Editors and publishers may not have lists but they know a word that they don’t want to see in print when they see it. One dodge employed by writers is to place a sanctionable word within what are usually called scare quotes. If challenged, they will say that they are mentioning the word, or quoting it, or using it ironically. This will sometimes save them from exclusion from polite society though at a price (I will come to that). But some words have always been judged too offensive to be safely contained within scare quotes and they just have to go or - at least - seem to go.
Before the First World War, an important role in novels was played by the dash giving us characters who declared Well, I’ll be d------- which satisfied the guardians of morals and left nothing to the imagination. In his Kim, published in 1901, Rudyard Kipling tried to be a bit more inventive and after decades of dashes inventiveness was sorely needed. Addressing the no-nonsense dowager Maharanee of Saharunpore, Kim declares “Mother, I owe my life to thee…..Ten thousands blessings upon thy house …” only to find his words indignantly rejected by the Maharanee because she wishes to be thanked as by a son not a priest. Kipling gives the rejection thus: “The house be unblessed! (It is impossible to give exactly the old lady’s word)”. The beauty of this is that it is far from certain that damned would have been the exact word. The Maharanee is a feisty character and, one suspects, could swear like a trooper and troopers - well, it is impossible to give exactly their words.
Someone who may or may not have been inventive gave us another dodge in the form of asterisks, carefully counted out. Unfortunately, there is such a paucity of very naughty words that asterisks are rarely more difficult to solve than kindergarten crossword puzzles. I am not sure that any literary journal would allow me examples, even one at the outer limits of complexity like m***********. The failure of asterisks to protect children, let alone adults, generated a new dodge, exemplified by The C-word and The N-word cleverly designed as occult symbols about the meaning of which the uninitiated dare not ask.
Fortunately, some words can safely be accommodated by scare quotes but that comes at a price, especially in relation to irony. A writer can, of course, use a word ironically without resorting to scarce quotes but some readers will not get the irony - a hazard known about for centuries. In the past, it was thought that scare quotes would rescue the writer from the risk of not being understood but, of course, they do so only at the risk of irritating IQ positive readers who will feel patronised. Worse, an unexpected invention has permanently damaged the value of scare quotes.
I refer to the visual realisation of scare quotes as air quotes or bunny-ears quotes. These are so obviously heavy-handed that they can only be handled safely by celebrities and Republican Party politicians: Google offers me images of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Ryan, and Donald Trump. That alone is enough to cast a shadow over regular scare quotes sometimes still used by writers. But I think scare quotes will soon become extinct in serious writing if they are not so already.
Writers are better off taking their chances that an irony will be missed and simply have to give a bit more thought as to how to carry things off. The best approach is to stop thinking about using individual words or short phrases ironically - which is all that Bunny Ears people do. Instead, the writer needs to set up a whole context in which irony can surface and break through into the reader’s understanding. Maybe someone has had that idea before.
Many pressures weigh on what can be expressed and what can’t declare its name. The pressures change through time but always seem to leave us with a morality police of some kind operating over all or part of literary space. In the very recent past, unemployed ex-Sunday school teachers have found new roles as sensitivity readers who are not fooled by scare quotes or contextualisation. Some of them work for literary consultancies - you have been warned. They can point straight at the Word just as once upon a time they pointed at the boy in the front row who had just farted..
Post a Comment