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I was reading Patrick O'Brian's novel Post Captain and came across this passage:

'Get over, you —,' said the girl, in her pure clear young voice. Jack had never heard a girl say — before, and he turned to look at her with a particular interest.

I'm not a native speaker and I'm not sure I understand it. Is the author breaking all immersion and making a joke about being able to pronounce a '-' sign? It seems very unlike the formal and serious tone of the rest of the book, and the preceding novel.

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The girl is swearing; this is a dash used as a typographical euphemism that's replacing a profane word. That said, it's more common to see these used to replace individual letters ("G-d"), but it can also be used as it was here.

Your book is set in the 19th-century, so for Jack to never have heard a girl say [bad word] might have been reasonable.

I can see why you're confused: The book also has a bunch of other em dashes that are used in a standard fashion.

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  • I see, thank you, I would never have guessed this!
    – Pallie
    Commented Dec 17, 2023 at 13:38
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    Note from a reader of Patrick O'Brian - It's a peculiarity of his style that, when reporting conversations among the common sailors, he spells out obscenities, but when writing about the 'gentry' he uses the euphemisms that novelists of the time would have used. Commented Dec 17, 2023 at 13:45
  • << 'Get over, you ****!' yelled the girl >> or << 'Get over, you !@#!' yelled the girl >> etc are more common nowadays. Commented Dec 17, 2023 at 16:02
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    “Well,----me,” he said. “A----ing wizard. I hate----ing wizards!” “You shouldn’t----them, then,” muttered one of his henchmen, effortlessly pronouncing a row of dashes. (Terry Pratchett, Mort).
    – Tevildo
    Commented Dec 17, 2023 at 17:01
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    @Tevildo Mr Tulip from The Truth repeats that gag even better.
    – Graham
    Commented Dec 17, 2023 at 22:02

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