When Jesse Sheidlower wrote this book, he was the Editor at Large of the Oxford English Dictionary. The book was published by Oxford University Press, one of the most prestigious academic presses in the world. The 49 pages of front matter and the 269 pages in the body of the book deal exclusively with the F word. Seeing this started me thinking. Ultimately, I concluded that the F word is one of the most important words in the English language. And therefore writers should consider its many uses.
One indicator of importance is the number of euphemisms coined to express the F word without tipping into the vulgar or obscene. A woman born and reared in North Carolina once told me that when a Southern Lady wants to say the F word, she says “Fine!”
That one wasn’t familiar to me, but we’ve all heard many others. These are what is sometimes called a “minced oath.” Here are some examples:
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Fark (not to be confused with FARC, which might add unintended political themes to your work!)
I could keep going, but the internet would eventually run out of pixels…
Although listeners know exactly what the euphemism stands for, many feel that the impact of the euphemism loses much of the cathartic value of the original and may come across as tepid, ineffectual, or just plain namby-pamby.
William Shakespeare was one of the most creative users of minced oaths and euphemisms to describe everything from copulation to defecation, writing some of the most vividly imaginative phrases to avoid the censorship of the age. Juliet may have had the sheath to make Romeo’s dagger happy, but no children’s ears had to be covered.
Of course, this still wasn’t clean enough for Dr. Thomas Bowdler and his sister Harriet. In 1818, they announced the publication of a G-rated book of Shakespseare’s work, in which “those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.” The Family Shakespeare didn’t sell particularly well (and was a pretty short book), but “bowdlerise” became a term for overdone, fussy, prissy censorship.
Note to writers: consciously decide whether to use a euphemism or the original. There is a time for vulgarity and a time for bowdlerising.
The F word is so prominent in English that the basic entry for fuck in Slang and Euphemism runs a full half page, followed by 60 entries directly involving the word, and surrounded by acronyms that take the place of actually saying the word. Though the origins are unclear, it dates back at least to 1475.
Basically, it refers to a sexual act, an act of copulation. It’s universally characterized as obscene or at least vulgar. However, over time, much of the resistance to the original word has been diluted by long and frequent use.
And it is arguably the most versatile word around. In modern usage, the F word and its derivatives (such as fucker and fucking) can be used as a noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, conjunction, interjection, or adverb.
A sexual act in its most straightforward form, as in “Let’s fuck.”
Transitive: John fucked Mary.
Intransitive: Mary was fucked by John.
To cheat or mistreat someone, as in “She totally fucked me.”
Referring to the act itself, as in a specific event being “ A great fuck.”
Referring to a partner, as in “A great fuck” referring to the other person involved.
Referring to an incentive or strong feeling on any subject.
Note to writers: make sure the context clearly specifies ambiguous meanings.
Used in place of his/her, as in “Tell the fucker at the end of the bar that I buy my own drinks.”
A modifier to a verb as in
2. A modifier to another adverb, as in “The Broncos played fucking well out there.”
3. A modifier to an adjective, as in “Fucking beautiful.”
A modifier to a noun, as in “That was some fucking speech!” or “I had a fucking good time.”
Connecting two parts of a sentence, as in “I left, fuck the boss’s order.”
Exclamation or intensifier: fuck can express innumerable emotions. Most often, as a single word, it expresses joy, despair, surprise, or anger.
But fuck can intensify virtually any emotion, depending on surrounding situation or text.
Ignorance: Fuck if I know.
Trouble: Mary returned and I’m fucked now
Fraud: I got fucked in the real estate deal.
Aggression: Fuck you!
Displeasure: What the fuck do you think you’re doing?
Difficulty: I can’t understand these fucking data!
Incompetence: You fuck-off!
Stupidly or incompetence: You really fucked up that negotiation.
The F word has a long and varied history. Though its origin remains somewhat obscure, it most likely derives from an early Germanic root, such as peuk (to prick), fokken (to thrust), or peig (hostile). Though linguists can’t seem to agree on the etymology, most agree that “fuck” has been a vulgar or taboo word for most of its very long history, which contributes to the difficulty of tracking down its history as it was not officially used or written down often.
It has a Wikipedia entry that runs to 19 pages, which goes into the history and gives examples of modern usage in politics, marketing, and literature. And as the Urban Dictionary says of it, “The only fucking word that can be put everyfuckingwhere and still fucking make fucking sense.”
Bottom line for writers: The F word is useful, versatile, and becoming ever more acceptable. But should you decide to use it, use it sparingly as the narrator, and limit it to one or a few characters. It loses its impact with repetition (see The Wolf of Wall Street).
People—and by extension, characters—regularly do things that they don’t mention, or even admit to, even though they aren’t illegal, immoral or physically harmful. Writers can make their characters more realistic when said characters engage in unmentionable behaviors. What follows is an extensive but not exhaustive list of possibilities.
Nose Picking is a prime example of a virtually universal unmentionable behavior. It has its own Wikipedia entry, complete with a technical definition (extracting nasal mucus with one’s finger) and formal label of rhinotillexis. Psychiatrists at the Dean Foundation for Health, Research, and Education in Wisconsin conducted a study revealing that 91% of people said they were currently nose pickers (though only 75% believed everyone did it).
So, how and where does your character nose pick? Always the same digit? Always the same place? Always the same time of day?
And then what? Is the residue flicked off? Wiped on a tissue? Wiped on the underside of an article of clothing? Wiped off on a rug? On furniture? Added to a booger wall? Or maybe the residue is eaten.
Mucophagy is the technical term for eating nose pickings. Most societies condemn it, but some scientists claim there are health benefits. Dr. Friedrich Bischinger, a leading Austrian lung specialist, says that eating one’s mucus gives “a natural boost to their immune system” because the mucus contains a “cocktail of antiseptic enzymes that kill or weaken bacteria that become entangled in it.” Reintroducing weakened bacteria may allow the immune system to safely produce antibodies.
Time considerations for nose picking. How often? A few times a day—however unmentionable—isn’t odd. But one-to-two hours daily? When it becomes an obsessive-compulsive disorder, it’s called Rhinotillexomania.
Wiping your nose on anything available.
Urination is another universal. How about peeing in the shower? Or the bathtub? The ocean—or the swimming pool? Is your female character comfortable urinating outside?
Recently, there have been a number of devices developed and put on the market to allow women the same ease of urination as men. They come in very handy on long car trips or when getting to the bathroom requires a trek through an unheated house, up a snowy mountain, and behind a tree to squat over an unsettlingly drafty hole in the ground.
I once spent two weeks on a whitewater rafting drip on the Colorado River. People were required to pee in the river. (Recall that urine is sterile.) In camp men simply walked to the edge of the water. Women often waded out and pulled down their pants. On the water, men stood at the stern. Women pulled down their clothes, hung onto the cargo straps, and cantilevered out over the water.
In all of these circumstances, the other people politely looked the other way. But then how did it happen that the last night out I was voted the person most improved in peeing off the side of the raft? So if your character is urinating in unmentionable ways, consider both culture and circumstances.
Defecation is always fertile ground. It seems whole herds of people get completely naked to poop—every time. Imagine trying to use a public toilet!
Consider a character who wipes his/her anus and looks at it. Or smells his/her fingers afterward. One justification for frequently smelling one’s anus or genitals (via finger swipes) is being familiar with one’s usual smell so that changes that might signal a change in health status would be recognizable.
Not washing hands after using the bathroom. Or even turning on water so others in the public toilet will think you washed when you didn’t. And it raises the question of why not wash?
Burping, a cousin to the more offensive Passing Gas. These things happen.
I remember a joke from grade school. “What did the stomach say to the burp?” “Be quiet, and I’ll let you out the back door.”
But what about someone who burps and/or farts on purpose, on demand, or as loudly as possible?
What about someone who intentionally farts in elevators, subway cars, on trains or busses and casts a blaming glare at those nearby?
What about intentionally expelling loud farts and/or burps but only when alone?
Or sniffing farts to try to figure out which food made it smell that way.
For truly obnoxious characters (and spouses), there is the dreaded Dutch Oven: farting in bed and then pulling the blanket over your bed partner’s head, trapping them in the stench.
And consider whether your character has an extreme reaction to other people’s flatulence. I know of a woman who became furious if someone passed gas in her presence: smell is a molecular sense, so smelling a fart means taking in fecal molecules.
Eating is fraught with unmentionable behaviors. For example, eating food off the floor after 5 seconds have passed.
Eating from the cooking pot. Eating/drinking directly from thecontainer. (In this case, whether your character lives alone is relevant. )
Eating food other than snacks or sandwiches (for example, tossed salad) with fingers. Eating the unthinkable as a regular thing: chalk, insects, dirt, tissue paper, etc.
Nakedness is sometimes necessary, of course. But what if your naked character regularly sits on the sofa and reads? Cooks dinner? Sits on the deck or patio—and if so, at what time, and how private is the space?
What about taking naked selfies for no particular reason? Saying you deleted the naked pictures sent to you but you didn’t?
Sucking Blood From a Cut.
Having sexual thoughts about an inappropriate target. Think relative, someone else’s spouse or partner, subordinate—whoever is beyond the pale because of relationship or other taboo.
Self Absorption.is almost always unmentionable! Narrating thoughts aloud—while driving, planning, etc. Closely related to talking to oneself.
Consider cracking up at one’s own jokes, even when alone. Practicing pick-up lines in the mirror, ditto facial expressions. How about making weird faces at yourself? Or googling oneself?
Women Only Unmentionables.Shaving—where and how often. Plucking or shaving facial hair from eyebrows to chin and jowls. Obsessing about changes in body odor during menstruation. Collecting “fuck me” shoes in colors to match every outfit.
Men Only Unmentionables: measuring his dick, jerking off to fantasies of his friend’s girlfriend, windmilling/ helicoptering his penis, frequently resettling his junk in his banana hammock.
Miscellaneous unmentionables could be almost anything.
Dancing like no one with the authority to commit you is watching
Running up the stairs on all fours
Eavesdropping or otherwise spying on people—including reading another person’s mail, email, or texts
Squeezing pimples or blackheads
Climbing on furniture
Bouncing on the bed
Making weird noises
Breath syncing to someone else, music, in the extreme known as sensorimotor obsession
Arithmomania, a strong need to have one’s life governed by odd, even, or certain numbers, brushing teeth to setting the thermostat, etc.
Blow-drying “down there”
Overview for writers: Make your character more human by giving her/him a characteristic unmentionable behavior or two. Don’t go overboard unless your character is totally neurotic and/ or you are going for humor. And remember that such behaviors are even more revealing if the characters do such things in the presence of others. Have fun!
Nearly 70% of Americans play video games on at least one device, and nearly all play on smartphones. Indeed, if you do an online search for games, best games, or similarly general queries, you will be inundated with info about video games in general as well as individual games. If game playing is one of your character’s activities (and your story is set in the current time or near future) decide whether s/he is part of the majority or the minority here. Consider what the game of choice says about the character of your character. For example,does success depend more on speed or strategy? Does a round end quickly or take a significant time commitment? Can it be interrupted/paused? How violent is it? And is it mechanized violence or hand-to-hand? Does s/he play alone, against the program, or with/against other gamers worldwide?
As I indicated in the opening sentence, most people in the U.S. currently play video games, but these are a relatively new phenomenon. In the remainder of this blog, I shall focus on card games and board games—for three reasons:
They are suitable for current settings as well as throughout history. Just check out what games were around when the story is set.
I believe that the majority of readers are more familiar with them.
I am not a “gamer” and—truly—I always try not to say too much about any vast canyon of ignorance.
Modern playing cards may have originated in China, India, or Persia, but they were commonly used in Europe by the end of the fourteenth century. The number and composition of cards in a deck varied throughout history and from country to country. Some decks had mounted knights, noblemen, peasants, and Church figures. Some countries used bells, hearts, leaves, acorns, swords, cups, or paving stones to differentiate suits. Over the years, the royal figures have been labelled as Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, Solomon, Empress Judith, Sir Lancelot, Joan of Arc, Hector of Troy, and various mythological figures, to name a few. As printing became widely available and playing cards were produced cheaply, the modern deck of cards gradually came into being and was eventually standardized to those we use today. (For more details, check out the Snopes article on the topic.)[The history of playing cards is kind of interesting:
Advantages of card games:
Equipment is inexpensive
They are extremely portable
Lots of choices from total luck games to highly skilled strategies
Can be played alone or with others
Can be totally competitive or in partnerships
Suitable for people of almost any age
Games with simple rules can transcend language barriers
If you search for the most popular card game(s), poker is at or near the top of the list. Poker is associated with gambling, whether in a casino, bar, country club, or private home. As the name implies, penny ante poker means minimal stakes. Other associations with poker include alcohol, smoking, and maybe the Wild West. It is still a male-dominated game.
Writers: as always, consider the value of going with the flow or defying the images. Many variations exist, and it can be played online.
Other popular card games in the US:
Spades: created nearly 100 years ago, hit its peak in the 90s
War: one of the easiest games, suitable for children, no skill involved; also good as a mindless activity
Gin: aka gin rummy, is related to rummy (see below); very popular right now, a fun gambling game; started in the U.S in the 1800s and has remained popular ever since; reached its peak in the 1930s and 1940s; faded in favor of canasta in the 1950s
Rummy: popular around the world, especially In India; involves matching and memorization; can be played online
Blackjack (aka twenty-one): largely a gambling game played in clubs and casinos; lots of luck involved; players play against the dealer rather than each other
If a player is able to calculate probabilities and keep track of cards in play, s/he may be able to “count cards” to win nearly every hand. This technique is outlawed by many casinos, but it can be a good way to demonstrate a character’s extreme intelligence or pattern recognition skills.
Crazy Eights: originated in Venezuela; has lots of variations; requires two or more people
Agatha Christie wrote an entire murder mystery, Cards on the Table, that hinges upon who was playing in what rotation at what time during an evening bridge party. Hercule Poirot deduces alibis and personalities entirely by studying the notations people made while keeping score, enabling him to identify the murderer.
Card games and board games have been used as a method of teaching and developing military strategy skills throughout history, including by the American CIA. An online essay The Appeal (and Manliness) of Card Games includes a subsection on 6 Card Games Every Man Should Know. The essay notes that men’s games are often symbolic representations of more violent clashes and war. In my opinion, what this says is that games are a non-violent way of competing to be the alpha male. When only men are involved, there are often jokes and insults to demonstrate the art of clever talk. According to this essay, the essential manly card games are:
Gin Rummy: game scholars think rummy is a card variation on the Chinese game of mah-jong, perhaps dating to the 1700s, much modified since then; generally played to a specified number, often 100
Hearts: a trick-taking game stemming from whist, except the goal is to avoid collecting tricks; the person with the fewest points wins; first appeared in he U.S. in the late 1800s; played online since the 1990s
Poker(specifically, Texas hold ‘em): perhaps originated in 1820s New Orleans on Mississippi River gambling boats; poker really took off in the 1980s when Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, legalizing casinos on Native American land
Solitaire: first developed in the mid-1700s; originally played with multiple people, it’s now a game played primarily alone—any of more than 1000 variations; surged in popularity with the advent of personal computers
Cribbage: beloved for centuries, technically involves a board for score keeping, it’s essentially a card game for 2 (possibly 3 or 4); came to the colonies by English settlers; especially popular in New England
Blackjack (aka 21): most widely played casino game; fast and easy to learn; dating to the mid- to late 1500s, became more popular int the U.S. in the late 1950s
The Most Popular & Fun Card Games as posted on ranker.com
Writers: consider the value of a character playing a card game against type, such as a woman playing poker or a man playing bridge. Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon are more commonly played by children, but an adult could play with a child they are caring form. How would a quintessentially honest person behave in a situation requiring bluffing, such as playing poker or Bluff? What might a young person discover by learning to play Hearts as a means of bonding with an older relative?
5 Hardest Games to Master in the World: According to Casino.org, these are the most difficult to master, regardless of how long it takes to learn.
Note: this lists includes 4 board games and only 1 card game
Go is an ancient Chinese game dating back over 5,500 years—making it the oldest board game still played today. It’s also one of the most complex, involving abstract strategy aimed at occupying the most territory on the board.
Go is referenced, played, or used to demonstrate a character’s attitude toward traditional values in lots of Japanese media, including manga and anime. It is so widespread in Japanese culture that there is an entire anime about a schoolboy haunted by the spirit of an ancient Go master: Hikaru No Go.
Chess, arguably dating back to the 6th century in India, but perhaps it originated in China—as many games did. It’s a game of strategical conquest played by two people. The essence of success is forward planning. Historically, chess has been used as a means of teaching battlefield tactics; that is why, in modern chess rules, the king is relatively constrained but holds such strategic importance.
Bridge is the only card game included in this list of hardest games to master. See above.
Diplomacy was released in 1959; as games go, it is still in its infancy. It is a strategic board game for two to seven players, played on a map of 1914 wartime Europe, Middle East, and North Africa, geared toward conquest. There are no dice, but lots of negotiation skills are required.
Diplomacy was one of the first games (other than chess) that could be played by mail, which made it available as a form of connection for people who were not able to play together in person. Writers, consider the possibilities this provides for characters in a historical setting who lived far apart or were shut-ins or prohibited by social taboo from playing together, etc.
Hex, released in 1942, was inspired by Go and has since been tweaked. The goal is to make a connected string of shoes from one side of the board to the other before the other player.
Card Games vs. Board Games
As noted above, card games have many positive qualities, especially portability and ease of set-up. Board games require more complex “equipment,” lengthy set-ups, and can take a long time to complete. Many board games are quite cerebral, chess being the ultimate example. In board games, every player is likely aware of the possible moves of the other player(s).
The Top Ten Board Games of All Time
The website hobbylark.com provides a brief history of board games and ranks the top 10. Many that have been around for literally thousands of years can now be played online. Details of all of these are, of course, available online.
The Settlers of Catan
Ticket to Ride
There is no board game equivalent to solitaire. By their nature, board games require other players, and thus involve social interactions.
Game Considerations for Writers (whether cards or board games)
If you include a game as a character note, consider the general character of players of that game and whether you want to go with the general image or have a character who goes against the grain. Why does your character play that particular game? Where, how, and with whom (if anyone)? Under these circumstances, chances are you establish the preference and make only brief references to it thereafter—unless the character is addicted.
If the game is an element to advance the plot, it will probably involve a more detailed description of the game itself, so that readers will better understand the important people interactions around the game. Did playing the game establish or refute an alibi? Reveal important info through the chat around and over play? Is someone trying to establish dominance? Losing more money than s/he can afford?
In associating a character with a game, be aware of the possible correlations: when in history your story is set, age of the character, region of the country (or country in the world), social class, and possibly ethnic background all are considerations.