate who would call her that then I don’t see why your readers should be offended. They may not like him but presumably they are not supposed to.

                    0 0 0 0 0 0
                    • Thanks Kate. They're definitely not supposed to like him...except maybe as a delicious villain. :)

                      0 0 0 0 0 0
                      • Hi Reidr,

                        I think it is natural for a villain to behave like a villain and use this word while referring to a woman. He is a bad person. We would expect him to use bad words. It would not offend me to read this.

                        0 0 0 0 0 0
                        • Thanks Alisa. I appreciate the feedback.

                          0 0 0 0 0 0
                        • Hi Reidr,

                           If you don't overdo it, I think it's fine. However, I have a slightly different consideration for not using the term. The word bitch currently abounds in our culture including rap songs on the radio. My daughter watches numerous tv programs where I often hear females call their friends bitches. It just feels too modern a word for a pirate. Although I do realize it was used in the 1600's, I think it would pull me out of the story because I think of rappers when I hear it used. 

                          I understand that wench isn't that derogatory. How about combining the two words, like "that bitchy little wench" or like Rick suggests find or make up a word that your pirate would think as belittling. Just throwing ideas out there for you to think about🙂   

                          0 0 0 0 0 0
                          • I'm so curious about the glimmer-men. I think I want one.

                            0 0 0 0 0 0
                            • Research ahead!!

                              0 0 0 0 0 0
                              • Bit harsh, Neil!

                                ‘arsworm’: “a little diminutive Fellow” 😂 

                                Don't, whatever you do, indulge in a 'thorough-cough'. In polite company or anyway!

                                0 0 0 0 0 0
                              • It wouldn't bother me, but then I am currently watching "Deadwood". That said, the term is a bit ubiquitous (and possibly cliche) so you might see if you can think of something else. In principle, though, if an antagonist behaves/thinks/speaks offensively that is somewhat to be expected.

                                0 0 0 0 0 0
                                • Thanks Bella. Working on it.

                                  0 0 0 0 0 0
                                  • Hi Reidr, I agree it's a tricky one. In relation to 'bitch' in particular I share JulieB's reservations. It's such a commonly used word that it feels too modern even though it isn't. 

                                    I think there's a more general point about writing potentially offensive material or scenes, or simply stuff which readers may give you a hard time over. For me what counts is whether the author subtly lets me know this isn't their own opinion or chosen word. For example, you might show another character wince at the word or refuse to use it even if someone else encourages them to.

                                    Bitch is a word I loathe in everyday life but it doesn't offend me in fiction because it's a reflection of reality. As long as the rest of the story or the language makes me feel the author is aware of its problems or possible problems (I don't expect fiction to be a feminist treatise in disguise), I'm comfortable with it.


                                    0 0 0 0 0 0
                                    • Great point Libby. Thanks.

                                      0 0 0 0 0 0
                                    • Just to add that I think most readers can tell the difference between a character's beliefs and words and the authorial voice. Not all (I've had readers assume I'm an alcoholic as one of my characters is, and another that thought I didn't trust any men because there's a character who doesn't trust men... sigh) but in the main, people can distinguish. Like the others though, bitch does feel quite modern...

                                      0 0 0 0 0 0
                                      • I'm in general agreement with most other posters. You've got to stick to what would be realistic for your characters, living at the time of your story. By all means dilute the frequency -- for example, in the modern day, in some work environments (building sites?), the F word is used perhaps every third or fourth word. This would look tedious in print, but an occasional occurrence woud add authenticity. In my work, set in colonial 1960s, when homosexuality was illegal, police characters use the word "queer" in a matter of fact way, even concluding that "he's not bad for a p***fter." Realistic for the time. Anyone who chooses to take offence is unlikely to form the bulk of my target audience anyway.

                                        0 0 0 0 0 0
                                        • Thanks Eric.

                                          0 0 0 0 0 0
                                        • In my detective novel someone refers to his ex-wife as the Bitch at least 5 times. Yes, it can be offensive, although I doubt if anyone gets that excited over the word, but in this case it highlights that he is a bad guy. In daily speech people use it all the time. Friends say to me: go on Bitch-away and I find it supportive!

                                          0 0 0 0 0 0
                                          • Thanks Georgina. Nice to know I have company.

                                            0 0 0 0 0 0
                                            • It certainly wouldn't offend me in the context, I think you have to be true to your character. Having said that, I like the idea of researching some terms from that era. Wench is a bit too soft for me - where I grew up it's a term of endearment!

                                              0 0 0 0 0 0
                                              • Me too, it's a term used between friends, especially in rural counties in England. 

                                                0 0 0 0 0 0
                                              • Thanks Alyson. I feel the same way about Wench. Been researching other terms of the era. So far, nothing pops out as being better or more descriptive of the villains feelings toward her. I've pondered making up an alternative word. Not easy.

                                                0 0 0 0 0 0
                                                • Hmm, I have reservations too, similar to the ones previously mentioned. I like bitch as a verb but a noun, especially capitalised, is different. I agree that you should be true to your character BUT if you want to attract a female audience you have to tread wisely. An alternative lesser-known (and therefore less weighty) word sounds good as does an inventive new one. 

                                                  In essence though I think I'd have to see an extract to fully feel the impact of the word in the context.

                                                  0 0 0 0 0 0
                                                  • Thanks Sarita. I appreciate your input.

                                                    0 0 0 0 0 0
                                                  • Hi Reidr.  I've never read a book where I have been  offended by the language. In fact I love books which portray real life, not into cozy stuff myself. Both my full length novels have what some would deem bad language in them, mostly in dialogue, because in my experience most people use it. Not always in a negative aggressive way, but they do. Ditto certain scenes which depict violence etc, it depends what the book is about I guess, but my second one (WIP) is about sex workers/exotic dancers, so there is language and violence in that - because it happens in the story. There is tenderness and escapism too. Personally I have read many books with the word bitch used, and have used it myself. It's life. After all we are writing fiction, yes, but a lot of it reflects what happens in the world, either past, present or future. 

                                                    With regards to your book it sounds fantastic and I would love to read it and would not be offended in the slightest. 

                                                    0 0 0 0 0 0
                                                    • Thanks Jane. I'm so glad to have had as much response to the question as I have. I appreciate your taking the time. I'm definitely leaning in a certain direction. 

                                                      0 0 0 0 0 0
                                                    • Interesting post. I like the idea of 'made-up / re-appropriated' words ('Naff' - Porridge, 'Feck' - Father Ted, 'Plonker' - Only Fools).

                                                      I have a character with a nasty sister, and I had him call her 'Bitch', but now, thinking about it, I can see it's wrong for the character/relationship. Does anyone out there have any good 'sibling' expletives. I suppose I'm looking for something brutal that has an element of 'from childhood' about it. I can't use 'Fuck', otherwise something along the lines of Fuck-face would have done.

                                                      In terms of 'historical' expletives, Mark Forsyth has published several humorous books on the origins of language including: 'Snecklifter' (someone who seeks others to buy their drinks), 'Bingo-mort' (female brandy drinker), and 'Thwankin' (which, contrary to what you are thinking, relates to clouds).

                                                      0 0 0 0 0 0
                                                      • Thanks, Andrew.

                                                        0 0 0 0 0 0
                                                        • I guess it depends on the era and character of your siblings. My sister and I used to fight like cat and dog. As we got older and mellowed she continued to use “irritating little shit” as a term of endearment although it generally got abbreviated to “i.l.s.”

                                                          0 0 0 0 0 0
                                                          • Thanks, Kate.

                                                            I will think on 'little' and the context it implies. It's definitely along the right lines.

                                                            0 0 0 0 0 0
                                                          • Thanks Heather. Unfortunately, my research hasn't yet delivered up any old abusive slang that I particularly like, in lieu of bitch. And it's frickin' tough to come up with a good gob-spitter on your own. (See what I mean?) Nor do I have anything to offer you as a 'sibling' face-plant. 

                                                            Geez, where the snollygaster has my imagination gone?

                                                            0 0 0 0 0 0
                                                            • I want to thank everyone for their input. Here are my thoughts, based on your feedback...

                                                              1) It woud be OK to use the B word in the proper context (i.e., from the villain's mouth).

                                                              2) The word might seem too cliche. I remember reading an historical novel that used the word Fuck before it was even a word. That cheapened my impression of the writer and their work. It seemed lazy. More than anything else, this gives me pause in using "bitch". Even though it would be historically current, it may not strike the reader as being realistic for the era. And really, what reader is then going to research it to see whether it was in fact in then-current use. They might just think I was lazy.

                                                              3) There are alternatives, though none seem as true to the feelings/resentment with which the word is delivered.

                                                              4) Making up a suitable alternative is difficult. 

                                                              5) My current five best alternatives, on which I welcome your feedback:

                                                              i. Witch (For context, the villain is convinced my protagonist slept with her commander to obtain the role of captain. In other words, she bewitched him. So it fits in that sense.)

                                                              ii. Wanker (A contemptible person. Problem - it lacks an anti-female element. Yet it contains within it a male connotation that might be fitting, given my female protaganist initially presents as male)

                                                              iii. Drek (Trash. Short, to-the-point, 4-letter word. But again, lacking a specific anti-female element)

                                                              iv. Vrack (Totally fictitious)

                                                              Thoughts?

                                                              0 0 0 0 0 0
                                                              • Thanks Julie. It's funny to hear you say "whatever you choose, own it". I'm fond of telling people: "Whoever you are, own it". Thanks for reminding me!

                                                                0 0 0 0 0 0
                                                                • I like witch, it has an easily thrown out feel to it and even today people use it as a mild insult but it's not TOO modern, I'd say. 

                                                                  Drek is also fine - I don't know it but the sound fits the sentiments. Vrack makes me think of the ice cream Magnum Frac.

                                                                  Slattern is also nice, but it depends on if it scans right when it's used - a single syllable word can carry more of a force if it's spat out.

                                                                  0 0 0 0 0 0
                                                                  • Thanks again. I really appreciate your taking the time. Good thoughts.

                                                                    0 0 0 0 0 0
                                                                  • Slattern -- if its not too obscure. First usage 1639. To my ear it has the period feel and sounds insulting (which it is = having its proximity to slovenly and slut). And, as historically the easiest way to damage any woman's standing was to call her promiscuous, it seems to fit the intentions of the antagonist.

                                                                    0 0 0 0 0 0
                                                                    • Interesting. Thanks.

                                                                      0 0 0 0 0 0
                                                                    • Your question isn't really about using offensive language, it's about using language offensively.  Do you want he who insults to do so with humour?  What do you mean by "detractor"?  What will eventually be the nature of the relationship between your heroine and her detractor.  Don't you think whether he calls her Bitch or not is a useful tool in adjusting your reader's perceptions?

                                                                      You're quite right, if your feminine readers read that they might turn on you rather than think of your character as a despicable villain.  Is he?  Will he be later or will she charm him in the end?  

                                                                      If it was me I'd write The Bitch in red coloured font, finish the story and then decide if The Bitch was the right choice.  If it was, change it to black, if it wasn't, just change it.  I find the characters develop as the story goes and you know them a lot better by the end than you did to start with.

                                                                      I've been on this site five minutes and your thread is the first thing I've read.  I'm going to hit Post now and see what happens!

                                                                      0 0 0 0 0 0
                                                                      • Thanks Alison. Good input. And if this is your first ever visit to the site, then: Welcome. Lots of great discourse and sharing on JW.

                                                                        0 0 0 0 0 0
                                                                        Not logged in users can't 'Comments Post'.
                                                                        •  · 2 friends
                                                                        22
                                                                        1
                                                                        1
                                                                        1
                                                                        1