• “The smartest historical sci-fi adventure-romance story ever written by a science Ph.D. with a background in scripting 'Scrooge McDuck' comics.”—Salon.com
  • A time-hopping, continent-spanning salmagundi of genres.”
    —ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY
  • “These books have to be word-of-mouth books because they're too weird to describe to anybody.”
    —Jackie Cantor, Diana's first editor

Language, Language….(Part I)

It doesn’t happen often, but I do occasionally get email from people asking—always very politely (well, almost always very politely)—whether I have ever considered producing a bowdlerized edition of my books.

Mind, none of them uses the word “bowdlerized”; I doubt most people under the age of forty have ever heard it. It comes from:

Thomas Bowdler (pronounced /ˈbaʊdlər/) (11 July 1754 – 24 February 1825), who was an English physician who published an expurgated edition of William Shakespeare’s work, edited by his sister Harriet, intended to be more appropriate for 19th century women and children than the original.

He similarly published an edited version of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His edition was the subject of some criticism and ridicule and, through the eponym bowdlerise (or bowdlerize),[1] his name is now associated with censorship of literature, motion pictures and television programmes.

[Source: Wikipedia]

Now, what these readers would like me to expurgate from my own work, in order to accommodate their desires and sensibilities, ranges from sex-scenes (one very nice woman wrote to ask if I could produce an edition of OUTLANDER from which all the sex scenes were removed, because she was very eager to be able to discuss the book with her fifteen-year-old daughter, but didn’t think her girl was quite ready for the original. By biting my thumb rather hard (she was very nice, and meant well), I was able to refrain from writing back and asking her whether it might not be a trifle simpler just to wait a year or two for her daughter to be ready for the notion that married people have sex, than for me edit and republish a 700-page book–always assuming that I could convince any publisher that there was a market for such a thing? (My guess is that unless her daughter has been living under a rock for the last five years, she knows a lot more than I’ve ever thought of putting in a book, but possibly her mother doesn’t let her watch television)) to Bad Words in general (“I notice people say “Fuck” a lot in your more recent books,” one reader wrote, rather censoriously. “Jamie doesn’t even know what that word means in OUTLANDER!” Well…he’s probably picked up a few expressions from Claire over the last twenty years. But Jamie’s not usually the one saying that word, even in the later books. It would be pretty common to Roger, though, as well as to some of the coarse folk who live in the backwoods), to—very specifically—the use of the Lord’s name (only “Jesus” or “Christ,” evidently. “God” doesn’t appear to bother these particular readers in this context, let alone local variants like “the Holy Spirit”.).

OK. Approaching these concerns from last to first:

I have every sympathy for someone whose religious sensibilities make them uncomfortable with blasphemy, whether casual or heart-felt. I personally am very disturbed by people who curse or use profanity and crude language in restaurants, and a terrible lot of people do these days. (I don’t think it’s just the places I eat in…)

On the other hand, I’m kind of bemused that not one of the people who take the Third Commandment so much to heart that they are horrified at seeing it broken in print are evidently bothered in the slightest by the shattering of the other nine commandments that goes on in these novels. Graven images, skipping church on Sunday, dishonoring one’s parents, bearing false witness, coveting oxen, asses, wives…theft, murder, fornication, adultery–yeah, we don’t mind seeing any of that. The J-word, though….

(Let me pause for a moment of didacticism here, in which I will attempt to explain the subtleties of the terms blasphemy, profanity, and obscenity. To wit:

blas•phe•my

Show Spelled[blas-fuh-mee] Show IPA
–noun, plural -mies.
1.
impious utterance or action concerning god or sacred things.
2.
Judaism .
a.
an act of cursing or reviling God.
b.
pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton (YHVH) in the original, now forbidden manner instead of using a substitute pronunciation such as Adonai.
3.
Theology . the crime of assuming to oneself the rights or qualities of God.
4.
irreverent behavior toward anything held sacred, priceless, etc.: He uttered blasphemies against life itself.

pro•fan•i•ty
Show Spelled[pruh-fan-i-tee, proh-] Show IPA
–noun, plural -ties for 2.
1.
the quality of being profane; irreverence.
2.
profane conduct or language; a profane act or utterance.
3.
obscenity ( defs. 2, 3 ) .

Profane
–adjective
1.
characterized by irreverence or contempt for god or sacred principles or things; irreligious.
2.
not devoted to holy or religious purposes; unconsecrated; secular ( opposed to sacred).
3.
unholy; heathen; pagan: profane rites.
4.
not initiated into religious rites or mysteries, as persons.
5.
common or vulgar.
–verb (used with object)
6.
to misuse (anything that should be held in reverence or respect); defile; debase; employ basely or unworthily.
7.
to treat (anything sacred) with irreverence or contempt; violate the sanctity of: to profane a shrine.

obscenity
- 5 dictionary results
ob•scen•i•ty
Show Spelled[uh b-sen-i-tee, -see-ni-] Show IPA
–noun, plural -ties for 2, 3.
1.
the character or quality of being obscene; indecency; lewdness.
2.
something obscene, as a picture or story.
3.
an obscene word or expression, especially when used as an invective.

[Source for all of the above: dictionary.com])

Let me state for the record that no one in any of my books has ever pronounced the Tetragrammaton in the original. Not once.

And Jamie Fraser is on record as stating that he only _felt_ like God (while having sex with his wife); he never said he _was_. So I think we’re clear on those particular charges of blasphemy. I’ll get back to the question of impious utterances in a bit.

Now, if you read further on the dictionary.com site (and others), you’ll find that blasphemy, profanity, and obscenity are often used as synonyms for each other—and they often overlap, depending on usage–but there are differences.

The F-word (I’m sorry, I was raised as a Catholic and I have considerable trouble saying that word out loud. Fortunately most of the people in my books have no such scruples) is often obscene, and quite possibly profane, but not blasphemous. I.e., there’s no mention of God or anything sacred (well, not in the word itself. If you started applying it to sacred concepts—which a good many cultures do, in terms of insult (French-Canadian Catholics, for one)—then that’s different). (Ulster Protestants given to tattooing such sentiments as “F— the Pope” on their foreheads (no, I’m not kidding; some of these people feel strongly about their sectarian sensibilities) are not committing blasphemy _per se_, as while the Pope may be a person of reverence, he isn’t God. “F the P” is therefore mere profanity.)

Profanity can also be blasphemous, if an invocation of God is involved—but if you leave God out of it, profanity is not usually blasphemy. It’s just irreverence, and that’s pretty firmly in the eye of the beholder and the standards of the times. Go to, thou saucy fellow!

As for obscenity…the Supreme Court couldn’t do better than, “we know it when we see it,” and I don’t propose to try to top that.

Anyway, the point here is that it’s only blasphemy (or what is perceived as blasphemy) that concerns the “I do wish you would not take the Lord’s Name in vain” letters. One reader informed me that she had gone through my books with a black marker and obliterated all such usages, so that she could read the books in comfort. I congratulated her on her helpful ingenuity; genius often lies in simplicity.

But let’s look at that. Does any use of the C-word (the six-letter one) or the J-word that is not portrayed as a prayer or a scriptural reference constitute blasphemy?

I don’t think so.

Here we come to the “impious utterances” definition of blasphemy. “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” Well…what is “in vain”?

When we did catechism class back in the day, we were taught that “in vain” meant that you mustn’t use God’s name to curse somebody, in the “You g_d_ son of a four-legged what-not..!” kind of way. (Catholics, btw, do include “God” (and the Holy Spirit, for that matter) as being “the Lord’s name.”). Using God’s name as a casual interjection—“Jesus, it’s hot,” or “God, I’d kill for a beer,” was crude and thoughtless and a well-brought-up person ought not to do it—but it wasn’t blasphemy, either.

People in my books do in fact use this sort of casual reference fairly often—because men in certain professions (soldiering, for one) and in the exclusive company of other men, very frequently _do_ do that. (You notice that the women in my books don’t do this.)

In my experience (owing to unorthodox career choices, most of my colleagues and close friends were men, up to my early forties), men who do this are customarily calling unconsciously upon God to witness something, asking for casual assistance in a moment of stress, or merely expressing an intensification of emotion (amazement, shock, anger), and do not actually intend offense to their comrades or impiety toward the Almighty.

Now, plainly opinions differ on just what’s an impious utterance and what’s not. That being so, though, we’ve got a few different considerations going here:

1. The notion that a writer ought to try never to offend anyone’s conception of morality or decency.

2. Whether a writer should or should not portray offensive behavior (i.e., behavior condemned by a majority of the populace), and if so, under what circumstances?

3. The question of how far historic speech might differ from modern speech, and whether an historical novelist should take that into account?

OK, #1 is simple. Putting aside aesthetics and the moral imperatives of art, it’s flat-out physically impossible to write something that won’t offend somebody. Ergo, the notion that a writer should try to do so is ludicrous.

#2 is also pretty simple. People don’t always behave well; the briefest glance at the television news makes that pretty clear. If art (whether novels, photographs, or anything else) is going to serve as a reflection of or a reflection on humanity, it’s going to show people doing stuff that may not be moral by anybody’s compass. The essence of art is conflict. Conflict may be difficult to look at (or utterly fascinating. Sometimes both at once), but you can’t do without it and make art.

#3. Now, historicity. Language evolves, and so does social custom. What is obscene or blasphemous in one time often isn’t, in another. If you called a man a fig-licker today, he would probably merely blink at you, whereas them was duelin’ words in the 18th century.**
A writer dealing with historical settings has a lot of things to consider, and one of these is how much “historical” language or figures of speech to use, and how to portray historical characters in such a way that they seem realistic and empathetic to a modern audience, but still belong plainly to their own time.

Well, one of the ways in which you do this is to use figures of speech that are extremely common, and likely always have been, as well as those particular to a specific age. And calling upon the name of the Almighty in moments of strong emotion and/or casual conversation has probably been part of human speech since people discovered the concept of a deity.

Now, I could go on and on (well…even more on and on {g}) about this business, because I find it fascinating, but I do have work to do. I think the best I can do here may be to quote a bit from THE OUTLANDISH COMPANION. This letter was written as part of an exchange with a courteous gentleman who’d written to object to the F-word, which emerged from one of the audiobooks as he was driving with his four-year-old grand-daughter, and is included in the “Controversy” section of the COMPANION:

“ Well, I have children myself (11, 13, and 15 at the moment), and we try not to expose them to “bad language,” either, in spite of the fact that they all know all the words already (there’s still some point to insisting that these are not suitable for civilized conversation, after all).

The thing is, though–my books are definitely written (and carefully written at that) for adults. When I do use bad language in the books (oddly enough, I never use it, personally; never), it’s because it seems to me to be called for, by the circumstances and character. In the case of the F-word in DRUMS (I did use that same word in all the other books, by the way, though sparingly), it’s used by a young man in the grip of angry (and sexually motivated) passion, in the late 1960s. Given this character, this time period, and this set of circumstances, his language seemed entirely appropriate.

Now, one reason for insisting that bad language not be used in everyday discourse is, of course, that it’s low-class and offensive. One other reason–equally important, in my opinion–is that such language does have its own legitimate purpose; that is, to express feeling that is also beyond the limits of normal civilized discourse. To use such words casually deprives them of their impact.

You can see that, in the scene in question in DRUMS. If Roger normally spoke like that, the reader wouldn’t have (what I hope is) the impression of a man driven almost beyond endurance, and holding on to his notions of decent behavior with great effort.

Okay. So, the point is that when I do use strong language, I have a specific reason for doing so. It really doesn’t seem reasonable to me to eradicate such language–chosen and used carefully, to a purpose–on the grounds that someone might someday wish to listen to a taped version of an adult book in the presence of a small child.”

(My correspondent very graciously thanked me for hearing his concern, btw, and agreed with my conclusion.)

Right. Well, moving backward from blasphemy and Rude Speech, we come back to the inclusion of sex in my books. I can honestly say that of a thousand letters I get that mention this, 999 readers think there should be more sex. {g}. But there is the occasional one who thinks that the inclusion of sex lowers the tone, impairs my literary reputation, or should be omitted so as to make the books more…um…acceptable {cough} to younger (or possibly older; you wouldn’t believe how many people think their elderly parents or grandparents would enjoy my books but be put off by the sex*) readers.

Well, I think my literary reputation will have to take care of itself; I can’t do anything but write the best books I can, and history and the readers will make of them what they want to.

I do think that the sex scenes are both necessary and integral to the story, or they wouldn’t be there. These aren’t romance novels, but they are (among other things) the story of a very long and complex marriage. Now, there may possibly be long and successful marriages that don’t include sex, but I don’t personally know of any.

Neither are any sex-scenes included for the sake of gratuitous titillation (any titillating that happens is purely fortuitous, I assure you), nor are any of them just about sex. They have structural and emotional reasons for being where they are, and the book would not be the same story, nor have the same complexity, without them.

Still, the bottom line here is the Eye of the Beholder. There is no book that will say the same thing to all readers. A good book will say something different each time it’s read, even by the same person. And each reader brings his or her experience, background, prejudices, desires, and perceptions to the reading.

That being true, there’s little point in bowdlerization. What offends one person will be revelation and elevation to the next. That’s why we have a great variety of books.

“If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out,” seems a trifle extreme here as a response—but if there are particular things in my books that annoy or offend a reader as an individual, the ultimate power to control these does lie with the reader, not with me.***

Thank you for reading!

*(I am irresistibly reminded here of a book-signing event in Chicago, where I signed books for a grandmother, her daughter, and grand-daughter (intergenerational—and multi-gender–trios are pretty common at my signings). I was chatting with the grandmother while signing a book for her grand-daughter, and she said, “You know, I was in the middle of VOYAGER and I turned to my grand-daughter and said, ‘I’ve just had the most terrible thought! We’re both lusting after the same man!’”)

**To save you looking it up, the modern equivalent slang would be “muff-diver.” Weirdly enough, I don’t think there’s a female slang version of this epithet, though there is a purely formal descriptive term. But when was the last (or the first, for that matter) time you heard someone called a fellatrix?

*** A good-quality Sharpie costs about $1.79.

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257 Responses »

  1. You make me laugh. You tell it sister!!
    If someone does not like your books then give them to someone else. The rest of us will enjoy each and every book. I like and appreciate your frankness while responding to some of the ridiculous requests.
    And I enjoyed how you reverted (not in a bad way) to Academia, and sounded just like some of my instructors.
    May you continue to write the way YOU WANT. The majority will look forward to your next book…K

  2. I LOVE these books. I LOVE the story – all of it – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the love. All of it. I smile, giggle, cry, and listen to the sound of my heart breaking…with joy and pain. These books are my family, too.

    • Me too! Cry, smile, giggle, feel the pain of a broken heart and swell with pride and joy! What a wonderful,wonderful story.1

  3. Diana,
    Just wanted to say, again, how much I enjoyed your seminar on Saturday morning in Tucson. The opportunity to see you just fell in my lap because I’m not from the area. My family and I are traveling the country for a year in an RV (recently retired from the Navy) and Tucson was a fortuitous stop for us. The website above is my account of our adventures from the road and there is a link to a photo in the Arizona Star of you signing my books.

    Thanks for the autographs! Looking forward to Scottish Prisoner; I’m confident of its tremendous success.

  4. Diana-

    I would like to express how relieved I am after reading all the responses to your blog to find such a loyal fan base. It lends credence to the obsessive behavior I recently developed upon being introduced to Claire and Jamie – namely reading and rereading Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber until I can get my hands on Voyager. Devour is the verb that comes to mind! (I actually thought something might be wrong with me – “cuckoo”!)

    I am also relieved to find out the saga continues… The characters are delicious and I’m sure you enjoy creating the stories as much as we love reliving them. Thanks to my friend Jessi for sharing her infatuation and thank goodness for you Diana for making it possible.

    Your newest fan!

  5. Wow!
    A sharpie! Really?
    I agree completely with the those who have said, If you don’t like it! Don’t read it!

    What a waste of someone’s valuable time to destroy these works of art.

    Diana,
    Every time I read your words, whether in print or on a blog like this one, I LOL.
    My husband ( who does not enjoy reading, very sad) always rolls his eyes.
    I have read a couple of scenes for him.
    (Nosepicking, and the scene in the woods when Jamie comes for Claire as she is being held captive)
    (The scene in the woods makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I can actually hear the drums! How did you do that?) :)

    My husband was impressed by these writings and I can’t wait to share these with my sons. Jamie is a man. A real man. Passionate, loving, hard as steel when he knows he has to be and able to be both at once.

    My eldest boy is 11 and will get to read Outlander. He is currently trying to sneak away with “The Exile” as he is in love with graphic novels. But I’ve asked him to wait a bit and read the original first.
    Then he will understand the context of this version of the story.

    Thank you so much for the best reading experience I have ever had. Can’t wait to find out what happens to Jemmy, poor thing. :(

    Be well,
    Best Regards
    Cara

  6. Sigh !… Yes ! Sex and swearing are two things that are done in everyday Life. And, an author has the artistic freedom to include them in his or her work, or not. If the tone of a book offends a person then that person has the choice to read it, or not. An author doesn’t have the responsibility to produce a sanitized edition of his or her book ! …THE END. ( But, as usual, Diana, you answered the question with wit, tact and,— brilliance. BRAVO ! )

  7. Diana….I have read all the Books 3 times and each time is like a ” first ” time …..I am 77 and believe me I have plenty of time left to read them again and again ….my Husband and our Daughter and both Grandaughters have read all of your books ….and Waiting for the next ….don’t rush …but hurry up !. I am so proud to have your Books in my library.

  8. Hello “Dirty Diana”

    I couldn’t resist. anyway, I have another way of looking at the inspired sexuality that Claire and Jamie show us in your books. Many years ago my husband and I enjoyed a good sex life, however, due to illness and and disability of my husband it has been many years since we have been able to enjoy a traditional, oh hell, any kind of sex life. I can’t tell you how much it has meant to me to have these books to live vicariously through. I know it sounds pathetic but its what I have and I am so very grateful to have them. J and C have shown me a marriage that I think everyone dreams of – to have a man that would put his body on the line for you and then recite poetry to you later oh, man. So, I guess what I wanted to say here is that I hope some of those people who are so ignorant that they can’t see the good that comes from your books including the sex scenes, will take another look from my vantage point. I can’t wait to see what J and C will do next.

    Also, I just wanted to comment on the audiobooks of the Outlander series. Wow. Davina Porter (the narrator) really gets your books and enriches the experience of reading the books over and over again (I think I’m on the 5th read now) even though I lie to my family when they ask me how many times I’ve read them they already think I’m weird for having read them three times. So, I would encourage anyone to invest in the audiobooks if you want to expand your Claire and Jamie experience.

    Thank you Diana for your wit, insight into the human condition, exciting telling of history and most of all for the love you’ve shown us through this beautiful relationship between Claire and Jamie.

    • Dearest Diana and those who love these wonders,

      First I must say that I come to Diana Gabaldon late in life. Always a murder mystery type, I purchased the audio series of Outlander on a whim. I am sooooooo glad I found her! I agree will those that listen to the adventures of Jamie and Claire on audio books. Davina Porter is amazing in bringing all to life. I have a 10 year old granddaughter who lives an hour from me. My son has been raising her alone all her life, I am her surrogate mother (and sole source of estrogen influence). Each weekend I make the two hour round trip to pick her up and bring her to my home. We listen to audio books during the trip and she LOVES the Outlander series. She is a very mature little girl and I must give her a synopsis of what happened during my driving time without her. While she is with me I lower the volume during the more ‘descriptive’ scenes, both sexual and violent. I then discuss them with her face to face. Audio books, and this series particularly, have been a bonding experience between us. It has allowed us to venture into talks about slavery, love, war and history without my sounding “preachy”.

      Our previous audio books have been mostly Stephen King or Dean Koontz. Diana’s books have life lessons, history, joy and pain. They have made a strong bond between myself and my granddaughter even stronger and given us a wonderful starting point for her journey into young womanhood.

      Thank you Diana!

  9. Since the F-bomb resulted from an abbreviation used by Catholic priests when people confessed their sins..i.e., “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge”, it is hard for me to be offended by it. We have turned it into a “bad word”. The first time our children came home and used the word we explained where it came from and it lost a lot of its seedy glamor.

    I am reading your Outlander series for the 3rd time and must confess that it is just as good this time as it was the first time….well maybe not, but am still finding it hard to put down. Looking forward to the 8th book.

    • Dear Susan–

      Actually, that’s a very popular myth (regarding the origin of the F-word), but I appreciate the support! {g}

      –Diana

  10. The Outlander series is my favorite series of books–and I read a LOT of books. That anyone would want you to change them in any way is obscenity–and I know it when I see it. Let them write their own d***** books ;)

  11. I first read Outlander when I was 14-years-old. I would bring it to my (catholic) school, read it during lunchtime, recess, and any time the teacher wasn’t looking.
    To this day, I will never forget the look a teacher’s assistant gave me when she saw me reading it. “You should NOT be reading THAT book. You’re way too young!” The rather stern lecture went on for a few minutes about decency, my inability to understand what I was reading, and muddying the minds of children. It left me red-faced and fuming.
    I rushed home that day to explain what happened over supper to my parents. Both of whom shrugged and simply said, “Why should it matter? As long as you are reading, we’re happy.”
    I will now forever be grateful my parents were so encouraging because without it, I would never have fallen in love with the series!

  12. While there may be security in the trees you might move back and see the forest. Consider the gold mine of additional consumers. Dropping some of the more offensive context in you books may not sacrifice any of you current followers. Nevertheless, the derivative consequences of broader readership could be exploited to heighten your visibility. :)

    • Dear Dave–

      Ahhh…well, thank you for the advice, Dave. I’m tempted to inquire just what you consider “offensive context,” just out of curiosity. [g] However, the bottom line here is that I don’t actually write books with any notion either of pleasing a specific set of readers or of attracting more of them. I write the books I feel called upon to write, and the stories take the shape they seem to require. Life _does_ include offensive context, I’m afraid, and I don’t think that sanitizing a story in order to attract people who don’t want to feel uncomfortable is a moral thing to do. As a writer, I’m honest, or I’m nothing.

      Best wishes,

      –Diana

  13. Diana,

    I was recently reading your blog about being included as an actor for one of the OUTLANDER episodes. I was wondering as the writer if you’re regularly on set and what role you take on while you’re there?

    Have a beautiful day,
    Karen

    • Dear Karen–

      No, I’m the writer of the books, but not the scriptwriter–there are four of them (five, if you count Ron D. Moore, and I do [g]), and they take turns being on set when each writer’s script is being filmed. I’ve been on set twice, and may come back occasionally to visit. When I’m there, I get to see what’s being filmed and sit in on things like script readings and production meetings (fascinating), but what I’m largely there to do is promotional work for Starz or Sony–doing interviews and videos on set, sometimes with Ron or with cast members.

      –Diana

  14. Thanks for the education DG. I am rekilting An Echo in the Bone and Googled “fig-licker” which promptly brought up this page. I rarely need a dictionary when I read book. On the rare occasion that I do need one my Kindle usually provides an excellent source. Of course EXCEPT when it’s a Gabaldon novel. I really wish I had both a Gaelic to English dictionary and an Old English dictionary available when I read Outlander novels. The sex scenes and the expletives are not an issue. The Gaelic and Old English translations are though. I believe a fig-licker is indeed what I first guessed it must be.

  15. I was riding my unicorn earlier today and he and I were discussing time travel and decided that we’d go looking for some f-ing big rocks and travel back in time to a period in time when women allegedly didn’t enjoy sex but had a lot of it. We are also going to rescue on the babies from the fairies.

  16. Dear bookish–

    I don’t call this series a romance because it isn’t. I like well-written romance novels, read them frequently, and in fact, there is a list of novels I personally recommend (“The Methadone List”) available on this website, that includes a number of my favorite romance authors, as well as those who write in other genres. But _because_ I’m very familiar with what a romance novel _is_, I can tell you with considerable authority [g] that that isn’t what I write. If romance is what you like, there are many excellent authors who do that. You’re quite welcome to enjoy or dislike any elements of my books according to your own fancy–but it seems a trifle querulous (not to say contrary) to insist that I’m writing something that I’m not–_and_ that I’m not writing it in the way you prefer. [g] I hope you find something else that you’ll enjoy among the Methadone selections, though.

    Best,

    –Diana