Across the fucking pond

One of my favourite pastimes is going on Facebook and asking one of my editors’ groups about how they use a particular swear word or phrase. (Look, I don’t get out much.) The group is very international, and I often need that perspective, particularly when I’m editing in a variety of English that isn’t my own. I admit, it’s not the most scientific way of finding out about language use, but it is the most fun.

And it’s a lot easier to mess it up than you’d think. An f-bomb’s an f-bomb, right? Ha ha ha no. Swearing is like any other kind of language – it varies across eras, places, and social groups. And an editor’s job is to make sure the language being used is appropriate for the readership and, in fiction, for the characters. Swearing is used for emphasis, often to highlight a moment of significant emotion. That means that authenticity is important. The reader needs to believe in that moment, and inaccurate word usage can pull them right out of it.

Here are some things I have learned about transatlantic swearing differences from my lovely colleagues. (A disclaimer: I’m no linguist, and as I’ve mentioned this is not a very rigorous method of research. All the below are just what the general consensus seems to be on questions I’ve asked or read, not definitive statements. I’ve learned that whenever anyone asserts that people in the UK/US always/never say a thing, they’re almost certainly wrong.)

  • You can be “fucked” in a variety of ways in the US – you can be in trouble, injured or broken, or engaging in sexual intercourse – but you cannot usually be drunk, as you can over here. If you want alcohol to fuck you in some way, you’ll have to get “fucked up”, which is used less for drunk in the UK, probably because we have so many other words for it.
  • “Pissed” is one of those – but if you get pissed in the US, you get angry, not drunk.
  • You can, however, get “shitfaced” on both sides of the pond.
  • “Shitholes” are universal, but “shit-tips” are British. Some terribly dirty-minded US people would have a quite different definition of a shit-tip.
  • “Shite” looks like a spelling error to many in the US, but it’s a real word, and a good one.
  • Placement of the word “fucking” as an intensifier in a sentence seems to depend more on context and personal preference than location. Although Bostonians are perhaps more inclined to put “fucking” at the start of an imperative sentence than others in the US, and they might well put one in the middle and one near the end too.
  • “Fuck all” is listed in some dictionaries as British, but it’s not unheard of in the US.
  • In the UK we use “shit” and “crap” as adjectives, whereas in the US it’s more likely to be “shitty” and “crappy”. Editors might want to change a flat-adverb “shitty” to “shittily”, but a good one won’t, because who really says “shittily”?

If I’m wrong about any of those, then do tell me! And tell me of any other differences you know of, either in the comments or on Twitter, @kiathomasedits. If you’re interested in reading posts by people who do this kind of research properly rather than by titting about on Facebook, check out separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com, stronglang.wordpress.com and notoneoffbritishisms.com.

 

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