Expletives Deleted (But Not Always)

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Expletives Deleted (But Not Always)

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Sep 14, 2011, 9:37am

In several instances in the first two books, O'Brian substitutes "--------" for an obscenity, most often as uttered by a sailor to another in that colourful way sailors have. I've noticed, however, that O'Brian is not shy about spelling out certain obscenities elsewhere. In one place in Post Captain, the substitute is followed later on the same page with an explicit "fucking"! And he's also used "whore", "bugger", and I think "sodding" in other instances, often in the mouth of Jack.

So the questions:
Is O'Brian nodding to period authenticity in these substitutes? If so, are the substitutes standing-in always for the same obscenity, or different ones? Which obscenities were more offensive than the F-word in the days of Aubrey & Maturin?

Is O'Brian playing around with the reader, presuming each individual can imagine a more offensive term than he could choose, and that's the effect he's after? So, in fact, there is not a specific obscenity in mind, in these instances.

Is O'Brian willing to spell out certain words but not others (though that last example seems to bely that, since the F-word surely would be a prime offender)? Which are these, and are they idiosyncratic to him?

I'm assuming the first, am curious what others think.

Edited: Sep 14, 2011, 9:58am

'Pon my soul sir,

I suspect that in the 1800's a "blasphemy unto the Lord"
would be much more a heinous sin than a simple "fuck".

Sep 14, 2011, 10:09am

You missed a trick: surely the subject-line of this thread should have read '"What, never?" "Well, hardly ever."'?

I'd also guess it's O'Brian playing with the reader. After all, we probably don't really know for certain which words Georgian sailors used in moments of extreme stress, and even if we did know, those words might have gained or lost in power to shock in the intervening time.

Alternatively, it could simply be that O'Brian's early-70s publishers felt it was OK (for instance) to use "F-words" but not "C-words" in print. It's the sort of thing that people often do have absurd house rules about.

Sep 14, 2011, 10:23am

Ah, I believe you're both on to something.

And yes, I missed a trick! It is wonderful how my language changes when reading O'Brian. I try to corral it, as it's not to everyone's liking. But I surely missed a capital opportunity here!

Sep 14, 2011, 11:09am

I always assumed it was a function of when each book in the series was published, although I am open to any evidence to the contrary.

Sep 14, 2011, 11:33am

>5 zenomax:

That seems curious, if not unlikely, given what is published in any given book, compared to what's not. That is, it's not a question of what appears in one book compared with another book, but what appears and what does not appear in a specific work.

My example in Post Captain is a case in point: the second book in the series, published early 1970s, the F-word appears and yet other expletives are left implied. Apart from very queer house rules, the F-word would be high on most censorship lists at that time, no? But maybe things were more different than I realise in the 1970s ...

Sep 14, 2011, 12:51pm

I had a quick glance through Post Captain - the one example I spotted of a suppressed expletive was Diana on her first entrance in the hunting scene in ch. 1, swearing at the mare she is riding. ("Jack had never heard a girl say — before..."). And a few chapters later, Lord St Vincent says "fucking hell". I didn't spot any sailors using anything stronger than "a big, big D", although I'm sure there would be if you looked hard enough.

I don't suppose there could be any doubt in the reader's mind which shocking word an uninhibited upper-class Englishwoman would use when addressing a female horse ("C**t ... a nasty name for a nasty thing", as Francis Grose put it). So O'Brian might be using the em-dash to heighten the shock value (to imply that Jack is suppressing the word in his own mind), or it might simply be a bit of petty censorship. With St Vincent, I suppose O'Brian wants to make sure that we understand how annoyed he is by making him actually rude rather than just irascible.

Sep 14, 2011, 1:14pm

That's a good example as well, for highlighting what women are likely to say, and women of a particular station, and so on.

I like your speculations about O'Brian's intent to characterize St Vincent, in addition to any other factors such as censorship at time of publication, censorship of the day & class, and so on.

Edited: Sep 15, 2011, 10:40am

Reading further in Post Captain, I come across a passage in which a sailor, in high invective, admits to telling a shipmate he doesn't like the "fucking little cunt", spelled out. This is the episode of the weekly punishment during Aubrey's acting command of the Lively (Chapter XII I think), and concerns the dispute as to which sailor is the rightful owner of a gibbon's head.

So apparently both the F-word and the C-word are unsuppressed, leaving blasphemy (at least the stronger variants) the most likely candidate. Unless: O'Brian and his editors were not being consistent, and the suppression was contextual with some instances of a given obscenity and others allowed; or, alternatively, that it really is O'Brian playing the card for literary effect and/or characterization.

Hmmn. Not sure what I think, now, but it's been an interesting question.

ETA gibbon in place of baboon, clearly I don't know my primates as does Maturin.

Sep 15, 2011, 10:05am

>9 elenchus:
In that case, it sounds to me as though it was either editorial carelessness (unlikely, given O'Brian's care for language) or deliberate effect.

Something else that struck me when I was glancing though the text was how often O'Brian uses dashes to represent gaps and discontinuities in speeches. That makes it hard to be completely sure whether he's omitting an expletive or the character is, expect for special cases like the Diana one where the narrator comments on it directly.

Sep 15, 2011, 10:39am

I've noticed it, too, O'Brian capturing quite well the flow of speech including the gaps and interruptions, change of intent mid-sentence, and so forth. As in life, it's sometimes unclear what is meant or actually said!

Edited: Sep 15, 2011, 10:56am

Interesting debate.

I obviously hadn't ever picked up the different treatment of obscenities within books. There are so many layers to O'Brian stories. They are not overly complex or clever, just understated. It is often only after reading a book in the series several times that you pick up on many undercurrents.

By the way just rereading the part in The Hundred Days where Lord Keith, having retired from the service and settled with Lady Keith into a house near port, is daily harrassed by 'those damned apes', which presumably are indeed baboons.

Dec 21, 2012, 3:49pm

>7 thorold:

But you wouldn't say such words in front of a woman, hence the censorship, but in an all-male gathering, such as on board ship, you could swear with impunity. Perhaps the difference is simply the context.

Dec 21, 2012, 10:22pm

I will have to assay that as I continue my reading through the Canon: is the company in the given scene the key factor, a very intriguing idea.

Good to see your post, mschuyler: I still use your Butcher's Bill as a key review of the text as I write my reviews. An indispensable companion, I say again, and am happy to credit it when used.

Dec 22, 2012, 2:02pm

I stumbled across a copy of Sea of Words in an antique mall today. I'll have to check it for expletives, etc.

Dec 22, 2012, 3:41pm

All my copies of the books are paperbacks from the late '90s. No problem then with any rude words, I would have thought. Has anybody got a hardback early edition? It might be that the publishers were more refined in the '70s.

Dec 27, 2012, 8:13pm

>16 abbottthomas:

Hmmn! I'd assumed that the version I saw would appear exactly as-is in all editions, that it was O'Brian's choice and not a replacement / substitute edit by the publisher. I would not be surprised to learn O'Brian was nudged by his original publisher one way or another, but once published (and in the absence of any corrections provided by O'Brian), every other edition would leave the expletive or deletion, only correcting obvious misspellings.

But I haven't compared any text between editions. Has anyone confirmed or refuted my assumption?

Edited: Mar 1, 2013, 1:16pm

I've come across another set of examples, this time in The Fortune of War. I'm now persuaded mschuyler is correct in that the elidement has to do with the scene, and specifically who is present. In some cases, I think, it's relevant who's uttering the expletive, at others who is within earshot.

I can look up the specifics if anyone's curious, but here O'Brian has a sailor say "F ---" with a lady present (I forget if it was Wogan or Villiers), and a bit further on, Jack and a fisherman exchange pleasant "fuck you's", completely spelled out.

ETA specifics (from the Folio Society edition)
-- Expletive suppressed on pages 12 & 58: ladies present
-- "fuck" spelled out on page 231 (twice): pleasant exchange between Jack & a fisherman
-- All cases support mschuyler's idea it is context, and who present, which determines whether the offending term is written out or left implicit.

Jan 29, 2013, 3:24pm

Splendid addition to the Aubrey Maturin common knowledge.

Edited: Mar 1, 2013, 1:21pm

I'm fully persuaded the idea of context is correct: O'Brian is showing how social context changes the tone of the very same expletive, even when spoken by the very same individual in those different contexts. Really, quite an impressive decision on O'Brian's part, and a good example of his subtlety.

In The Surgeon's Mate, another set of examples (again from the Folio Society edition):
-- "fucking" spelt out for an exchange between sailors on page 77
-- Expletive suppressed (I mentally inserted "bastards") when spoken by Jack's pre-adolescent daughter, though she is speaking to sailors at Ashford Cottage and unknowingly is overheard by Jack, on page 88

Mar 1, 2013, 3:51pm

So where the expletive is suppressed, for example when ladies are present, what is actually verbalised?

Mar 1, 2013, 8:21pm

I assume if we were present, we'd hear the full-throated obscenity, in all its horror and boorish manner. This is what I find so clever in O'Brian providing an em-dash or string of dashes ("-----"), he doesn't need to describe the inward recoil that some present would experience, but we are more attuned to that level of the social graces. Both to identify who cringes, and who does not.

Were you reading it another way?

Mar 2, 2013, 10:40am

He made a similar point with the two little native girls the sailors rescued and sort of adopted. I believe this was on the Nutmeg. When they learned English they used a different accent and knew a certain propriety when around the officers, but spoke an entirely different and more vulgar way when they were around the sailors.

Mar 2, 2013, 4:12pm

I was assuming the word was suppressed ....

Mar 3, 2013, 10:02am

AH: that's another possibility. I'll pay attention to that and see if it seems the other characters are reacting as though the words had never been said, only implied. I wasn't reading it that way, but perhaps that was my presuppositions influencing how it read.

Edited: May 18, 2018, 6:42pm

>23 varielle:
Years later, but I've just completed The Nutmeg of Consolation and recognised the scene with the two girls (christened Emily & Sarah). Stephen & Martin comment on their quick study of language, including that adaptation to the quarterdeck as compared to the main deck.

I didn't note any em-dashes or elided expletives, but did log several spelled-out instances. I list them here as my personal log.

-- "All on that fucking reef, pardon me, sir" (uttered by the gunner to Jack) page 31
-- "Fuck you, William Grimshaw" (this by Killick, good-naturedly) page 108
-- "Break in your goddam hand" (Jack to Stephen in admiration of Surprise's sound timbers and blade breaking on them)
-- "'Not on your fucking life,' said the Aboriginal (to Stephen, who was referring to him in the third person) page 285

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