Tuesday, January 7, 2014

That's What She Said

As a writer in the twenty-first century, I sometimes find myself worrying about innuendos. It seems like no matter what you say these days, someone always laughs at it because they've found a sexual double meaning behind it. Sure, innuendos can be funny when they're intentional, like in the Spinal Tap song "Sex Farm" or the "Schwetty Balls" sketch on SNL, but when they're not intended, they can ruin the effect of a scene by turning something harmless into a filthy joke to the audience. Having your work taken the wrong way is probably the biggest fear of any creative person, and with so many slang terms and metaphors for sex floating around in our culture these days, it gets harder and harder to avoid dirty entendres when writing.

Err, I mean, "it gets more and more difficult to avoid dirty entendres when writing."

What's more aggravating is that language is constantly evolving, so words or statements that used to have one particular meaning can develop others over time. Not only does this end up dating a lot of texts, but it can make them a bit awkward to read today. Take the word "ejaculate" for instance. That word was once used fairly often in literature as a synonym for "exclaim" or "blurt out." Since our culture has grown to associate it with another action though, it isn't used much in that first context anymore, or even used much at all. The same goes for words like "penetrate," "erect," or "cleavage." You can almost hear the readers snickering when you put those in a piece of writing.

It can be especially challenging to avoid innuendos when writing fantasy or certain period pieces, since those genres typically use older dialects to make their atmospheres feel more authentic or other-worldly. You don't really like to say the above mentioned words in such stories, despite them being used often with different meanings in the old days. This puts some writers, including myself, in the position of either using replacement words that may not feel as natural for the setting or using the original words with gritted teeth.

It can be even more challenging to come up with names for places and characters in those kinds of stories. As someone who grew up loving Lord of the Rings and who spent a lot of time on message boards and fanfiction websites, I've come across more "Gimli, son of Groin" jokes than I can count. Gimli's father, who appears in The Hobbit, is really named Glóin, but because that name loosely resembles the term for a private body part, that's all some people see when they read it. What turned this annoying fad upside-down for me was reading Tolkien's other Middle Earth works and discovering that...sigh...Gimli's grandfather is actually named Gróin.

Okay, it's not like Tolkien named the character "Gnotti Bitz" or anything like that, but he HAD to be aware that a name like Gróin was going to look odd to readers. I'm pretty certain that the term "groin" existed in England at the time when he wrote those books. Tolkien didn't seem like the type to intentionally slip raunchy humor into his work, and since that name apparently means "Growing One" in Old Norse, I'm guessing that its use is just a case of cultural differences in fiction; it sounds funny to humans, but not to dwarves.

With that being said, I guess finding an innuendo in something serious is really the audience's problem more than the writer's, and I say that as someone who's laughed at a lot of unintended euphemisms myself. As readers, we need to be able to set aside our "That's what she said" mentalities and look at certain things in a more mature mindset. In turn, we writers should still be mindful of the words we use, but not to the point that we labor over every sentence in an effort to sound squeaky clean. We can't please everyone, so we need to learn to get a grip on ourselves, suck it up, and not think so long and hard about it.

And if you laughed at that last sentence, then one or both of us probably did something wrong.

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