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Here is a speech (originally given at a science-fiction convention, in 1969) by Joanna Russ, transcribed from Luna Prime #8 (editor: Franklin M. Dietz Jr.), that hasn't been collected or reprinted, as far as I know, since that zine was published in 1970.

I bought the zine off eBay a couple of weeks back. It arrived yesterday, so I typed up the essay last night, and gave it another look through for typos and transcription errors today with rested eyes, and am now uploading it to share with you all. (The zine also contains a speech by Anne McCaffrey, and others by Jack Williamson and Donald A. Wollheim, but it's the Russ one I bought it for.)

I hope the estate of Morris Bishop doesn't mind: Russ included a whole poem of his with permission then, so I'm reproducing it as well.

NOTE: I've e-mailed the community mod about turning anonymous commenting back on -- I'm sorry if anyone's been trying to leave comments to this entry but hasn't been able to. Also, if you need to view the entry in a simpler journal style, you can click on either one of these links:

If you need to contact me, you can do so here:


Dirty Wordies,
or, The Fiendish Thingie

A Speech* by Joanna Russ

* Presented at the Philadelphia Science Fiction Conference on Friday evening, November 14, 1969

Ladies and gentlemen, members of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, majors, minors -- in short, everybody -- thank you very much for being here and thank you for inviting me to speak. My coming to the Philcon is already a tradition (with me, anyway, if not with anybody else) and it's one that I'm very glad of. I meet really lovely people and I get to talk about science fiction (which I really can't do during the year) and when I make jokes, people actually laugh, and you don't know how nice that is. But there is one drawback. After you accept an invitation to speak, and think with great joy of someone else paying the plane fare (in this case Cornell University) and think of all the people you'll meet, and the friends, and the parties, and the drinks, and the fact that there are so many people who really like science fiction -- you can practically get maudlin about it -- there comes that one chilling thought: to speak, I must have something to speak about. And I'm afraid that today I'm going to speak about something rather serious.

I don't want to. Let me get that clear. Cornell is a very serious place. No description of mine can possibly do justice to the earnestness displayed by today's students, their concern with moral imperatives and social problems, their hatred of hypocrisy, their insistence that everything taught in a college community, in fact everything you do, be motivated not by petty and personal goals but by the great communal goals of peace, brotherhood, and the moral transformation of life. Or to put it briefly, the place is becoming absolutely unlivable. Well, I wanted to escape. Now nobody feels more than I do the wickedness of doing something merely because you feel like it, but I thought that for once in a way it would be all right, like a kind of vacation. So what I was planning to do was talk about horror stories. Horror stories were a very early love of mine and I never really got over them. I can still remember the look on Damon Knight's face many years ago when I told him that not only had I read At the Mountains of Madness, but I had actually enjoyed it.

As I say, this is what I was going to talk about. But if you're going to talk about something, you do have to say something about it, and except for burbling enthusiastically, I don't have that much to say about horror stories. Of course, I could read one to you -- say, I could read At the Mountains of Madness to you -- from beginning to end -- and I might enjoy it. But I don't think that would work out.

So I dropped horror stories and was looking around for another subject. Just by chance I happened to pick up a book of light verse and lo! there was a poem. I read the poem (this one, here) and knew that my subject, alas, had chosen me. It is serious and I'm sorry. Here's the poem:

     by Morris Bishop

I remember when I was a boy
The books that I used to enjoy
Were likely as not to employ
     A phrase I remember as queer.
For instance: "Then Chimmie the Rat
Turned on his captor and spat
A stream of profanity that
     Is unprintable here."

Or: "The buses collided and both
Drivers emitted an oath
Unprintable!" or perhaps, "Quoth
     The mule-skinner, urging his mules:
'Giddap, you unprintable jacks!
Or I'll land some unprintable whacks
Upon your unprintable backs,
     You unprintable fools!"

I think we may fairly conclude
That blasphemous language and lewd
Would over and over intrude
     In the idiom spoken by men.
And I think my examples will teach
That as far as our memories reach
The speakable phrases of speech
     Were unprintable then.

But custom has changed with a rush;
I open a book and I blush;
I close it again, crying "Hush!"
     No reading aloud I allow.
I halt, when I see with dismay
The words that I never could say.
The printable words of today
     Are unspeakable now.

--Reprinted, with permission, from
A Bowl of Bishop by Morris Bishop
(Dial Press, 1954)               

So. Now you know why this speech is entitled "Dirty Wordies, or, The Fiendish Thingie."

I'm going to talk about dirty words -- that is, tabooed words -- I'm going to defend them (with some reservations) and I am going to use them, although I will try not to go out of my way to do so. I do not want to shock anybody, though I suspect most of you are a lot less shockable than I am -- and if I talked about what are commonly called obscene words and was very careful not to use any, I would be putting myself in the ridiculous position of advocating a certain kind of freedom and then running away from it at full speed.

One thing I'd like to make clear before going on is that I'm talking about words -- tabooed words -- not sexuality as such or violence as such or pornography as such. You can write pornography without using a single dirty word: Fanny Hill, for example. When I say "obscene" I mean the original meaning of the word "obscene" -- ob scena -- off-stage -- that is, things which must not be shown. In modern use obscene words are what Morris Bishop called "unspeakable" in the poem -- words which must not be spoken or written though everybody knows what they mean (or every adult, anyway, presumably knows them). Dirty words, four-letter words, "Anglo-Saxon words" and so on. By the way, I cannot find out whether they are really Anglo-Saxon or not -- I tried looking them up in the Oxford English Dictionary, but the OED took the chaste position that such things don't exist, so although I found all sorts of words that I didn't know existed, like "Euryale" or "clowder," I couldn't find "fuck". So the Anglo-Saxon derivation may just be folklore. If anybody knows for sure, I'd like to hear about it.

Now, there are three ways to use dirty words; one of which I think nobody could possibly attack, one of which I think nobody could possibly defend, and one which is the one really in question today. Let me get the first two out of the way. The three tend to get mixed up, with very bad misunderstandings that lead to people shouting at each other and having very satisfying battles but this is more heat than light and I want the light, not the heat.

The first way of using tabooed words is one I don't think anybody would object to -- what you might call Information. I mean things like reportage, sociology, etymology, dictionaries of slang, and (to a degree) realism in literature. If a foreigner to this country asked me to name a four-letter word and I answered "One of our four-letter words is ----" you could not, I think, object to that and say "OOO you said a dirty word." In the same way, when the use of tabooed words is necessary to the characterization of a particular character in a particular story, I don't think anybody could object in principle. You might find it distasteful in practice and say something like: well, why can't the author find a substitute? but still the principle would stand. In fact, sometimes there is no substitute. For example, I once heard two bums in a New York subway having a conversation in which every other word was Fuck or Fucking This or Fucking That or What the Fuck. The only way to convey the incredible mindlessness of that conversation, as well as its dreary malice and the kind of anesthetic effect such repetition has is to quote verbatim. Similarly, when you want somebody to be genuinely shocked in a story, you have to give him something to be genuinely shocked at, something that particular person, at that time, would be shocked at. And you can't just say "unprintable." I think it was James Jones who tried to invent a substitute for "fuck" in a novel he published afte World War II, so he made up the word "frigging" (which was not actually a real word at all.) This has had the strange effect of making "frigging" -- to many people, including me -- a much worse word than the real one. But all this comes under the heading of realism, or realism in characterization. It's the character who uses the word, not the author, or it's the author speaking in first person as a character. If this were all that modern writers did, I don't think Morris Bishop would have written that poem. Most writers are not bums and most of them don't write about people for whom characterization by use of obscenities is absolutely essential. Mind you, when authors use obscene words in this way, the words remain obscene -- they keep on being tabooed words -- and very, very seldom do they become the author's language, the argot of a whole book.

Of course, I do realize that realism, as I've been trying to describe it, does imperceptibly grade into something else, and that you can hardly ever say of a particular word in a particular story: that is absolutely necessary. What annoys people, I think, is when authors go beyond what they, the readers, consider absolutely necessary. That isn't realism but something else. This something else is the second way of using tabooed words and it seems to me to be the one that nobody can defend. It's a little game we play all over this country and it's called More-liberated-than-thou.

At cornell I meet an awful lot of this. We have weekly poetry readings there, for students, and every second week or so, some student is sure to get up, settle himself in an attitude of intense, daring hostility, and read a poem that begins like this:

Fuck you, America!

Whereupon the audience, whose brains have already been reduced to oatmeal by all the bad poetry they have had to listen to before, get a glazed look in their eyes, and you can almost see them thinking: oh, no. Not again. But of course we do get it again. And again. And again. And if if you protest, you are immediately told that you're the kind that would have banned Ulysses. I even met and English major once -- a senior girl -- who told me in all seriousness that all literary masterpieces were shocking when they first came out. Sure -- Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, Racine, Moliere. I could go on with a list as long as my arm of great writers whose works were not shocking when they were first written -- in fact, I did, I named them for her, but she wasn't impressed. Among those who fancy being avant-garde in the arts, if you can't manage what they call "social relevance," well, in a pinch, you can always throw in a few tabooed words and give yourself the air of being very daring and original.

Now part of the reason I detest this kind of exhibition is that it is an exhibition -- the writer is showing off and the whole business about being so daring and bold is a fake. The writer is trying to show you how earthy and virile and bold he is -- what somebody once called the false-hair-the-chest school of writing. Second, people who write like this are doing it in order to shock -- and to my mind that is just as immoral as writing to please. For example, I do not write to please (I can see some of you who have read my work nodding very emphatically at this point). Or, let's say, to flatter the reader, to make things easy for him, to cozy up to him with the attitude of I'm-only-doing-it-so-you'll-pay-for-it-you-know. I don't write to be obscure, either, though sometimes I find that I have to be. I don't like it when that happens. I and I certainly don't write to shock you or disgust you -- that is, to hurt you -- nor do I write to show off how dashing and liberated I am. I am a very conservative writer and a very conservative person. I write to tell the truth. I may not always manage it, but I do try. And it seems to me that this attitude -- writing to tell the truth -- is the only possible honest attitude for a writer, whether he's writing profound tragedy or light comedy, whether he's writing frivolously or seriously. Somebody who does not respect his reader, somebody who hates him, somebody who says Boy, am I going to impress you; Wow, am I going to shock you; Wow, will you be sorry you picked up this book, you stupid, old, middle-class blockhead -- somebody like that is hopelessly corrupt. He has turned aside from the real business of writing to indulge his rage or his vanity and that is sheer self-indulgence, just as bad as any other kind of self-indulgence. The business of writing is not to shock people, or to preach to them, or to call them names. This may happen to some readers but it's purely accidental. There is a fashionable idea around today -- maybe I should not call it an idea, for I hardly think it attains to the complexity of real thinking -- there is this confused notion, then, that anger is somehow sacred, rage is holy, and you are justified in doing anything you please as long as you are angry enough -- and angry at the right targets, that is, at the currently fashionable targets. I do not agree. Being shocked is not in itself a good thing for people; on the contrary, it is a distinctly unpleasant experience, and the writer who shocks you on the grounds that it's good for people to be shocked is like the writer who hits you over the head with a brick on the grounds that it's good for people to be hit on the head now and then, and anyhow, he enjoys it.

By the way, people who use dirty words this way -- as missiles, hand grenades, deadly weapons -- are following a very conventional taboo themselves. They are not nearly as daring as they think. The conventional taboo I mean is that you cannot show two people making love happily and voluntarily but you can show (in whatever gory or fantastic detail you like) the process of one of them murdering the other.

But I'm getting a little off the subject. To get back: there's an even worse objection to the Fuck You school of literature -- it gives writers a way of being sensational without actually having to write anything. It's nothing but a modern variation on the good, old Rabbit-out-the-the-Hat phenomenon: the Unearned Thrill. That is, a writer doesn't have to work, he doesn't have to create anything; all you do is pull this rabbit out of this hat and everybody says: Wow, gee, look at that, isn't that something! In the 1890's the Rabbit Out of the Hat on the English stage was ADULTERY. Some lady in an English or French play would finally, in the last act but one, put on a big display of hysteria and finally come out with the dreadful secret: Alas, he is my LOVER, and the audience would gasp: Wow, gee, isn't that something! In the 1920's Noel Coward wrote a very curious play called Vortex, which ends when the hero finally lets it be known that -- gasp! sob! -- I am a DOPE ADDICT, and again the audience apparently responded: Wow, gee, isn't that something! The play looks very curious nowadays because we more or less accept narcotics addiction as fact but it's no longer so -- well, so transcendental, so the speak -- and a modern reader feels the play is just not finished. In fact, the play ends where a modern play would begin. This is because the rabbit is no longer startling all by itself, and that is the trouble with these rabbits -- they go out of date. In the 1950's the Rabbit was homosexuality -- I'm thinking, say, of Tea and Sympathy -- and again, the very mention of the subject was supposed to be enough to give you a deep, profound, and moving emotional experience, which is idiotic. And of course if there's a rabbit wandering around the theatre now it's a Racial Rabbit. Race is the subject which the author only has to mention and does not have to actually treat or describe.

The trouble with tabooed words is that they, too, are rabbits pulled out of hats -- all a writer has to do is push a very, very simple button and his readers will do all the work. The sensation is completely unearned and this offends me. There are very few ways in which a writer can really make the adrenalin race through your bloodstream. But with those Dirty Fiendish Wordies he can do it in no time flat, and without any work. And get reviewed as daring, frank, candid, with-it, young, telling it like it is, nitty-gritty, and the rest of that whole dreary catalogue. Notice -- a writer who uses tabooed words to show off or to shock is not breaking down the taboo; he is maintaining it. After all, he depends on it. How can he be shocking unless there's a taboo? How can he be dashingly modern unless there's a taboo?

As you may have guessed by now, I don't like the taboo. I want to break it down. I want to be able to use dirty wordies without shocking anybody. I want to write about the subjects they refer to without shocking anybody. And if there's nothing else, losing the taboo completely would have one great advantage: I would no longer have to listen to student poetry that begins -- well, you know how it begins.

So I want to break down the taboo. I want it to vanish. There are things the taboo keeps me from doing as a writer and that makes me mad. There is, in fact, a dead place in the English language left by these tabooed words, and when you try to write about material located in this place, you run into great difficulties. But why? somebdoy might say. Surely there are euphemisms (lots of them) but there are no synonyms. It's not as if there were two ways of saying things: the polite way and the impolite way, and that both have the same connotations, or the same force, or the same exact meaning. This really is not true. To take an example -- and again I'm sorry, but I'll try to stick to one dirty wordie so the shock will sort of wear off -- take the word "fuck." Surely (you say) surely there are synonyms and to spare. People can be said to make love, they go to bed with each other, they sleep with each other, they mate, they 'make it' together, they have sexual intercourse, they copulate, they are in sexual congress -- that's all I can remember but there must be dozens more, and if you go back a couple of centuries, many we don't use any more. With all these words, why should I get stuck on one syllable? Pick one of the permissible ones and let the tabooed ones go, who cares? Well, I do. And I'll try to tell you why. An example: a student in one of my classes wrote a very lovely poem in which he used the tabooed word -- not an obscene poem or an exhibitionistic poem, or a poem meant to shock, not anything of the sort. It was a poem about the briefness of human life, a classic subject. He said something like: here we are at Cornell, students come and go, everybody's so busy and everything goes by so fast -- birds, dogs, people -- in the end only the buildings and the ivy remain the same. They endure while everything else is transient and vanishes. OK. One of the images he used was that of sparrows in the Cornell ivy -- like those of other old, ivy-covered buildings, our walls are covered with birds' nests -- and he wanted to compare the generations of human beings to the swiftness of the lives of these little birds: here today, gone tomorrow, and so on. So he wrote: "Generations of sparrows _____________ under the eaves." (I've left a space there.) Let's take a look at all the synonyms for the forbidden friendish thingie. "Generations of sparrows make love under the eaves." This is silly. It's obviously a euphemism and worse still, it's too poetic and too human; people "make love" but sparrows don't have the emotions to "make love" -- listen, "Make love," to create love, a very beautiful metaphor and far too good for the hack-work we make it do. So that's out. To say sparrows "sleep together" -- well, of course they sleep together, but that isn't what we mean. Again, it's a metaphor and it loses its sexual connotations entirely when you use it here. "Go to bed together?" Furniture? Chairs and tables in the ivy? Obviously not! Sparrows "making it" under the eaves? Much too flip, too slangy; it ruins the sad, elegiac feeling he's trying to get. OK, sparrows "have sexual intercourse under the eaves" -- I hope you can hear, as I do, how awkward that language is, and again how it sounds wrong in tone. And as for "sexual congress," forget it -- it sounds like Chaucer's Parlement of Fowles.

Two are left now. "Generations of sparrows copulate under the eaves" or "Generations of sparrows mate under the eaves." I think sparrows are too little to "copulate" -- I mean that for a tiny, quick, fast living, fluttery, feathery sort of creature, "copulate" is much too massive a word. Elephants copulate. Whales copulate. But sparrows? The word is bigger than the act and takes longer. And "mate" -- now there's a good word, "mate" -- one syllable which fits in with the rhythm of the line, an exact meaning -- but is it? "Mate" means to match up or pair off; an animal's "mate" is something like a human spouse, and it is most unfortunate (for the poem, I mean) that sparrows do not mate. They are promiscuous. Pigeons mate. Pigeons pair off, but sparrows do not. Maybe at this point we ought to change "sparrows" to pigeons, but again, pigeons are bigger birds than sparrows. Not only that, but they are slower, they live more slowly, they court each other for a rather long time, and their mating introduces the idea of pairing off, of fidelity, of families even, and takes away all that brief, hectic, busy-ness, which is what the student wants in his poem. What he actually wrote was, of course, "Generations of sparrows fuck under the eaves" which is very short, and sparrowy, and plain. And very good, I think.

The point I'm trying to make is that our equivalents for four-letter words are of two kinds: either they are metaphors, in which case they bring in all sorts of other ideas, or they are polysyllabic and clinical. You can say that two people slept together, for example, but this is a metaphor -- once again, a very pretty one -- it's a little picture: heads on the pillows, an arm flung out into the dark, the innocence of sleeping faces, the sound of quiet breathing, somebody turning restlessly in his sleep. And so on. You can't keep out the connotaions, just as you can't keep the human connotations out of "make love." It would be an exceptional sparrow who could make love. Even "sexual intercourse" is a metaphor -- there is commercial intercourse, financial intercourse, social intercourse -- and the word "intercourse" itself dissolves into a metaphor if you look at it carefully. ("Course" = street, way, concourse. "Inter" = between. Sounds like the swapping of material that goes on inside an amoeba.) And the slangy equivalents, like "make out" are not only vague; they carry their slanginess with them. On the other hand, the exact words (like "copulation") are Latinate, polysyllabic, and to me they smell of the textbook and the hospital. They are cold words. They are unkind and antiseptic words.

There is, therefore, no way of talking about the things and experiences described by the tabooed words without being poetic, euphemistic, or clinical. There is not way of being plain. There are no neutral synonyms for these words. And that's a very great loss to a writer and (I suspect) to everybody. If I want to say that I brushed my teeth or put on my hat, or I want to refer to my left foot or my ear or the floor, and I have a neutral way of saying it. "Hat" is not a loaded word. "Onomatopoeia" is not a loaded word. A word that describes an emotional state is not in itself loaded, like "horror" although the emotional state certainly is. Words that impy judgments of value, like "criminal" or "saint" or "traitor to his class" are not loaded as words -- that is, they are not taboo. It's the referents themselves that provoke emotions, not the words alone. Also, there are equivalents, e.g. "He murdered him" or "He shot him" or "He encased his feet in concrete and threw him in the Hudson." This isn't true of dirty wordies. To put it briefly, there are areas of our lives which we cannot talk about plainly and neutrally, and I don't like that. The Latinate polysyllables can be used, but they impose a kind of clinical disinfectant on what should be much simpler and much more ordinary and human.

I feel this lack in English very much sometimes -- and I get hopelessly envious when I read a poet like Chaucer. He could say anything, all the way from the most ideally poetic to the blunt to the plain to the vulgar to the sordid. But he does not make things sordid by using forbidden words; he makes them sordid by creating them as sordid things. True, he does shade his language appropriately to the events, but there is no breaking of a taboo involved. I envy him very much. Virginia Woolf has said that reading Chaucer is an odd experience because he uses the whole of the English language, and that when a modern writer tries to do this, he finds that some words have gone rusty from disuse and if you touch them, like keys on a piano, you don't get the proper musical note but a kind of discordant shriek. I would like to see all the notes back on the piano. One of the most annoying things in the world is the way dirty words can distract people from anything else -- when a reader gets shocked at a dirty wordie, he stops paying attention to the plot, to the characters, to the mood, to the theme, to everything. The dirty word is a little bomb that explodes and scatters the work of art in all directions. (Hence, "Fiendish Thingie" from the Beatles' movie, Help!) Here I am trying to show you something tragic, or something comic, or joyful, or beautiful, and all I get is: a Thingie! a Fiendish Thingie! Ugh! Ptoo! Help! Take it away!

The whole effort of literary art is to make things speakable. Nothing should be unspeakable or unnameable. That's what language is for -- to name things. There's a Harvard Lampoon pardoy of Lord of the Rings out now, called Bored of the Rings, in which Saruman is called "The Nameless No-No," which is very funny and very apt. But I don't like nameless no-nos. I'm a writer. I name things. Of course the function of a taboo is not merely to indicate that there are proper and improper ways of speaking -- you can do that without a taboo -- but to make the things described by the tabooed words literally unspeakable, and through that, unthinkable. (People always do think of them, of course, but their thinking can be distorted or dulled or made very difficult.) Let me go over that again. There are all sorts of improprieties in speech, in language, that are not taboos -- a way of speaking that is proper to a child is demeaning or inappropriate to an adult, for instance. If I went on a radio program and started using baby-talk, people would be very surprised, and probably think I had lost my mind. Or the informality of slang is inappropriate to a formal speech. These are not forbidden words per se. In Shaw's play, Getting Married, there is a character who is told to address a cleric as "father" so when the poor man comes in, she says "Hello, Dad!" This is not a tabooed word. But the Victorian lady who spoke of "limbs" rather than "legs" was obeying a word-taboo. I saw a movie once called Creation of the Humanoids in which robots spoke of a central computer as the Father-Mother. This puzzled me, until I realized that they were calling the computer the Father-Mother to avoid calling it the Mother-Father. That's a purely verbal taboo.

I don't want to get into the position here of saying we ought to do away with all taboos because that would be silly. We obviously do need taboos on actions -- for example, the taboo about coming up here and beating me to death simply because you do not like my speech is a very, very good taboo. Very useful. But the taboos on what we call dirty words seem to me to have outlived their usefulness, certainly for people like ourselves who are involved in reading and writing books. And of course the whole area of sex is in the process of great change -- as Tom would say, from being taboo to being noa (that is, everyday, ordinary, commonplace, secular.) Why I don't know, of course. It's an area I write about a great deal. Again, I don't know why. Of course sex does interest everybody, of obvious reasons, but the reasons for writing about it seriously are something else again.

I think maybe for a woman it's a matter of self-definiton, a matter of identity (excuse me for using that cliche, but that's the closest I can get to describing what I mean). A woman's identity -- even now -- is more a sexual identity than a man's, less a professional or vocational identity, less a political or class identity. I remember a college friend of mine saying very bitterly once, "Men have all sorts of jobs but women have only one job." That's certainly less true than it used to be, but it's still partly true for all women and absolutely true for most. Also, female sexuality has hardly begun to appear in literature, and this may be more important as a reason why women (or me, anyway) want to write about sex. We know now (and if we don't, we never will) how men see women. Men have painted women, men have described women, men have written poems about women, and poems to women, for centuries. For example, the world is full of men's descriptions of beautiful women. But where are women's descriptions of themselves, of what it is to be a woman, or what it is to be the mother of a son, of a daughter, to be pretty, to be plain, to be old, to be desired, to desire someone else? Men's opinions about women would fill this whole hotel, if you wrote them out, but women's opinions of men hardly exist. And women's opinions of themselves hardly exist. And that's one reason I write about sex.

By the way, men and women have very different attitudes toward dirty words. The false-hair-on-the-chest school is (as you would expect) exclusively male. After all, profanity or obscenity was always supposed to be virile. Women didn't use such language at all -- if they were respectable -- and if they heard it, they weren't supposed to know what it meant. Or if they did, they were supposed to be embarrassed. So women have never been able to show off with bad language in the same way men have. Whether this will change, I don't know. But I've noticed something very interesting wih the students at Cornell: of the ones who make a point of using dirty words, it is always the men who use them to shock, or to hurt. I don't mean all the men do this, but students who write angry poems about Fuck You, America, are always men. These are people for whom the taboo still holds. The women don't do that. Either they don't use the language at all or they use it very matter-of-factly or bluntly -- noa again, secular. Why I don't know. I think there's a certain amount of contempt involved, maybe revenge for the double standard, something like: hm! so this is the dangerous, secret, tabooed magic I'm not supposed to know about. Well, buster, it ain't much. Maybe for a woman to use the tabooed language at all takes the magic out of it because it depends on being an exclusively male language. I've noticed, again at Cornell, that nothing can embarrass an audience of older men quite so much as a woman who talks dispassionately and coldly about sex. This also seems to go against the double standard in such matters. If she's cute, if she's coy, if she's charming, it's all right; but if she's plain and explicit, if she's in earnest, if she doesn't seem to care what the audience thinks of her, a lot of men get very uncomfortable. And if she uses dirty wordies in this way, they get even more uncomfortable.

So, back to taboo and noa. Somebody once said here last year that if you make a tabooed area of life noa, then the taboo will just pop up again somewhere else -- that is, something is always taboo, but what it is varies. But there is always some part of life that becomes unspeakable, unthinkable, shocking and so on. Mind you, I don't want to talk just about forbidden actions -- taboo doesn't just mean forbidden, that you mustn't do it. There are plenty of things we know we aren't supposed to do which we talk about zestfully all the same -- things like driving a car on the wrong side of the road or not giving up smoking or so on -- these are rules without much profound emotion attached to them. And there are things, also, that have profound emotions attached to them but are not unspeakable and unthinkable -- like murder.

Taboo means more than just: you mustn't. A tabooed thing is horrible in a special way; it's appalling, it's shocking, it seems to shake you up to your roots. There's this peculiar sense of horror at the idea of even breaking the taboo.

What is a taboo, really? Is it a magical way of controlling actions? Certainly the taboo on talking plainly about something makes it difficult to think plainly about it, and hence very difficult to do it. Or is it the other way around? Do people need there to be a tabooed area? Does the feeling come first and people arbitrarily choose some area in their lives to match the feeling?

Suppose sex stops being a tabooed area -- what will replace it? Will anything replace it? These are grand questions for science fiction writers. Last year at the Philcon we had two panels: one on sex and one on aggression. Now you'd think that sex -- being a tabooed area -- would stir up embarassment, unpleasantness, anxiety, and so on, but that didn't happen. We finished the panel on sex in a glow of fellowship, delighted that we were all so lusty and earthy and so on. It was really very jolly. But the panel on aggression -- ay-ay-ay! People were ready to punch each others' heads.

Is aggression going to be the next tabooed area, and will we come up with such a strong prohibition against it that even the very words to describe it will be outlawed? Will "kill" become a dirty word? Some people even now are trying to insist that it is. If "kill" does become a dirty word, I will have to make a speech defending my right to use it, the same speech (in fact) because the arguments against a verbal taboo are always the same.

This whole area, it seems to me, is one in which science fiction can do much more than it has. What will be shocking in the future? What will take on magical horribleness? Theodore Sturgeon has done some things like this -- usually, I think, with taboos that resemble our sex-and-excretion taboos, but most of the other examples in the field are somewhat mechanical.

There's one exception. In 1984 George Orwell showed brilliantly the process by which whole areas of thought and experience become taboo. The rulers of that awful world even explained how they were going to do it -- make something unspeakable, and eventually you will make it unthinkable. Do you remember Badthink? Most traditional political thought would simply disappear. Ninety-five percent of what I've said tonight woul just be Badthink -- there would not be even the words to describe it. This is a beautiful example.

How about a world in which "neurotic" is a dirty word? (It's getting there.) Or "alone?"

There's a marvellous passage in a historical novel set in 4th century Britain; I don't remember the author, but he has done a whole series of historical novels. He's English. Alfred ---? A whole gang of characters are saying what they would do to a captured prisoner if they had the chance; you know, flay him alive, disembowel him, and so on. Then one, with an air of great bravado, says: know what I would do? I would stick out my tongue at him! And everybody turns pale, because this -- this is something so horrible that nobody even remembers what it means any more.

We do have a model for what happens when an area of taboo becomes noa. Blasphemy, I mean the taboo against blasphemy, is practically a dead letter today. If I were to say: "Christ, I've got a pebble in my shoe," very few people would turn pale or gasp or get furiously angry. Let alone blasphemies that have simply gone out of the language, like "Zwounds!" -- God's wounds. Of course you can still insult people's religion and get them angry, but the sense of horror that used to cling to exclamations like "Jesus Christ!" or "Damn!" (such a common word now) is pretty much gone -- that is, of course, for English-speaking people lik ourselves. An educated Catholic who reacted to blasphemy with the same intensity an educated Catholic would have reacted to it in the twelfth century would have a very hard time of it today. I have been told, by the way, that the English exclamation "bloody" is still a good bit stronger for them than it is for us -- but they, in turn, don't honor our taboo about the word "shit" -- as you may notice if you work in an office where there are English secretaries. Apparently "bloody" is derived from "God's blood" and used to be a really horrible blasphemy, one of the worst there was, and some of the old feeling still clings to it.

One of the great advantages in the disappearance of obscenity might be -- and I would like to see it happen -- a revival of the grand and beautiful art of cursing -- NOT blasphemy, NOT unimaginative, repetitive boring obscenity but real cursing -- the invoking of misfortune in the most vivid and colorful way possible. William Tenn has a lovely story about Jewish cursing. This takes real skill. One of my favorites is: may you inherit a hotel in Miami with a hundred rooms and may you have a heart attack in every single room! Or: may your nose drop off and your feet turn green and may your wife make you cocu with fishmongers! There is an extremely funny movie, a parody of arty Italian films, which is called 2 and in which a man and woman try to outdo each other in describing how vile each of them is. The dialogue ends something like this: SHE: I am the lowest worm that crawls the earth. HE: I am the lint in the bellybutton of that worm.

Invective, as an art form, is a very beautiful thing, and so is cursing and both of them take real imagination. As to obscenity -- sometimes I do find it upsetting, when the intent behind it is hostile, not because of the hostility per se (I think) but because of a certain single-minded dreariness. Or perhaps impotence. Dirty words are usually the weapons of those who have no other weapons. I have the same reaction to certain kinds of political invective. You might as well just snarl, because that's all it is. Verbally it's nothing. I hope some day we get to the point where obscenity simply does not 'register' any more, where it does not sound obscene.

There's a lovely example of this. You all know the cartoon character I'm going to talk about so I won't tell you who he is, but some time last year another character got mad at him and called him a series of awful names. Here is the character himself, looking very innocent and puzzled, and there is an angry person, shouting insults: You HOUND! You CUR! You BEAST! And the cartoon character just doesn't get it. He doesn't know he's being insulted. He might just as well have been called a son of a bitch; that would have struck him exactly the same way. This, to me, is a lovely situation. Hound, Cur, Beast, Dog, even Son of a Bitch -- perfectly accurate words but absolutely harmless.

Because the cartoon strip was Peanuts and the character, of course, was Snoopy.

Thank you.

on 2011-06-04 07:12 pm (UTC)
firecat: red panda looking happy (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] firecat
Thanks for posting this, it's wonderful.
Posted by (Anonymous)
Back when I were a mere lad of fifteen, and the ladies running the village mobile library persistently promoted Virago Press books to my bemused self (two shelves in quite a small van, two short haircut librarians, I think I can rest my case) any rate, I found Joanna Russ somewhere there, and somehow liked, no loved her stories, angry but not misanthropic. A great voice now lost, and this essay summons it back for me. Her and Carol Emshwiller and "James" Tiptree Jnr all wonderful writers - for men and for women both. Well, OK, perhaps especially for youse gals. But also for me.

on 2011-12-04 05:46 pm (UTC)
delphipsmith: (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] delphipsmith
Terrific speech, thanks so much for sharing it!


on 2011-12-04 09:27 pm (UTC)
Posted by (Anonymous)
But with those Dirty Fiendish Wordies he can do it in not time flat, and without any work.

Perhaps "in no time flat"? Thank you for posting this!


on 2011-12-04 09:34 pm (UTC)
Posted by (Anonymous)
Sounds like he swapping of material that goes on inside an amoeba.

"the swapping"


The Rape Of The A.P.E.

on 2013-02-08 11:20 pm (UTC)
Posted by (Anonymous)
Sounds a lot like the points Berman made about the word 'fuck' in that book's chapters 'Short Chapter, Long Footnote' and 'Long Chapter, Short Footnote'. The latter was the word typed several hundred times (this was pre-computer), and the footnote was something to the effect of 'Loses it's value, doesn't it?'


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