What the f___iddlesticks?

Warning – contains words that some may find offensive (and that’s the point, actually)

Recently I saw a post on Facebook which gave a list of euphemisms sometimes used in the US to avoid using certain swearwords. They struck this Brit as being quaint and amusing (even the term “cuss words”!).


My characters in many of my books are uninhibited when it comes to language. In At the Sharpe End, for example, an ex-Lehman’s employee talks to Sharpe:

“Anyone we can find,” Sharpe’s informant had told him in an almost tearful (and Sharpe guessed at least partially drunken) late-night phone call. “Those bastards at Nomura just want to strip everything and they’re not telling us a thing that’s going on. All we’ve heard is that the trading desks are going to be paid enormous sums of money. Guaranteed. Ha, ha. What about the poor bloody infantry? Fuck you, Nomura.”

“That’ll piss off the Nomura traders,” agreed Sharpe. Foreign trading houses paid notoriously more than the Japanese equivalents, and the only thing that bound most traders to their employers was the size of their pay packets and bonuses.

When my father read the book, he asked me if I couldn’t simply have used “blast” and “darn”. The answer to that one is “no”. People actually talk like that, to quote one review of Leo’s Luck. At least, Brits do.

But the problem came with writing an All-American book – all characters and the setting were USA-based. How would these people talk? Happily, I have several American friends, who “fact-checked” my dialogue/dialog – and so I was able to write exchanges like:

“You asshole!” she screamed at her partner. “You fucking prick! Now he’s going to break my arms, isn’t he?”

“Wrong, sweetheart,” Powers told her.

“You’re going to let me go?” she said hopefully.

“No,” Powers told her, and fired the Colt. Twice, in the head.

The meth head looked on in horror. “You killed her, you mother­fucker. Jesus Christ, she never even saw that coming.”

(from my free full-length novel, Balance of Powers). I saw no need to sanitise my language there. Powers, and those with whom he comes into contact, use such language as part of their daily conversation:

Reichman had introduced Powers to his counterpart in another bank, Charles Sanfion, and they’d gone out to an expensive bar one evening, where they’d sunk the best part of two bottles of Finnish vodka between the three of them while Reichman and Sanfion discussed what seemed to be the finer points of mortgage trading, which sounded more like physical assault than business dealings.

“…rip his fucking face off…”

“…let him have it in the nuts and then go for the jugular…”

“…stamp on the little fucker till he bleeds…”

However, one person who does feel a need to protect his readers from such words, is Doctor Watson, and in his accounts of his friend Sherlock Holmes’ adventures, I make him use such expressions as:

As a doctor, I am sworn to protect the life of others. As a human being, I am obviously anxious to protect my own life. And as a friend of Sherlock Holmes, I was never more determined to protect his well-being than at that moment. I fired my revolver, and the wretch dropped his weapon, clutching at his arm with a sharp cry.

“You ______!”he exclaimed, letting loose an obscenity which I will not repeat here.

(from Notes from the Dispatch-box of John H. Watson M.D.)

We must remember that Watson was a Victorian gentleman, and though he would undoubtedly know these words, and would have heard them used, and might even have used them himself (though not, naturally, in the presence of ladies), he would never have broken the bounds of propriety by writing them down. Nor would he have been so mealy-mouthed and hypocritical, as he would see it, as to use one of the childish alternatives in the list above.

So – horses for courses. If the characters that infest my imagination use language like that under certain circumstances, then sod it, let them swear their fucking heads off. But some characters never would do so, and I’m not going to put words into their mouths just for shock value.